Phoenix airport mulling use of contractor instead of TSA
PHOENIX -- Phoenix's busiest airport could cut ties with the TSA in the wake of a baggage-screening system breakdown that caused travelers a massive luggage delay, city officials said Friday.
Deborah Ostreicher, the city's assistant aviation director, said Thursday's chaos at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport was the latest in a growing list of frustrations with the Transportation Security Administration.
She also cited long wait times and a lack of a TSA PreCheck process. That allows passengers who are approved to pass through screening more quickly, without having to take off shoes, belts or jackets or remove laptops and liquids from carry-on bags.
Calling the current level of service "unacceptable," Ostreicher said officials are reviewing several options to improve things for travelers.
"One of those options is to utilize a contractor to provide security as some other airports have done," Ostreicher said in a statement.
Phoenix is not alone. The world's busiest airport in Atlanta and the New York/New Jersey region's airports are also scrutinizing their relationship with TSA.
TSA spokesman Nico Melendez declined to comment on the matter.
"Significant, unprecedented" technical issues with a computer server on Thursday led to more than 3,000 checked bags being left behind at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, Melendez said.
By Friday, screening systems were working normally, and the bags that had been delayed were on their way to passengers, Melendez said. But tests were continuing because it was not clear what caused the malfunction.
A network switch failed and caused the software system that scans luggage for explosives to go into a continual reboot cycle, TSA Administrator Peter Neffenger told reporters Friday at National Airport in Washington, D.C. He said the system breakdown in Phoenix was an isolated incident.
The agency has been facing growing backlash over long lines at airports across the U.S.
An outage also hit the system for screening checked bags in one of the five terminals at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport on Thursday night. American Airlines asked customers on flights leaving from that terminal to check luggage at another terminal.
In Phoenix, the problem with the screening systems began around 6:45 a.m. and affected all three of the airport's terminals. It was not immediately known how many of the airport's 16 airlines faced bag delays, but Southwest was significantly affected, Melendez said.
The airline decided to send more than 1,000 bags to the Las Vegas airport for screening since it wasn't clear when the system would be fixed, Southwest Airlines spokesman Chris Mainz said.
"Our folks were just trying to come up with some creative solutions to try and expedite the bags and reunite them with their owners as soon as possible," Mainz said.
Luggage that had crowded the terminals was moved to a parking lot Thursday evening, where workers loaded hundreds of bags onto semitrailers in triple-digit temperatures. Those bags went to airports in Tucson and San Diego for screening and then were flown to their destinations, said Julie Rodriguez, a Sky Harbor spokeswoman.
Greg Puriski, president of TWU Local 555 which represents 11,000 airport ground crew workers employed by Southwest, said baggage handlers at Sky Harbor would be working overtime again Friday to help push through delayed luggage.
Puriski could not recall a recent equipment breakdown that caused a delay of such magnitude. TSA scanners frequently break down at airports but are usually fixed within a couple of hours. The ordeal demonstrated TSA's need for a sufficient backup system and more manpower, he said.
"It seems like the responsibility of relieving the situation is more on the airlines and the workers to fix it," Puriski said. "It seems like there is no plan B."
According to the TSA, the baggage systems handle the bulk of checked luggage.
Major airports such as Sky Harbor use an in-line screening process. After being placed on a conveyor belt, checked luggage goes through a high-tech scanning machine programmed to look for explosives or other prohibited items. An alarm sounds if a suspicious object is detected. That sends the luggage to a conveyor belt that leads to TSA agents for manual inspection.
When everything is working properly, TSA officers hand search only about 10 percent of all checked bags.
Associated Press airlines writers David Koenig in Dallas, Scott Mayerowitz in New York, Marcy Gordon in Washington and writers Anna Johnson, Paul Davenport, Michelle A. Monroe and Walter Berry in Phoenix contributed to this report.