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Chris Jones

Mess At McCarran: Airport Cures Also Have to Wait

18 February 2004

LAS VEGAS -- On Monday, a sea of frustrated travelers unwittingly discovered a new contender for life's least-wanted crown: trying to escape Las Vegas after a busy weekend.

Thanks in large part to an exodus of visitors leaving town on the heels of two 30,000-plus attendee conventions, Valentine's Day getaways and the Presidents Day holiday, security checkpoint lines snaked from one end of McCarran International Airport to another. Many travelers said they'd waited more than two hours to pass through metal-detector stations, and worries over missed connections were outnumbered only by passengers' frequent complaints.

Recent backups such as Monday¡¦s at McCarran International Airport are "unacceptable" but present a tough challenge, the airport's chief executive said Tuesday.

And until a solution is found, local air travelers will at times face more frustration, missed flights, and most-worrisome of all, increased security risks, Clark County Aviation Director Randy Walker said.

Since the beginning of 2004, peak-period delays at McCarran's 25 security checkpoint lanes have jumped from about one hour last year to more than two, three or four hours, according to recent passenger reports. The problem arose again Monday, when many travelers waited at checkpoints for more than two hours before they could depart following a holiday weekend.

Walker said officials at McCarran have been caught off guard by this year's frequent delays. Though they're exploring several potential solutions, an answer won't come quickly.

"We're still trying to figure out why in the heck the lines ballooned out the way they did," Walker said. "You can't snap your fingers and have these things (resolved) overnight."

Airport officials last year started working to add more lanes at McCarran, but even that may not be enough, Walker said. That's because the recent trouble's most obvious cause -- increased passenger counts -- does not fully explain the continuing problems.

Instead, Walker said some of the blame may be traced to Transportation Security Administration workers.

Airport officials routinely study how many passengers pass through each security lane using a per-minute average based on information pulled at various periods in a day, Walker said. In January 2003, federal screeners at McCarran processed an average of 3.5 travelers per minute; last month, airport surveys showed an average of 2.8 passengers per minute.

Though McCarran's monthly passenger count likely improved slightly from January 2003 (official numbers for last month have not been released), Walker said the added traffic volume was not significant enough to warrant such a falloff in screening times, especially considering the airport's addition of 13 new security lanes since Sept. 11, 2001.

"At the maximum we've seen an 8 percent increase in traffic but our lane capacity increased by 13.6 percent," Walker said. "With 100 percent of the lanes being manned, there's something different than more passengers."

Walker said "it could be something" at the checkpoints that's delaying travelers.

"We can't control what happens once a person hits the magnetometer; that's totally out of our control and is purely the federal government, TSA's, responsibility," Walker said. "We can suggest, we can complain, but the bottom line is we have no control over what happens in that process."

Jim Blair, who oversees TSA's operations at McCarran, said Tuesday his staff is overworked but disputed claims his workers played a major role in the recent delays.

"We met today and looked at video and the throughput was 3.9 passengers per minute," Blair said. "Sure, our people are tired and we need (added) staff, but these people are working hard and are dedicated to the task at hand."

Walker added he supports Blair's recent call for up to 150 more local workers. He said many workers at McCarran routinely work 50-hour weeks and believes fatigue could be contributing to slowdowns. Even more workers will be needed once the six new gates open this fall.

"The obvious and best solution is to have more lanes for people to be processed through and hope that TSA will staff them, but all that takes time," Walker said. "We already were doing that with a plan in mind, but unfortunately these (recent delays) put a dent in the plan."

In addition to creating passenger inconvenience, Walker said, he's also concerned that security delays are creating bottlenecks that could pose new and significant risks to air travelers.

"Aren't you creating another security problem by jamming 3,000 people, packed liked sardines, in front of the checkpoint?" Walker asked. "It doesn't do you much good to take care of one security issue and create another one on top of it. There needs to be a balance ... and we've asked (TSA to) take a look at that."

Traveler Harrison Chastang, who missed a Monday flight home to San Francisco because of the delays, said by phone the massive crowds offered a "potential for chaos" should a panic result among those in line. And even without any abnormal incidents, he said the delays would deter him from visiting Las Vegas again soon.

"I think people like me who never miss an opportunity to visit Las Vegas will think twice if security delays cause passengers to miss flights and to spend more time than expected in Las Vegas," he said in an e-mail to various Las Vegas officials and the Review-Journal.

The obvious solution is the addition of more gates, Walker said. The county is adding second-level floor space at McCarran that will add at least six more security lanes to its existing C- and D-gates checkpoints, but that project isn't slated to conclude until about Oct. 1.

Walker said construction planners are now looking at ways to speed up that project, perhaps by as much as six weeks, in addition to potentially placing more gates in as-yet-undetermined sites within the airport.

"We're doing everything we can in terms of configuration (but) we've pretty much squeezed everything we can in," Walker said.

McCarran officials are also studying whether airline schedules have been altered to bring more travelers to the airport at once rather than spread out through the day, Walker said. So far, that doesn't seem to be the case. Airport workers are also striving to ready passengers to more quickly pass through checkpoints by asking them to reduce the number of items they carry that need to be screened.

"That will only get you so far.... It will help, but it won't solve the problem," Walker added.