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Chris Jones
 

Travel and Tourism: Screener Decision Changed

19 May 2004

LAS VEGAS -- Only days after it announced it would add 35 new federal security positions at McCarran International Airport, the Transportation Security Administration reversed course Tuesday and said it would instead boost its Las Vegas work force by 81.

The federal agency said it will deploy 823 people at McCarran, up from 742 jobs reported in early March and a revised 777-worker count announced Friday.

The administration's latest about-face was preceded by an outcry from local aviation leaders and Nevada's congressional delegation, who said added airport congestion brought on by an insufficient number of screeners would stymie Southern Nevada's resurgent tourism industry.

With passenger traffic up by nearly 15 percent through April and seven new security inspection lanes set to open next month, Nevada officials said a token increase of 35 screeners would not adequately serve the airport's more than 36 million annual passengers.

On Tuesday, TSA leaders agreed.

"The number that was posted (777) did not take into account the commitment that we had made to Las Vegas to staff the new lanes," said Nico Melendez, a Los Angeles-based TSA regional spokesman. "The number all along should have been 823, and we just failed when we posted it to take that into account."

To combat likely delays a screener shortage would have caused at McCarran, Sen. John Ensign threatened a roadblock of his own early Tuesday. The Republican senator challenged GOP leadership by promising to stall President Bush's attempt to name retired Rear Adm. David Stone as the Transportation Security Administration's permanent administrator.

Ensign, who serves on the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, notified the committee he would not allow Stone's suggested appointment to proceed until the TSA satisfactorily addressed Nevada's concerns.

"This has to be rectified," Ensign said of TSA's 777-screener plan. "This is an untenable situation. It's not only bad for a tourist city to have these types of waits, it also creates a security problem."

Following news of TSA's change, Ensign spokesman Jack Finn said the threatened hold would remain in place until the senator is satisfied McCarran's needs are actually met.

Stone's appointment has not been scheduled for a committee vote, a step that must occur before the Senate can approve the appointment, Ensign said. He is slated to replace fellow retired Adm. James Loy, who was promoted from TSA administrator to deputy secretary of the Department of Homeland Security.

Others were more conciliatory. Rep. Jim Gibbons, R-Nev., called TSA's revised plan "a great first step in meeting McCarran's screening needs." The spokesman for Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., said the congresswoman expressed a similar opinion.

By federal order, TSA must cap its domestic screener force at 45,000. On Tuesday, Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., said leaders in Washington should re-evaluate that limit.

"Sometime what we have to look to is increasing the number (of airport screeners) around the country; we need that badly," Reid said.

Clark County Aviation Director Randy Walker, who on Monday slammed TSA's initial plan, said the revision should be enough to meet an expected rush of summer travelers. Looking ahead, he'd like TSA to use a more comprehensive approach to determine how many screeners are really needed at each U.S. airport.

"TSA has not gone through and done a systematic evaluation, airport by airport, to see what the right number should be," Walker said. "Our delegation is going to work with TSA to come up with a permanent solution to this issue instead of the piecemeal approach that we've been getting over the past several months."

Through April, McCarran's traffic was up nearly 15 percent from last year's four-month total of 11.5 million arriving and departing passengers, Walker said. The airport has also experienced significant backups during peak periods earlier this year, and aviation officials worry the expected summer travel rush could further overwhelm checkpoint workers.

Ensign also said checkpoint delays could make McCarran an attractive target for terrorists.

"Terrorists look for a weak link and if they see 2,000 people standing in line, a backpack bomb or suitcase bomb could kill more people there than they would blowing up an airplane," Ensign said.