WASHINGTON - Air travelers are waiting longer and longer at security checkpoints in numerous airports, and airlines and congressional leaders are warning of possible gridlock this summer as air travel reaches record highs in some cities.
Concerns are mounting as the Transportation Security Administration, created after the Sept. 11 attacks to protect airports, has struggled to hire security screeners and left some airports understaffed.
Last year, the TSA cut 14,000 screener positions to reduce its screener work force to 45,000, a level set by Congress and criticized by aviation and airport officials as inadequate. The number dropped to about 44,000 this year as screeners left and were not immediately replaced.
At the same time, the agency increased its non-screening personnel by about 600 employees, adding 5,600 administrators, attorneys and analysts, according to personnel records.
The TSA said they were essential and work in security areas other than aviation. But some aviation and congressional officials criticize what they call a growing bureaucracy amid security staffing shortages.
At Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta, the nation's busiest, nearly 150 of 1,100 screener positions were vacant while the airport had its busiest January and February ever, airport General Manager Ben DeCosta said.
Vacancies have been filled, but DeCosta said waiting times at passenger checkpoints have reached 50 minutes during the busiest times of day in recent weeks. Passengers have missed flights, and airlines have delayed takeoffs.
TSA figures show the average waiting time at peak periods in Hartsfield was under 11 minutes in January and said it is developing a plan to deal with increasing numbers of air travelers this summer.
"Since the rollout of TSA [in 2002], every peak travel period has been preceded by dire predictions of intolerable security lines," the TSA said in a statement. It acknowledged that with increasing air travel this summer, "the challenge will be even greater."
Already this year, there have been complaints about Kennedy and Newark airports, which are understaffed, and at airports from Washington, Boston and Orlando to Palm Springs, Calif.; Syracuse, and Poughkeepsie, N.Y.
At checkpoints in Las Vegas' McCarran International Airport, travelers were waiting up to three hours around the time of the annual Consumer Electronics Show in January.
The airport has since added "divesters" to help passengers load belongings and metal objects through X-ray machines and made some screening procedures more efficient to reduce lines to no more than 25 minutes, deputy airport director Rosemary Vassiliadis said.
But with the airport's passenger volume at 36 million a year - above its level before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks - and six or seven new screening lanes to open this summer, Vassiliadis wonders whether the TSA will be able to accommodate airport growth with a cap of 45,000 screeners.
"It's an unrealistic number," she said. "When you talk to every airport, they need more."
The Air Transport Association, the trade group of major U.S. airlines, estimated in February that up to 90 of the nation's 445 commercial airports had too few security screeners and urged the hiring of more.
In late March, Rep. John L. Mica, chairman of the House aviation subcommittee, said 10 percent of airports were understaffed while others were overstaffed. The Florida Republican warned of "long lines and delays" this summer if TSA didn't fill vacancies.
Others say understaffing could weaken security by forcing screeners to work extensive overtime, which TSA acknowledges has hurt morale, and to expedite long lines.
"It will lead perhaps to failures of security as the screeners get under more and more pressure when they're inadequately staffed to get the lines down and the people through," said Rep. Peter A. DeFazio of Oregon, the senior Democrat on the aviation subcommittee.
In late March, congressional investigators reported that staffing shortages at five of the largest airports forced screeners to miss training sessions because they were needed at security checkpoints. Those screeners got only three hours a month of refresher training - "far less than the required three hours per week," the General Accounting Office said.
The GAO also said up to a third of the screeners at larger airports were leaving each year, and the TSA was "experiencing difficulties" in hiring.
Rep. Martin Olav Sabo, a Minnesota Democrat, recently noted that the TSA has among the highest injury and illness rates in the federal government - 19 percent, compared with a government-wide average of 4 percent. TSA acting administrator Adm. David M. Stone cited screeners who were lifting heavy baggage.
With air travel expected to grow steadily for the next decade, airports under expansion and airlines eager to reverse three years of multibillion-dollar losses, pressure is mounting to relieve congestion that industry leaders fear could kill an aviation comeback.
The TSA says it's developing a "creative summer strategy" to keep lines moving and maintain security. Congress is looking at expediting hiring by giving airport security directors staffing authority, and it is pushing for screening technology that needs fewer workers.
But Republicans oppose lifting the 45,000-screener limit, imposed two years ago amid concern that the TSA was hiring screeners for routine functions such as checking tickets of passengers in security lines.
Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta, who oversaw the TSA before it moved into the Department of Homeland Security last year, strongly protested the limit, saying at least 65,000 screeners were needed.
"The cap is very reasonable," said Rep. Harold Rogers, a Kentucky Republican who is chairman of the House homeland security appropriations subcommittee. He said that last year TSA was allowed to hire part-time screeners, who now number about 6,000 with more being hired.
Lawmakers hope security gets more efficient in coming years as bomb-detection machines for checked luggage are incorporated into baggage-handling systems, reducing personnel needs.
In most airports, the machines sit in lobbies, requiring several screeners to load bags through the machine and then onto a conveyor belt leading to an airplane.
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