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Salt Lake airport wait drops

Time in lines cut to average of 2 minutes

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After the 9/11 attacks, air travelers were told to arrive at least two hours before flights to wind through then-long security lines. While airport officials still recommend travelers arrive 90 minutes early at Salt Lake City International Airport, the average time waiting in line has dropped to around a mere 2 minutes.

That is according to data the Deseret Morning News obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request to the Transportation Security Administration.

The information shows how far the airport has come since the early days after the attacks three years ago, when armed National Guardsmen with M-16 rifles watched over slow-moving lines. Officials say checks now are as secure or more secure than ever, but they have learned to move lines more quickly.

"There is no pressure to do the screening process faster; the emphasis is always on security and always will be," said Ron Malin, deputy federal security director in Salt Lake City. "But in the same vein, we want to do that as professionally and efficiently and as courteously as possible."

The TSA took over security checkpoints on Sept. 18, 2002, from private security companies that airlines had hired previously. The agency provided to the Deseret Morning News averages for wait times for most months since then at Salt Lake City International.

And even though Malin says the TSA has actually decreased staff in Salt Lake City since September 2002, the agency's data show the average wait in line before arriving at the security checkpoint in September 2004 was a scant 1.8 minutes.

It has been about that low for months.

Average wait times in recent months include 2.3 minutes in August; 1.9 minutes in July; 1.8 minutes in June; 1.2 minutes in May; 2.3 minutes in March; and 4 minutes in January.

Since TSA took over, Salt Lake City Department of Airports spokeswoman Barbara Gann said, the airport has started using plastic bags that travelers put change and other loose items into while passing security checks. Those bags prevent people from clogging lanes while fumbling to put loose items back in their pockets after passing the checkpoints.

Also, the airport has installed television screens that play videos instructing passengers how to pass checkpoints efficiently.

And maybe most importantly, TSA and the airport have worked to open three additional security lanes in the past two years.

"We work very closely with TSA on this issue. It's one of our highest priorities," Gann said. "We coordinated a lot of things with them structurally to get to this point."

Of note, wait times can be significantly longer than average during peak times at the airport — so it is still dangerous to cut arrival at the airport too close to the time of departure. Lines can also be longer during such times as holidays.

TSA data for the past month, for example, show that the longest waits during a typical week can be expected on Wednesdays about 7 a.m. — when the average wait at the Terminal 2 security gate is 11 minutes, and the maximum wait has been 20 minutes.

The longest lines for every day of the week, over the past month, have been between 7 and 10 a.m., when most morning flights leave.

The shortest lines come after 6 p.m. daily or before 6 a.m. — when no wait at all is often reported at Salt Lake International's security checkpoints.

Also, Gann notes, security checkpoints aren't the only places people wait. Lines at the ticket counter may be lengthy, and checked bags also have to be placed through TSA screening machines.

For the record, the busiest times for other days of the week during the past month have been: Sundays, 7 a.m. (average wait 10 minutes, maximum 17); Mondays, 8 a.m. (average wait 8 minutes, maximum 16); Tuesdays, 7 a.m. (average wait 6 minutes, maximum 9); Thursdays, 8 a.m. (average wait 9 minutes, maximum 18); Fridays, 7 a.m. (average wait 7 minutes, maximum 16); and Saturdays, 7 a.m. (average wait 10 minutes, maximum 14).

The TSA began continuous sampling of wait times beginning last June. It has used that most recent data to set up an Internet site where travelers can check average wait times for different airports and different times. That Web site is waittime.tsa.dhs.gov/index.html.


E-mail: lee@desnews.com; bsnyder@desnews.com