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Columbia, Charlotte airports brace for busy Memorial Day weekend

Hospitality and Tourism
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As Memorial Day weekend approaches, regional airports are gearing up for increased traffic while hoping to avoid the long lines and passenger frustration that have plagued cities such as Chicago in recent weeks.

“We’re anticipating some large crowds, starting this afternoon,” Jack Christine, deputy aviation director at Charlotte Douglas International Airport, said Thursday. “Our projected numbers show we’re looking at about a 6% increase in customers versus the same time frame last year.”

The airport has taken steps to keep those customers moving, including hiring about 40 “lobby managers” who help direct passengers to the correct ticket counter or security checkpoint and help them check bags. Those workers have been training since the middle of May.

 

Dan Mann, director of the Columbia airport, said the airport’s traffic volume is up 9 percent for the year, though the facility has not been affected by the long wait times that have recently plagued larger cities such as Chicago. (Photo/Staff)

 

“They’re going to be our front line,” Christine said. “This will be the first major test as far as a peak load, but we’re confident they’re going to be able to help us.”

Priority international check-in lines have also been moved further from the center of ticket counter activity, Christine said, to spread out the concentration of arriving passengers.

At Columbia Metropolitan Airport, passenger volume is up about 9% for the year, said executive director Dan Mann, and that number is expected to continue to grow throughout the summer travel season.

Despite the increase, “Our average wait time is measured in minutes, not hours,” Mann said. “You’re looking at generally much less than a 15-minute wait at a TSA checkpoint here.”

Though pre-check screening is sometimes understaffed, Manning said, “clearing customers, getting them through the checkpoint, is priority one. We’re seeing that staffed where it needs to be for the most part.”

Nationwide, airports have faced long lines since early spring. A crisis point came in Chicago, where thousands of passengers have missed flights because of lengthy security lines. American Airlines said 4,000 passengers have missed flights at O’Hare International Airport since February.

The TSA has blamed budget cuts for a shortage of screeners during a period of record travel volume. TSA spokesman Mike England said today that the organization is working to hire an additional 768 workers by June 15 and has gotten permission from Congress to reallocate budgetary funds for additional overtime.

“That’s more of an immediate fix,” England said.

England said TSA is also working to develop a mechanism to provide up-to-date wait time information. A current app allows passengers to enter wait times, but doesn’t receive enough regular data to be reliable, England said.

TSA also encourages passengers to sign up for the government’s PreCheck program, which expedites screening for those who submit to background check and pay an $85 fee.

England said sign-ups for the program have doubled from 8,000 a day to 16,000. At Charlotte Douglas, the number has grown in the past two months from 25 a day to 45, Christine said. Passengers can make an online appointment and register at airports or application centers.

“We don’t like to see long lines,” Christine said. “No one does, including the TSA. If we can do some things to help alleviate that without adding screeners, we’ll do everything we can. But we would like to see additional staffing to help ease the burden and provide a longer-term solution to the check-in lines.”

Last month, as TSA showed off a new automated baggage system which can process 4,000 bags an hour at Charlotte Douglas, airport Interim Aviation Director Brent Cagle send a letter to TSA asking for more checkpoint workers.

Airlines are also taking measures to shorten waits, bringing in contract employees to help with non-screening security duties. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, who oversees TSA, has asked airlines to temporarily reduce or eliminate fees for checked bags to curtail the number of bags passing through security, but airlines have balked.

Today, TSA debuted two new screening lanes at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport that automatically reroute suspicious bags to a separate conveyor belt and automatically recirculate bins in efforts to save time. Earlier this week, a new consolidated TSA passenger screening checkpoint opened at Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport.

“We’re always looking for new technology and new innovations,” England said.

TSA encourages passengers to arrive at airports two hours before domestic flights and three hours before international flights.

If long waits persist at bigger airports, it could be a boon for smaller regional facilities.

Traditionally, Midlands passengers may have found Charlotte to have more flights or cheaper fares, but “when it becomes much less convenient to drive out of state, people will quit doing it,” Mann said. “I don’t want to say it’s a selling point for us, but it has been nice that those impacts haven’t affected us.”

Contact Melinda Waldrop at 803-726-7542.

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