With the busy holiday travel season set to start this week, city officials and airlines worry that a shortage of federal security screeners at Los Angeles International Airport will lead to long lines and flight delays.
"We are concerned enough that we are going to go back to what we haven't done since 9/11, and that is to tell people to get here two hours early for a domestic flight and three hours early for an international flight," said Paul Haney, a spokesman for the city's airport agency.
The advice comes even with airport officials expecting 3% fewer travelers at LAX this Thanksgiving than in 2002. About 775,000 passengers are projected to pass through the world's fifth-busiest airport Wednesday through Sunday, down from 800,000 last year, according to the airport agency.
Many of the passengers, officials said, will be infrequent fliers traveling for the first time since the Transportation Security Administration started screening all checked baggage for explosives Dec. 31. Those passengers may be confused by the new procedures.
The city's airport agency sent a letter to the TSA last week, estimating a shortage of 500 screeners at LAX and calling the shortage "a matter of critical importance." The city asked the TSA to authorize overtime so more screeners would be on duty at security checkpoints during the holidays.
"It is clear that, without additional staff, we will face unacceptable service levels during the upcoming peak holiday period," Kim Day, the airport agency's interim executive director, wrote to Michael Robinson, the TSA's assistant administrator of aviation operations.
To deal with holiday crowds, the TSA has asked airlines and airport administrators for help in beefing up staff at security checkpoints. The TSA has required screeners to work longer hours and is adding part-time screeners at checkpoints.
Some airlines have agreed to help the TSA and have drafted detailed instructions for airline employees to help ease congestion at security checkpoints. One software presentation coached airline staff members on how to "survive" the Thanksgiving rush.
Even with these interim measures, LAX officials are worried that holiday crowds will exacerbate existing problems.
Inadequate staffing at security checkpoints already has contributed to longer lines in airport terminals, delayed international flights by as much as an hour and a half and caused passengers to miss connections and airlines to lose money, sources say.
Starting about a month ago, "virtually all the international carriers had lengthy and ongoing delays," said Frank A. Clark, executive director of a nonprofit corporation that represents international carriers that operate at the Tom Bradley International Terminal. "Some carriers for the period of Nov. 1 through Nov. 12 had no on-time departures at night."
The delays reverberated around the globe, causing many passengers to miss connecting flights in Asia, and forcing carriers that serve Mexico and South America to cancel flights because crews waiting for planes from LAX exceeded their flight time.
The added problem of getting through security in the Bradley terminal has prompted some frequent international fliers to use other airports, Clark said.
"If they have the choice of coming into other airports ... the sophisticated frequent traveler is looking for other travel options, such as San Francisco, Seattle or Vancouver," he said.
Passengers have been forced to wait in longer lines during busy travel times in other terminals, causing some to miss domestic flights.
"I was here on a Sunday two weeks ago, when there were lines out the door of three of the terminals in the late afternoon," Day said. There are nine terminals in all.
A hiring freeze, a ban on overtime pay and attrition all have contributed to a decline in the number of screeners at LAX, which has the nation's largest screening workforce. About 1,900 screeners work at airport checkpoints, down 21% from the 2,405 screener positions allocated to LAX by the federal government.
The TSA began downsizing its screener workforce nationwide by 6,000 earlier this year after the agency was criticized by key lawmakers for waste, and detractors joked that its acronym stood for "thousands standing around." It plans to cut an additional 3,000 screeners by Oct. 1 to reduce the workforce to 45,279.
A growing number of airport administrators and airlines across the country charge that the cuts were made without consideration of peak travel periods at individual airports, and that the TSA has been slow to hire part-time personnel to fill the gap.
"TSA is not flexibly staffing their screening stations to meet the peak flows of airport traffic," said Doug Wills, a spokesman for the Air Transport Assn., an industry trade group. "They will have the same number of people during rush-hour periods that they would have during the middle of the day. We don't think that's a smart way to get people through security on time."
Compounding the problem is the beginning of a rebound in air traffic in the last few weeks after it declined earlier this year after the start of the Iraq war and a worldwide outbreak of a serious respiratory illness.
At LAX, the city's airport agency is grappling with a limited amount of space to move passengers through checkpoints in the terminals. The agency hoped to increase the number of checkpoint lanes this year to 64 from 49.
It has constructed six new lanes, including four in the Bradley terminal, but the TSA has been slow to provide equipment and personnel to staff them.
The lanes are necessary because new security rules allow officials to process half as many passengers through airport checkpoints today as they did before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
"Historically, before the 9/11 security procedures, you could get about 400 passengers per hour through a checkpoint lane," said Ellen Wright, chief of aviation technology for the city's airport agency. "After 9/11, the number is 200.... It's been cut in half. In some airports that were always space-constrained to begin with, the impact is enormous."
A decrease in staffing at LAX and a space crunch in terminals has led to low morale among screeners and even prompted several part-time TSA employees who began work at LAX in the last few weeks to quit.
"For my particular shift, morale is really low," said a screener who asked not to be named for fear of retribution. "About 30% are looking for another job. We feel like no one really cares about the screeners. You're a body filling that job."