Sea-Tac’s security lines may shrink with new TSA training

By:  Lewis Kamb
Source: Seattle Times

Long lines at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport security checkpoints may get shorter and move faster once airport screening officers are allowed to again take required training courses locally.

Or at least that’s how U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and other local officials hailed a promise Wednesday from the chief of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).

During a hearing of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee about strengthening airport and transportation-hub security amid terrorism threats, TSA Administrator Peter Neffenger told Cantwell he planned to temporarily resume local training at Sea-Tac for federal Transportation Security officers.

Under recent TSA requirements, all federal airport screening officers had been required to travel to the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Georgia to get the new mandatory training. But scheduling delays and backlogs at the training center have caused problems.

Cantwell told Neffenger that as a border state, Washington is keenly aware of potential security threats, noting a customs agent here in 1999 foiled the terrorist plot of Ahmed Ressam, the so-called Millennium Bomber.

“So we’re very well aware of security, but we’re also very poignantly aware of efficiency,” she said. “We need both.”

Cantwell then described Sea-Tac as “the fastest growing hub in the country,” telling Neffenger during the hearing that Washington’s largest airport drew 42 million passengers last year while only planning for 19 million.

But amid the airport’s record passenger levels, the training backlog for screening officers is only further slowing airport checkpoints, she said.

“So, we have a problem at Sea-Tac,” Cantwell said. “ … Will you allow for localized regional training?”

“We are going to do local training … at Sea-Tac,” said Neffenger, who noted he would visit the airport next week to meet with officials.Neffenger added that Sea-Tac is among the airports in line for additional staffing.

“We have to mitigate what is going to be a very challenging summer season by pushing as many new hires as we can into the system, directing them to the airports of greatest needs,” he said. “Sea-Tac is one of those.”

Neffenger’s verbal commitment comes two days after Cantwell and U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., wrote the TSA chief to request local training on an as-needed basis, which TSA already has allowed at 10 other large U.S. airports.

At Sea-Tac, the training backlog has meant that only 17 to 19 of the airport’s 32 available security lanes may be open during peak travel times — a bottleneck that in March contributed “to roughly 1,000 passengers missing flights due to long wait times,” Cantwell’s office said in a statement Wednesday.

Sea-Tac’s long, slow lines, which at times can take more than an hour to get through, have drawn criticism and angered passengers for years. Officials variously have blamed construction, staffing and training among contributors to the problem.