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Chris Jones

McCarran Debuts Security Lanes

27 August 2004

LAS VEGAS -- With McCarran International Airport on pace for its busiest year ever, today's official debut of seven new security lanes serving the C- and D-gates concourses couldn't come soon enough for Jim Blair.

Labor Day weekend, a 10-gate airport expansion and several large conventions are all on tap in the coming weeks, and each is expected to create a surge in passengers similar to those that resulted in multihour security backups on several occasions this year.

This time, however, the Las Vegas airport's federal security director is confident his staff of nearly 900 Transportation Security Administration workers will be better equipped to quickly process hordes of travelers on their way out of town.

"I'm very comfortable that we'll be prepared," Blair said Thursday. "The McCarran officials are always a step ahead in their thinking, and that's what makes this such a proactive airport."

Approximately 33 percent of McCarran's passengers use the C gates, which is dominated by the airport's busiest carrier, Southwest Airlines. Another 33 percent travel through the D concourse, whose 27 gates will expand by 10 early next year to accommodate airlines like American, Delta and United.

The seven new lanes can be adjusted to process travelers headed to either concourse as needed, joining seven fixed lanes for the D gates and five adjacent lanes reserved for the C gates.

Including the combined A/B checkpoint, two lanes at the C-gates annex and four lanes at Terminal 2, McCarran has 32 operating security lanes.

TSA last month agreed to increase McCarran's federal security work force from a May compromise of 823 screeners to 1,054, thanks largely to pressure from airport executives and Nevada's congressional delegation. Their arguments noted increased passenger traffic (up 15.2 percent through June), the pending D gates expansion and McCarran's high percentage of travelers who require full preflight screening.

Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., said Thursday she and other elected leaders shared frustration over McCarran's backups earlier this year, most notably the reported three- and four-hour delays at the conclusion of January's International Consumer Electronics Show. She called that moment the "darkest point before the dawn" that ultimately served to persuade TSA to hire more workers in Las Vegas.

"We needed more checkpoints and we needed to be sure they were staffed," Berkley said. "After CES, we were able to break through the bottleneck and get exactly what we needed."

Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he and his Republican counterpart, Sen. John Ensign, recently blocked retired Navy Rear Adm. David Stone's appointment as TSA's boss until more screeners were added to meet McCarran's needs. Minimal airport holdups are vital to the local economy, Reid explained.

"You need for people to have a good experience when they come to Las Vegas; we don't want them waiting around for an inordinate amount of time" at the airport, Reid said. "I used to turn my head when I'd see those long lines, so this should alleviate that."

Blair said his staff is still interviewing and hiring workers to fill the 231 added positions, a process he hopes to complete sometime in November. Until then, McCarran's new lanes will be staffed using "smart scheduling" to ensure enough screeners are present at the C and D checkpoint's peak periods, Blair said.

The new lanes, which were built on the second floor after McCarran filled in 19,000-square-feet of an area that previously overlooked the baggage claim below, have been in use for several days, though today is their official public unveiling, Blair said.

The $10 million expansion took less than a year to complete.