Airport seeks to cut TSA wait times by adding three screening lanes
With airline passenger volumes approaching the record-setting levels of 2019, officials at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport are planning to add three security screening lanes to help reduce wait times.
The lanes would be created by adding a fourth checkpoint near the middle of the Barbara Jordan Terminal, increasing the total number of TSA screening lanes from 15 to 18.
Current TSA wait times are "resulting in passenger frustration and missing [of] scheduled flights" during the busiest times of day, staff wrote to members of the Airport Advisory Commission ahead of its vote on the plan last week.
The commission, whose members are appointed by the Austin City Council, approved the $1.5 million item, sending it to the council for a vote Nov. 4. The money would also pay for work already done that allowed the TSA to add three CT machines that screen bags more quickly by creating 3D images of their contents.
Officials at the city-owned airport want to have the new screening lanes up and running by the end of December or beginning of January. The TSA has set aside three X-ray machines for the project, spokesperson Patricia Mancha said.
The pandemic temporarily gutted the travel industry, and ABIA saw passenger volumes plummet by about 90%. But the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines encouraged people to feel safe flying, and "bookings have started to trend up again as the delta variant impact is waning," airport staff wrote in their monthly briefing to the AAC. On Oct. 8, more than 30,000 passengers flew out of ABIA.
"Anytime we see above that 30,000-passenger mark, even with having the K-9 units that allow customers to leave their shoes on [at security] ... it still puts us into 40-, 45-minute delays as we try to process the customer," ABIA's Chief Business and Finance Officer Mookie Patel said in an interview. TSA standards call for wait times of 30 minutes or less.
This past weekend, passengers on domestic flights were told to arrive at the airport at least 2.5 hours before departure regardless the time of day. For international flights, travelers were advised to arrive three hours early.
The wait to get through TSA screening is one of several factors slowing travelers. Airline ticketing counters and concessionaires have both been understaffed.
Meanwhile, the airport is getting busier. British Airways, Air Canada, Southwest, Alaska and American are all adding flights in Austin this month or next. The new routes helped push flight capacity at ABIA up 14% this month over October 2019. Even more flights are expected in early 2022.
The advisory commission's chair, Eugene Sepulveda, implored staff to add an exit near the largest screening area, Checkpoint One, for those who have mobility issues. He was told that would have to be considered as part of a larger project to overhaul the airport.
"That's not a no," Tracy Thompson, the airport's interim chief of planning and development, told him in a meeting before the vote. "We don't want to hold this [TSA screening lanes] installation up."
Sepulveda was unmoved.
"It's just unbelievable to me that they're mutually exclusive," he said. "I'm displeased with the lack of priority toward mobility impaired and seniors in the design and maintenance of what we're doing here."
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