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Fliers question BWI, Southwest response to long summer lines

Erin Sharp arrived at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport a little less than two hours before her 9:40 a.m. flight to San Diego on Sunday, timed so that her 11-month-old son would zonk out on the plane and they would arrive home with the afternoon to spare.

Instead, Sharp wouldn't leave the Anne Arundel County airport for another nine hours, she said, after an enormous ticketing line for Southwest Airlines caused her and other passengers to miss their flights and the airline couldn't immediately get her onto another.

"Southwest has this reputation for being the best and the fastest and the quickest," said Sharp, 34, who had been visiting her parents in Woodstock. "Instead, it was like paralysis."

In recent weeks, the airline — the largest at Baltimore's "easy come, easy go"-branded airport — has run into major peak-hour problems, with summer vacationers tripping over business travelers in ticketing and security lines that at times have intermingled, creating confusion, airline and airport officials said. The congestion's been compounded by Transportation Security Administration staffing declines and a decision to close one of the airport's security checkpoints to minimize the mixing with long check-in lines.

"The issue is the volume of people that we're seeing," said Paul Wiedefeld, the airport's executive director. "It's a symptom of a very strong business, a very strong summer."

Thais Conway, a Southwest spokeswoman, said the airline is experiencing a "typical seasonal increase in traffic during the peak travel periods" but is working with the airport and the TSA to find solutions.

The TSA, meanwhile, is dealing with its own challenges, including budgetary restraints that have translated recently into a decline in the agency's national workforce, through attrition, of between 6 percent and 7 percent, said TSA spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein.

While BWI's TSA staff likely shrank similarly, Farbstein said that's not the reason for the airport's long summer lines. But the agency, she said, is working with Southwest and BWI to find a solution.

Recently, Southwest ticketing lines got so long they began encroaching on the nearby security checkpoint for Concourse B, raising security concerns from the TSA.

"People who thought they were getting in the line to go through the [security] checkpoint found they were in the line to go check in [with the airline], although they didn't need to because they already had their boarding pass," Farbstein said.

Officials responded by closing that checkpoint during morning rushes and moving the TSA agents assigned to it to the next checkpoint down, for Concourse C

The checkpoint for Concourse C is new and wide, with extra, unused lanes the agents could slide into. It is connected to Concourses A and B behind security, though airport officials said many fliers may not know that, in part because it is out of sight of the Southwest ticketing counters.

Both Concourse A and Concourse B are dedicated to Dallas-based Southwest, which along with subsidiary AirTran is responsible for more than 70 percent of traffic at BWI. Conway said the airline's integration of AirTran flights at BWI, including some to international destinations, has not contributed to the longer lines.

Both airport and airline officials said even with the Concourse B checkpoint closure, the number of security lanes has remained the same and average wait times have remained about 20 minutes. They said spreading Southwest crowds across more of the terminal has helped alleviate crowding.

But some passengers see the unannounced closure more as a driver of congestion than a solution to it.

"I plan on having all three checkpoints open. It helps disperse the load of travelers," said Zack Wolfe, 30, an insurance investor who lives in Owings Mills and flies to upstate New York for business every Monday morning. "You run such a fine line at the airport these days trying to make planes and get through security. … When you show up not knowing when one of [the] checkpoints is going to be closed, that makes a big difference."

Wolfe said more transparency on the part of the airport and Southwest would be appreciated, both about the morning checkpoint closures, which officials say are temporary, and about any permanent solutions being considered.

"It's not like I can take my business elsewhere," he said. "BWI is the airport in the area that makes the most sense."

Officials with BWI, Southwest and the TSA said they are working on it.

Wiedefeld and Conway said they are collaborating to direct more existing Southwest passengers to the Concourse C checkpoint, which Conway said will "help the flow of traffic" around Southwest's ticket counters and improve wait times.

Wiedefeld said the airport is considering adding more Southwest ticket counters between the Concourse B and Concourse C checkpoints, drawing more of the airline's passengers toward the newer checkpoint.

"We are looking at longer-term solutions," he said.

Wiedefeld said that he is aware of the TSA's budget issues but that local TSA officials "are just unbelievable in trying to manage the resources they have," and have been "out there with [BWI staff] directing and trying to get people to where they need to be as quickly as they can."

Union representatives of TSA agents nationwide questioned the agency's priorities.

Joe Flynn, national vice president for the American Federation of Government Employees' regional district, said the agency's budget shortages, high turnover and low salaries make it "hard to keep your staffing levels up."

Alan Jackimowicz, executive vice president of the AFGE TSA Council 100, which represents about 46,000 TSA employees, said cuts to security screener jobs have come ahead of cuts to upper management positions.

At the same time, fewer screeners are doing more jobs today than ever before. Once they just monitored metal detectors, Jackimowicz said. Now they have to monitor full body scanners, work pre-check lines and serve as "behavior detection officers."

"There's more jobs for these officers to do now," he said, but the number of officers has not risen.

The security fees passengers pay rose earlier this summer, he noted, but the increase in funding is being used to pay down the federal deficit, not increase security.

"Is your priority in top-level management, or in getting the people screened and through as quickly as possible?" Jackimowicz said of TSA officials.

TSA Administrator John Pistole acknowledged the agency is doing more with less in part through use of its expanding pre-check system.

Shortly after 8 a.m. Wednesday at the airport, the Concourse B security checkpoint sat shuttered. Passengers jammed the Concourse A checkpoint. Around the corner, the Concourse C checkpoint saw a light trickle of travelers.

When Dustin MacBrayne arrived, he saw the back-up at Concourse A, the closest to him, and thought, "Glad I got here early," he said. But when he got to the Southwest ticketing counter, he said he was tipped off to go to Concourse C, where he was "stoked" when he saw the shorter line.

Other passengers almost got into the line for Concourse A before they were given the same tip by a TSA agent. Some — including 24-year-old Chelsea Funk, on a layover between Pittsburgh and New Hampshire — immediately changed direction, toward Concourse C.

"It was really nice of her to say something," Funk said of the agent. "They did a good job on that."

The only saving grace for Sharp came after she returned to California. After her husband voiced his anger via Twitter about her experience, Southwest responded with an apology and a free voucher for her next trip, Sharp said Wednesday.

"I want to make sure I don't really throw them under the bus, because they did right by us," she said.

She also said she knows travel problems arise sometimes, and aren't nearly as pressing as the needs of people elsewhere in the world.

Still, the thing that got under her skin the most Sunday was her sense that the staggering line she had to wait in seemed routine to airport and airline employees, she said.

"It seemed aggravating to me," she said, "that it was just business as usual."

krector@baltsun.com

twitter.com/rectorsun

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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