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Chris Jones

Travel and Tourism: Screener Count Irks Officials

18 May 2004

Clark County's top aviation official and members of Nevada's congressional delegation united Monday to criticize a new plan to increase by less than 5 percent the number of federal security workers now deployed at McCarran International Airport.

The Transportation Security Administration on Friday announced a "modest reshaping" of its staffing levels at the more than 400 U.S. passenger airports it protects. The reorganization called for 35 more screener positions at McCarran, raising the Las Vegas airport's federal security force from 742 workers in early March to 777.

Despite that proposed increase, Clark County Aviation Director Randy Walker described TSA's plan as both "horrible" and "totally screwed up." With passenger activity up nearly 15 percent through April and new security lanes slated to open next month, Walker said longer security lines could again become common in Las Vegas unless something changes radically in Washington.

"I think that we've been misled; our congressional delegation has been misled," Walker said of TSA. "As far as I'm concerned, (TSA officials) have not honored their commitment."

In mid-February, acting TSA Administrator Adm. David Stone promised Sens. John Ensign, R-Nev., and Harry Reid, D-Nev., that McCarran would receive enough screeners to staff its expanded C- and D-gates checkpoints when that $6 million project adds seven new security lanes sometime next month.

McCarran started off 2004 with passengers encountering delays that lasted nearly four hours following January's International Consumer Electronics Show; weeks later, similar lines occurred at the airport's 25 security checkpoint lanes on the final day of Presidents Day weekend in mid-February.

Walker said adding just 35 positions fails to adequately consider that McCarran's security force last year processed an average of 34,750 passengers per screener, the nation's second-worst such average behind Northern California's Oakland International Airport's 35,440 passenger-per-screener average.

Las Vegas' average was much higher than other busy airports because McCarran was the nation's second-busiest origination and destination airport behind Los Angeles International. So-called "O&D" passengers strain security procedures more than "hubbing" passengers who never leave secured areas on their way from one flight to another, Walker said.

In addition, Walker said McCarran now requires many TSA screeners to work 50-hour weeks just to meet passenger demand. He said that fact was not used when calculating TSA's new staff allotments.

"If I had a management analyst at a college that did this poor work, I'd fire 'em," Walker said of TSA's processes. "If we get the long lines back, I can guarantee you it's the federal government's responsibility because we're going to have our stuff in place."

Like Walker, Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., blasted TSA's plans. Just last week, she said TSA officials testified before a House transportation committee that they would fully staff McCarran's expanded checkpoint lanes.

"Both Congressman (Jon) Porter (R-Nev.) and I were in attendance at that (Thursday) hearing to make sure the TSA administrators knew of our needs," Berkley said Monday. "I want to work with Admiral Stone to ensure that ... we don't have thousands of tourists and trade show customers waiting in line to go through security for two, three and four hours at a time."

A Berkley staff member later said the congresswoman spoke with Stone late Monday afternoon and was again assured McCarran would be fully staffed despite Friday's report. Porter and Reid were unavailable for comment Monday, though members of their staffs said both officials are concerned that TSA's action could hurt McCarran and will look into the issue.

Ensign was traveling Monday and could not be reached for comment.

Nico Melendez, a TSA spokesman based in Los Angeles, said his organization is working within a congressionally required mandate to cap its national screener force at 45,000. He said the addition of 35 local workers demonstrates a commitment to providing "the high level of security to which Las Vegas passengers have become accustomed and deserve."

McCarran Federal Security Director Jim Blair also said Monday his staff will continue to provide whatever is required to keep the airport operating both safely and efficiently. Still, when asked if he would prefer a larger work force, Blair quickly answered yes.

"Especially with the opening of the new checkpoint lanes next month, we feel we may need some additional staffing," Blair said. "The key is there is a cap in place across the nation, and that cap certainly affects everybody."

Said Walker: "Jim cannot continue to work his people 50 hours a week. ... They're going to burn out. And the model TSA has put together is going to require that (extensive use of overtime) if we're going to continue to provide the service we are today.

"On top of that, as we grow, (Blair) is not going to be able to staff all of those lanes the way we are today. This is really going to be a problem for us."

This was not the first time Nevada representatives have clashed with TSA. In May 2003, TSA said it planned to trim McCarran's then screening force by 15 percent, thereby reducing the airport's federal security worker total from 983 to 834 by Sept. 30, 2003.

That announcement prompted an outcry from local aviation officials and members of Nevada's congressional delegation, and less than two days after the proposed cutbacks were announced, TSA leaders backpedaled and said they would instead review plans to cut back at McCarran.

By early June, the situation appeared to be resolved when TSA leaders announced a revised plan that would trim McCarran's screener total by just 9 percent to 895 workers.

Rosemary Vassiliadis, Clark County deputy director of aviation, last May said the proposed 15 percent cutback was "a big concern to us." Following TSA's June compromise, Vassiliadis said airport officials were "really thrilled" with the amended proposal, adding a 9 percent work-force reduction was something officials at McCarran "will be able to work with."

Rep. John Mica, chairman of the House aviation subcommittee, told The Associated Press the TSA has as many as 5,000 screeners who are not working because they've been called up for military duty or are out on workers' compensation. Those workers count against the 45,000-person cap.

"We need to figure out how to deal with that," said Mica, R-Fla.


U.S. airports with the worst passenger-per-screener averages:

Airport rank Revised

screener total Total 2003 origination and destination passengers Average per screener

1. Oakland, Calif. 351 12.4 million 35,440

2. Las Vegas 777 27 million 34,750

3. San Diego 483 13.8 million 28,565

4. Washington (Reagan) 411 11.1 million 27,066

5. New York (La Guardia) 752 19.5 million 25,986

Other airports of note:

12. Orlando, Fla. 1,035 21.8 million 21,072

15. Atlanta 1,082 21.8 million 20,157

21. Chicago (O'Hare) 1,577 23.8 million 15,104

23. Los Angeles 2,037 27.2 million 13,380

SOURCES: U.S. Department of Transportation, individual airports