I had a chat this morning with Ron Mathieu, director of the Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport, and Shane Carter, who heads the airport’s PR operation.
Support the Arkansas Blog with a subscription
We can't resist without our readers!
They’d been up early this morning monitoring the airport security checkpoint, where extended screening delays at peak hours have been an ongoing concern and a source of rising passenger ire.
PLEASE NOTE: Screening delays, as I’ve long understood it, are the primary responsibility of the Transportation Security Administration. The TSA staffs the checkpoint. It runs the machines. It decides who must go through the new body image scanners (known as AITs, for Advanced Imaging Technology) and who does not. Airport officials are largely powerless.
NEWS: Mathieu says he’ll ask for permission from the Airport Commission this week to spend about $72,000 to hire an outside consultant to provide specific sampling data on wait times at various times and levels of TSA staffing. It’s the only way, Mathieu says, to persuade TSA that it needs to provide more staff and, perhaps, more scanners, which would also require more federal construction dollars for additional space.
Mathieu and Carter readily concede there’s a problem. A new wrinkle, added at the insistence of airlines, has helped some travelers but irked others. Little Rock has added a priority line for frequent fliers or others with top access tickets. Airlines pressed for this addition. Airport employees guide these high-status travelers to the head of the queue for ID checks, but after that they are on their own in waiting for screening. Mathieu said the airport employees will also direct travelers with short time before flights into this line, as well as service people and other special cases. But the special access, though a product of airline requests, has left a perception of special treatment for some. Mathieu said the airport views all passengers equally.
Mathieu said the airport has pushed TSA as hard as possible for solutions. But, he said, “it’s hard to work with the government.” He believes the new scanners are the core issue, though the switch from regional jets to bigger planes adds to passenger crunch at certain times.
“It takes two seconds to walk through a magnetometer. It takes 15 to 20 to go through the AIT,” he said. “If you are waiting five deep to go through the scanner, that adds a couple of minutes. It stacks everything up.”
Some airports — I’ve seen this at O’Hare in Chicago — suspend scanner use when big crushes develop. But Mathieu said this is an option more readily available to major airports with huge traffic volume. They can suspend scanning for a time, but still meet federally mandated percentages on full body screening by making it up with 100 percent screening at less busy times.
If the airport still used only the old four magnetometers for metal detection, “We wouldn’t be talking about this,” Mathieu said. But, he said, “They’re putting nearly 100 percent of the people through two AITs. That’s the bottom line.”
His staff is up early every day monitoring the flow and doing what it can to help, Mathieu said, but the airport’s powers are limited.
Carter noted that a cell phone app is available — mytsa — on which travelers can report screening delays. Something to do if you get caught in one of the morning crushes.