SEATTLE – At airports around the country, managers are struggling to meet federal security deadlines for hiring and training thousands of new security workers and screening every single piece of luggage and cargo that goes into the air.
Seattle-Tacoma International, the nation's 16th largest airport, is in preparations to meet the new security deadlines. In the next few months, the new federal security director must hire and train more than 1,000 new security screeners and 200 federal police officers, in addition to retrofitting the physical plant to screen each of the millions of pieces of air cargo that pass through every day.
But Gina Marie Lindsay, a Sea-Tac airport administrator, said completing all of these requirements by the end of this year is "a Herculean task."
One problem, Lindsay says, is space. To screen all incoming luggage, 155 trace detection machines and more than 300 operators will have to squeeze into the area between the ticket counters and the curb — which would be fine if there didn't need to be room for departing passengers.
Critics fear the end result will be gridlock like never before seen at airports. Officials say they’ve run the numbers and that during peak hours the lines will extend all the way into the parking garage with wait times approaching one hour just to get into the terminal.
"You're going to find more people deciding they're not going to fly," Lindsay said.
The hiring of some 40,000 federal security screeners is way behind schedule. And they all have to go through background checks before being put through extensive training. The worry is that corners will be cut.
"Any time you rush to implement a very complicated solution you're very likely to miss something," Lindsay said.
As many as 25 percent of the nation's airports may fail to meet target dates set by Congress to have the post-Sept. 11 security measures in place and that's sparked a fight on Capitol Hill over whether to extend the deadlines.
"I do not want to look into the eyes of another mother or father, son or daughter husband or wife and say ‘I'm sorry we delayed,’" Rep. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., said.
Improving airport security has been a top priority ever since the terrorists exploited those weaknesses. Closing the gaps is complex and expensive and getting every airport to the highest security level by the end of the year may prove an unreachable goal.