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Chris Jones

More Security Expected at Las Vegas Airport

26 July 2004

LAS VEGAS -- A self-proclaimed victory in a game of political hardball is expected to soon bring 231 more federal security screeners to Las Vegas' McCarran International Airport, two members of Nevada's congressional delegation said Friday.

But a federal security spokesman countered that the pending boost was inspired more by recent and projected increases in Las Vegas passenger traffic than any political maneuvering in Washington.

Regardless of what prompted the Transportation Security Administration's latest staffing promise, however, anyone using the airport stands to benefit once 1,054 screeners are splitting shifts at McCarran, Clark County Deputy Director of Aviation Rosemary Vassiliadis said.

"We always felt it was fundamentally fair to be able to staff all of our checkpoints," Vassiliadis said Friday. "The growth, (TSA) just can't deny it. We have rebounded and now we're into real growth."

Since federal workers replaced private screeners at McCarran in September 2002, TSA's work force allotment has been a repeated source of controversy for Nevada's elected leaders and the Clark County Aviation Department, which oversees McCarran.

The latest skirmish erupted in mid-May when TSA released a revised national screener allotment that would have added only 35 workers to McCarran's then 742-person work force. State and local leaders argued that increase was insufficient because McCarran processes more passengers through security checkpoints than all but one U.S. airport despite having fewer screeners than most of its peers.

To challenge TSA's decision, Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., threatened to use his position as a member of a Senate transportation committee to delay indefinitely retired Rear Adm. David Stone's nomination as TSA's permanent administrator unless more screeners were assigned to McCarran.

Ensign's threat, coupled with pressure from other elected leaders, proved effective, and TSA quickly pledged to bolster its McCarran screener count to 823 workers, an increase of 81 positions.

Not satisfied with those gains two months ago, Ensign and Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., kept up the pressure on TSA. On Friday, the duo released a statement that said their tactics resulted in a late-night Thursday deal to secure the 231 added screeners in exchange for lifting Ensign's hold on Stone's nomination, which was approved that same evening.

"There was no way I was going to allow this nomination to proceed until I was completely satisfied that we had enough screeners to provide for the safety of the people who travel through McCarran," Ensign said. "For Las Vegas to have fewer safety resources than cities with fewer passengers was outrageous. That situation has been fixed, and I'm confident Admiral Stone will do a fine job as TSA director."

Added Reid: "With this agreement, we have addressed one of McCarran's top concerns. ... I appreciate Admiral Stone's willingness to respond to our request, and I believe we've developed a good working relationship."

TSA spokesman Nico Melendez downplayed the effect of any threatened holdups on Capitol Hill, adding the addition of screeners is "standard TSA practice" whenever an airport adds new gates or checkpoint lanes.

McCarran Federal Security Director Jim Blair acknowledged Friday Ensign and Reid's work in Washington, though he believes their efforts to inform TSA leaders of McCarran's surging passenger loads were more important than any threat to delay Stone's appointment.

"We are seeing an increase in airport passengers, we've got an increase in lane capacity, and later this year we will have an increase in arrival gates," Blair said. "Because the delegation saw that, they made sure they brought it to TSA's attention and made sure we'll have a correct number of screeners to take care of increases in those three areas."

During this year's first half, McCarran's passenger traffic was up 15.2 percent to 20.3 million. That put the airport on pace to record its busiest year ever.

McCarran will this month add seven new security lanes at its C/D-gates checkpoint, lanes that will be needed when 10 more arrival gates open within the D-gates concourse early next year, Blair said when explaining the need for more local screeners.

"We're not anticipating or asking for staffing to meet our worst day," Vassiliadis said of the senator's latest screener request. "We're asking for what we need today to process our passengers ... in a reasonable time frame."