Transportation

Busy summer, longer lines ahead at Sacramento International Airport

An airliner lands in January at Sacramento International Airport. Passengers this summer can expect longer waits at security checkpoints.
An airliner lands in January at Sacramento International Airport. Passengers this summer can expect longer waits at security checkpoints. rbenton@sacbee.com

Fliers at Sacramento International Airport and airports nationally likely will find themselves waiting in longer security lines this summer, the result of higher passenger numbers and a shrinking federal security staff.

Already this spring, Sacramento airport wait times at Transportation Security Administration checkpoints have topped 30 minutes at times, angering fliers amid reports of some missed flights.

Sacramento wait times more typically have been in the 10- to 15-minute range, an acceptable amount, said airport air service development manager Mark Haneke. But peak-hour wait times have been creeping up, notably in the early morning and around noon when flights take off in bunches, causing concern among airport officials.

“If you already have 30-minute waits in April, what will it be like in July?” Haneke said.

Airport officials are urging fliers to arrive two hours before their departure times.

It took Dallas businessman Keith Sherman about a half hour to pass through security in Terminal A on Wednesday at noon. He has traveled through the Sacramento airport numerous times and hadn’t experienced a line that long before.

“That was a shock,” he said. “No advance warning. Luckily, I came two hours early.”

TSA lines at some airports nationally reportedly have topped an hour recently, prompting complaints from airline and airport executives. American Airlines officials say thousands of their passengers missed flights last month at major airports because they got stuck in long security lines. They’ve called TSA wait times unacceptable.

The TSA, faced with what its director recently called an “austere” budget, has cut its aviation security officer force nationally by 6,000, or nearly 12 percent, over the past four years. At the same time, passenger levels nationally have been on the rise, including a 4 percent jump last year – a figure nearly double what the TSA had anticipated, agency Administrator Petter Neffenger told a congressional committee last month.

The Obama administration has proposed a budget increase for 2017 that will allow TSA to add 323 officers nationally, but that won’t be enough to ease the expected summer lines.

TSA officials declined this week to address wait times or staffing levels at the Sacramento airport. Sacramento airport official Haneke said TSA officials have told him that Sacramento staffing levels have not dropped recently, but also have not kept up with the increased number of fliers and flights.

 

In an email to The Bee, a TSA spokesman said the agency is taking steps nationally to speed lines, including overtime, accelerated hiring and more canine use.

TSA and Sacramento airport officials say they would like more people to sign up for the agency’s TSA PreCheck or one of its other expedited security programs, Global Entry, Nexus and SENTRI. PreCheck allows passengers to use a separate, shorter line.

Haneke said the local airport has asked TSA to open a PreCheck registration office at the airport so fliers can sign up on site. TSA officials say they are considering doing that in Sacramento, but do not have a time frame for opening.

Nationally, 6 million fliers have signed up for the PreCheck program. The agency wants to have 24 million enrolled in the next three years, Neffenger told Congress last month.

The TSA has two PreCheck program enrollment centers in the region, one in West Sacramento at 2240 Lake Washington Blvd., Suite 130, and one at 2620 Hurley Way, Suite C. Applicants can start the sign-up process on the TSA website, but must finish it in person at an enrollment center, and pay an $85 fee, good for five years.

On Wednesday, when the Terminal A line briefly edged toward 30 minutes, passengers in the adjacent PreCheck area took less than five minutes to pass through security.

Passenger irritation aside, longer lines are good news for the airport, which has now seen two years of increased monthly traffic. That’s a dramatic turnaround from the previous seven years, when airport use was off so dramatically that it put the newly expanded facility into financial difficulty. Passenger levels are expected to top 10 million this year for the first time since 2007, just before the recession.

Several new or more frequent flights are scheduled this summer.

JetBlue will expand its seasonal service to Boston in late May. American Airlines will add twice-daily nonstop flights to Chicago-O’Hare International Airport at the beginning of June.

Aeromexico will increase flights to Mexico City in mid-June, as well as to Guadalajara. Southwest begins daily nonstop service to Baltimore in early August.

The airport’s parking garage is expected to fill to capacity at times this summer, airport officials said, most likely during mornings and around midday on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, the heaviest days for business travel.

Airport spokeswoman Laurie Slothower said the airport does not have a system in place yet to alert drivers of expected garage closures in advance, but said “closed” signs on the roadway leading to the garage go up within minutes of the garage filling. Some airport users have complained recently that the airport has been slow to close the garage, forcing cars to circle and leave the building.

Cars are diverted to the airport’s daily parking lot. The airport also has an economy lot.

A second parking garage was part of the plan for the new Terminal B, but it was eliminated because of funding issues. Airport officials still anticipate building it at some point but have set no definite date.

A private developer has signed a deal with the airport to build a 150-room hotel at the north end of the parking garage. The groundbreaking is expected in October, with a two-year construction time frame.

Tony Bizjak: 916-321-1059, @TonyBizjak

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