The Transportation Security Administration says it has made “significant changes” to speed up screening lines at Charlotte Douglas International Airport, including adding overtime for workers and limiting employee vacations during peak times.
The TSA has also given its top official in Charlotte the flexibility to beef up the agency’s ranks at checkpoints by occasionally using officers assigned to a separate, controversial program that aims to detect suspicious passenger behavior, Administrator Peter Neffenger wrote in a letter to the Charlotte airport director last month.
“We have made significant changes at CLT and are seeing results,” Neffenger wrote in the letter, obtained by the Observer through a public records request.
In an interview this week, Charlotte Douglas Aviation Director Brent Cagle said that “short-term fixes” by the TSA have made a “huge impact” but that for the long term, the agency still needs better staffing at security checkpoints.
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Neffenger’s letter was a response to a strongly worded missive from Cagle in April in which the aviation director blamed reduced TSA staffing for long passenger wait times at the start of the busy spring break travel season. Cagle asked the TSA to immediately address the problem, which had resulted in 600 people missing flights on Good Friday.
The TSA has been under fire nationwide as the agency has struggled to keep up with rising passenger volumes amid reduced staffing and new security protocols. The backups have come at a time of renewed concerns about terrorist threats worldwide, including the downing of a Russian airliner last year in Egypt.
Cagle said efforts by the TSA, the airport and the airlines to speed security at the beginning of the summer have improved wait times. This summer, the airport has broken the record for passengers screened multiple times, he said, but “we haven’t seen the kind of issues we saw on Good Friday,” when more than 29,500 passed through checkpoints.
But Cagle says the TSA still needs to address “long-term solutions” in the face of increasing passenger loads. About 44.9 million passengers traveled through Charlotte Douglas last year, for an average of more than 120,000 a day. More than 80 percent of those passengers, however, are simply transferring from one flight to another and don’t pass through the security checkpoints.
“The airport still believes that fundamentally, the TSA staffing model is broken,” he said. “We haven’t seen the TSA say they will re-evaluate their staffing model.”
The current TSA staffing approach doesn’t “strive for excellence” in terms of wait times, Cagle said. “It basically tries to resolve the worst problem, so no one is ever great,” he said. “The best you can hope for is that everyone is just OK.”
In his April letter, Cagle highlighted the TSA’s decision to cut 60 positions at the airport after it installed a new explosive-detection baggage system.
In addition to staffing, Charlotte Douglas also has a structural problem that makes it more difficult to efficiently process passengers: a too-small lobby, Cagle said. The layout doesn’t provide enough room to best configure the checkpoints, he said.
The airport has plans to expand the lobby outward by about 90 feet, but it can’t do that until a new roadway outside the terminal is completed. That project will take an additional 18 to 20 months, Cagle said.
Flexibility on behavior detection
Email and documents obtained by the Observer indicate that Charlotte Douglas and American Airlines, the biggest carrier at the airport, were concerned about security line waits as early as February. The issue gained public attention when lanes jammed this spring.
In his April letter, Cagle said passengers waited as long as three hours to go through security on Good Friday. But in a recent interview, Kevin Frederick, the federal security director in Charlotte, said the agency found wait times no longer than 1 hour and 15 minutes.
“It may have looked chaotic, because you have a lobby that was built in 1982 for crowds of 10,000 people a day,” Frederick said. “We’re hitting 25,000, 30,000 people per day.”
Steps such as increased overtime and the use of canine teams to screen passengers have helped the TSA handle the heavier passenger load, Frederick said. On July 1, the airport set a new record of 31,704 passengers, up 31 percent from the year before.
On that record day, the longest standard wait time was 17 minutes, and the longest wait for travelers in the PreCheck program that expedites passenger screening was 5 minutes, Frederick said. Those longest wait times only occurred for a brief time during peak periods, he added.
“It’s tough, but we’re making it work with a lot of different measures we’re taking on our own and with the airport,” he said.
The TSA currently has 435 full-time equivalent positions in Charlotte. The airport lost 60 positions in the baggage area, but they were no longer needed because of the new system, he said. Frederick said he expects staffing increases next year, as volume rises.
To augment checkpoint lines at peak times, Frederick now has permission to shift Behavior Detection Officers to other screening functions.
Under the program, officers look for passengers exhibiting excessive fear or stress and steer them toward additional screening. The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit last year over the program, after allegations of racial and ethnic profiling. The Government Accountability Office has questioned whether the process is scientifically justified and worth the cost.
For security reasons, Frederick said he can’t say how many Behavior Detection Officers he has in Charlotte. During peak times, they may help at checkpoints for 45 minutes to an hour before returning to their normal duties.
“Every other airport has the same latitude to use their BDOs at the checkpoint operation,” he said. “That’s not any kind of indication that the program is staying or going away.”
Asked about Cagle’s comments about a broken staffing model, Frederick said he would like to see the TSA, the airport and the airlines staffed at higher levels, but “fiscal realities just don’t allow that to happen.”
“No model is perfect, but for an organization this large, it’s more than adequate for the task it’s designed to do,” Frederick said.
No timetable for automated lanes in CLT
As TSA works to make its own improvements, the airport and airlines have also been making their own changes. For example, they have hired contractors to help with queue management, and American moved its priority check-in to help spread out customers in the lobby.
American this month also said it was spending $5 million to install automated screening lanes at four of its hubs – Chicago, Miami, Los Angeles and Dallas. The equipment, which can reduce screening time by 30 percent, includes automated belts that pull bags into the X-ray machines while diverting bags that pose a possible threat. It also features bigger bins.
The airline said it would like to bring the equipment to Charlotte but doesn’t have any immediate plans.
“We would like to do something like that for Charlotte,” spokeswoman Katie Cody said, “but we need to focus on the cities that are struggling the most.”
Staff writer Ely Portillo contributed.
How to get through screening more quickly
The Transportation Security Administration has been encouraging travelers to sign up for its PreCheck program,which allows previously vetted fliers to use special lanes at the checkpoint. For more information, see www.tsa.gov/precheck.
Kevin Frederick, federal security director in Charlotte, also encourages travelers to check www.tsa.gov for the latest information on what they can and can’t bring through the security lines before they travel.
How airport employees are screened
All employees are vetted against watch lists before they are hired and once they start working, said Kevin Frederick, federal security director in Charlotte.
When they come to work at Charlotte Douglas International Airport, employees who work in the shops and restaurants go through a security checkpoint. Other employees have direct access to other parts of the airport with badges and PIN codes.
The TSA and other agencies conduct random checks at those direct access points daily, Frederick said. But last month, officials conducted a “surge operation” in which all employees at all access points were checked. Frederick said he couldn’t disclose how many employees were checked during the surge.
Charlotte Douglas International Airport says it is home to more than 18,000 employees and 50 companies.