Charlotte’s airport director urges TSA not to cut staff, warns of delays

Kevin Frederick, Federal Security Director for the TSA, explains how the in-line checked baggage screening equipment works at Charlotte Douglas International Airport, Friday, April 15, 2016.
Kevin Frederick, Federal Security Director for the TSA, explains how the in-line checked baggage screening equipment works at Charlotte Douglas International Airport, Friday, April 15, 2016. dhinshaw@charlotteobserver.com

The Transportation Security Administration says a new automated system to screen checked bags at Charlotte Douglas International Airport is speeding things up, but the airport’s director says TSA staff cuts are slowing things down and causing delays.

The federal TSA and the city-run airport presented dueling pictures of the status of airport security this week. The TSA hosted a tour Friday of its new automated in-line baggage system, which can process 4,000 bags an hour with minimal human interaction needed. That’s sped the time it takes to get a bag from the check-in gate at Charlotte Douglas from up to 20 minutes to three or four minutes, officials said.

Interim Aviation Director Brent Cagle, on the other hand, sent a letter to the TSA’s top administrator in Washington, D.C., this week asking the agency not to make 60 planned staff cuts, and to add more workers at checkpoints.

“The actions of the TSA have had and will continue to have a detrimental effect on customer wait times and a negative economic impact to the airport and the airlines,” Cagle wrote, in a letter dated Wednesday. He referenced Good Friday last month, the start of spring break week, which Cagle called a “fiasco” because passenger wait times at screening lanes exceeded three hours and more than 600 passengers missed their trips.

“It was terrible,” Cagle said in an interview Friday. He said some security lines stretched down to the airport’s baggage claim area.

He said the TSA only opened seven checkpoints on Good Friday, despite knowing it would be a heavy day. The airport ended up setting a single-day record for passengers that day, with almost 30,000 local passengers screened. (About 80 percent of passengers at Charlotte Douglas are connecting from one plane to another and don’t pass through the security checkpoints.)

The airport broke its previous record – set the day after the Democratic National Convention in 2012 – in which the TSA opened 20 lanes.

Cagle told the Observer that the TSA informed Charlotte Douglas that it plans to cut 60 staff members because of the new automated baggage system. Cagle wants to see those officers redirected to security checkpoints, which he said are already understaffed.

Kevin Frederick, federal security director for the TSA in Charlotte, said the airport is adequately staffed to meet security and customer service needs.

“I believe we have enough resources,” said Frederick. He confirmed that about 60 TSA positions are being eliminated as a result of the new automated baggage screening system, but he said that won’t impact the number available to staff security checkpoints.

He also said it doesn’t make sense to staff many of Charlotte’s 17 operable checkpoints at times of low passenger traffic.

“We’re not going to have people standing around and doing nothing,” Frederick said. He disputed how long passengers waited, saying there was no record of anyone waiting three hours on Good Friday and most waits didn’t exceed 30 minutes.

Cagle, who is awaiting a response to his letter, said the passenger wait times he referenced were self-reported.

“I think it’s silly to argue about the exact amount of time a customer stood in line,” said Cagle. “There’s no one who was at the airport on the morning of Good Friday who would think the customer service levels provided that day were acceptable.”

Cagle emphasized that he’s not upset with local TSA officials, such as Frederick, whom he praised for helping resolve the delays on Good Friday, but with decisions being made at TSA headquarters about how to properly staff security at the airport.

“There is no escaping the reality that until TSA reverses course on its decision to reduce staffing, the situation will worsen,” Cagle wrote in his letter.

New system speeds bags

The new, automated baggage system came online in February, after more than six years of planning, design and construction. Thousands of bags a day roll over 3.5 miles of conveyor belts, which shunt them from the airline check-in counters to the airplanes in minutes.

In between, they pass through car-sized X-ray machines and explosives detection equipment. Any possible explosives are identified by advanced computer algorithms that highlight the item in red and show it to remote technicians reviewing the X-rays on computer screens in a nearby, windowless room.

The TSA screeners can rotate, twist, turn and enhance the 3-D image. If they decide a bag needs manual inspection, it’s routed to another room, where workers open the bag and go through the contents. Otherwise, the bag continues along to the plane. The process takes seconds, and the screening software identifies and resolves most anomalies on its own, without human intervention.

The $55 million project was paid for by the TSA and the airport, in a 90 percent-10 percent split.

Ely Portillo: 704-358-5041, @ESPortillo