WASHINGTON – Federal officials will closely monitor 25 of the busiest airports this summer and send in extra help if security delays arise as part of a plan announced Thursday to minimize waits for travelers.
This summer is expected to be the busiest for air travel since the Sept. 11 attacks, according to the Air Transport Association (search), a trade group for major airlines. U.S. air carriers expect 65 million passengers each summer month, a 12 percent increase from last year.
The Transportation Security Administration (search) has been criticized for not deploying enough screeners at some busy airports, leading to long lines.
Las Vegas McCarran International Airport sometimes has five-hour security lines during trade shows. Last week, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport — the nation's busiest — had 90-minute waits at security lines for the third time this year.
TSA deputy director Stephen McHale told the House aviation subcommittee that the agency's plan to address the expected surge in passengers could get people through the screening checkpoints 20 percent faster.
At 10 problem airports identified by the Air Transport Association, the average wait at security lines is 45 minutes or more during peak travel times.
In addition to monitoring the busy airports, the agency plans an ad campaign offering tips for passengers to more quickly move through security checks. TSA also will deploy "divestiture coaches" to remind travelers at airports what they need to do at checkpoints.
Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., who chairs the subcommittee, said the plan wasn't good enough. "I still do not hear from TSA a viable plan," he said.
Mica urged the TSA to hire baggage handlers, as San Francisco International Airport does, so fewer screeners suffer injuries when they lift bags. He said the TSA is too slow to hire screeners where they're needed.
Mica said he was specially upset that Florida's Orlando International Airport, which handles large numbers of tourists, still is awaiting permission from TSA headquarters to hire 45 to 50 additional screeners, something it's been trying to do since Christmas.
McCarran and Hartsfield are among the 25 airports TSA will focus on for special attention. Also on the list are Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, Washington's Dulles International Airport, New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport, Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, Newark Liberty International Airport and Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.
Doug Wills, spokesman for the Air Transport Association, said the TSA did a good job handling heavy traffic over the Christmas holidays. "It was all hands on deck," Wills said. "The response we got back from most of our members was 'Nice job'."
But Wills said the industry isn't sure that the summer season will go as smoothly. "This is a show-me exercise," he said.
Separately, the Federal Aviation Administration (search) announced a new service that lets people get real-time airport status and weather information on their cell phones or personal digital assistants.
Mica, holding up a Blackberry, said that was something the TSA ought to try to emulate. "In 60 days come back with a plan on how to get the information on one of those," he told McHale. "And don't tell me it can't be done."