Long and potentially dangerous security lines on sidewalks in front of terminals at Los Angeles International Airport are gone "forever," federal officials declared Wednesday.
Two months ago, the city's airport agency and the airlines sent an urgent letter to federal officials expressing concern that a shortage of screeners at LAX this summer could cause lengthy queues and force travelers to wait on curbs, putting them at risk of a terrorist attack.
Now, officials say, they have not only avoided a crisis during the airport's busiest travel period in years but they have also turned the corner in shortening security lines at LAX for good.
They took several steps to turn things around, including recruiting screeners from other airports and reconfiguring security lanes.
Not that travelers leaving from LAX can avoid long lines altogether: There is still waiting at ticket counters and for curbside check-in, officials acknowledge. But the outside security queues are a thing of the past, officials said.
Average daily waiting times at security checkpoints are less than six minutes -- down from a previous average of 16 minutes during busy times -- and "We have not had a buildup of security lines outside of our terminals as we have experienced in the past," Larry Fetters, the Transportation Security Administration's federal security director at LAX, said in a letter to an airport official. "I believe that particular security risk is gone from this airport, forever."
The bold statement -- the first time managers at LAX have ever said they have conquered at least one type of stubborn problem with lines -- was met with skepticism by city officials, who added that they had waited in long queues at the airport as recently as two weeks ago.
"It's summer, and the lines are here, and TSA is telling us the lines are gone," Councilman Jack Weiss said. "It's kind of like 'Dewey beats Truman' -- it's not true."
Fetters' prediction was revealed when airport officials read his letter during a hearing before the City Council's Trade, Tourism and Commerce Committee on how managers are addressing a shortage of screeners at LAX. He stood by it in an interview Wednesday.
"I have no reason to think they're going to come back, unless some artificial event interjects," he said.
Security experts have warned three times in as many years that long lines at security checkpoints and ticket counters, which blossomed at LAX after tighter screening measures were ordered following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, are an easy target for terrorists with suitcase or car bombs. LAX is considered the state's No. 1 terrorist target and has been singled out by Al Qaeda in the past.
The city's airport agency has said it has little control over queues, citing the cash-strapped airlines' inability to add staff at ticket counters, and a cap established by Congress on the number of security screeners that the Transportation Security Administration could hire. LAX has more security screeners, at about 2,300, than any other airport in the country.
Earlier this year, when federal officials shifted control over hiring screeners from a contractor to local airport security directors, LAX officials worried that Fetters would be unable to hire enough workers to keep up with an attrition rate of up to 50 screeners a month. If he didn't, LAX could face a shortage of 300 full-time screeners by August, the airport's busiest month, officials predicted.
"LAX would be faced with significant security concerns and poor perception of the airport and its operations by the traveling public," Lydia Kennard, executive director of the city's airport agency, and Steven Holt, chairman of a committee representing airlines at LAX, wrote to a federal security official April 12.
In response, the official, Kip Hawley, assistant secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, flew to Los Angeles last month and personally assured airport officials that LAX would have enough screeners to handle the 18.7 million passengers expected to use the facility through Labor Day. To increase staffing, Hawley ordered 80 volunteers from airports around the country to LAX for the summer.
He sent a team to help reconfigure security lanes to serve more passengers, freeing up to 85 screeners to respond to bottlenecks around the airport. The Transportation Security Administration will also give contractors responsibility for moving luggage from ticket counters to explosives detection machines, allowing 75 screeners to be redeployed.
These measures have kept security checkpoint lines flowing and off airport sidewalks, officials agreed. The city's airport agency also allowed the security administration to use a former school as a hiring center for screeners, hoping it would help federal officials keep ahead of the nagging attrition rate.
"The hiring center has finally kicked in, and I really think there's a wave of people who are going to come out of there by mid-July," Fetters said in an interview. "Since we control the hiring, and even the recruitment process, we'll never fall substantially below our baseline, we'll always be right in there."
Even so, Fetters said he is still short of his overall staffing requirement and is trying to move some part-time screeners into full-time jobs and to hire more part-time workers.
Council members asked airport officials to report on the number of screeners at LAX and their plans to address attrition at the next committee meeting.
Airport officials also cautioned that lines haven't disappeared from terminals, citing queues at ticket counters and skycap stands. To address that problem, the city's airport agency plans to start a pilot program this fall that would allow passengers to check luggage in remote parking lots.