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"Case Study/ Denver International Airport"
Wednesday, July 16, 2003
Case Study/ Denver International Airport (DEN)
TSA Holds Back Improvement at Denver, Says Director
Airport Security Report
Nobody said the task of securing America's airports after 9/11 would be
easy. Just ask officials at Denver International Airport (DEN).
The Rocky Mountain destination is the nation's fifth busiest airport with
almost 36 million passengers and nearly 60 million pieces of checked baggage
processed annually. It serves as a hub for United Airlines [OTC BB:
UALAQ.OB], which handles more than 60 percent of all passenger traffic, and
Frontier Airlines [Nasdaq: FRNT].
Soon after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, airport officials realized the need
to balance security needs with operational efficiency. The airport, managed
by Executive Director Bruce Baumgartner, planned several innovative measures
to provide a high level of security while keeping airlines and passengers
At the same time, airport officials became increasingly frustrated by the
new government bureaucracy put in place after 9/11 that had little
understanding of the need to balance the two competing interests and was
slow to improve passenger and baggage screening.
As one consequence, Baumgartner believes that the airport likely will not
meet the federal mandate to screen all hold baggage through electronic means
by Dec. 31 of this year. In addition, the TSA's cuts in its screener
workforce has meant that there are barely enough screeners to man Denver's
checkpoints during the peak times of flight operations. Sometimes passengers
have been waiting as long as 45 minutes just to get through the required
pre-flight screening. Passenger Screening Creeps Along
Airport officials have faced several systemic and operational problems with
the federal government's control of security checkpoints. The ball started
to bounce in the wrong direction for Denver shortly after 9/11.
"We believed that the best approach was federal oversight, having the
government accept the liability for screening because of their oversight,
but allowing the airports to [be the security provider]," Baumgartner said.
But he favors allowing airports to hire their own staff or subcontract with
private security firms that meet federal standards.
To pay for the security system, Baumgartner proposed the creation of a
federal program that would use a passenger facility charge to fund equipment
and personnel for the security checkpoints. But the plan did not come to
fruition. Instead, Congress created the TSA and assigned it powers to
regulate the industry and to conduct security services at all 429 commercial
airports in the United States.
Baumgartner remains a proponent of airports having responsibility for
passenger and baggage screening instead of the TSA. "If [the screeners] are
airport people I could cross-train them to do something else during the
[slower times of airport operations] and then I could bring them back for
the peak [periods of passenger processing]. I think that's efficient use of
personnel. It's probably more efficient than what you can do with staff just
trained to do one thing," he said.
Like other airports across the country, Denver has seen passenger processing
times at checkpoints increase significantly since TSA took over. Even though
Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta directed that checkpoint screening
be performed within 10 minutes, the emphasis on security has clearly
overwhelmed operational efficiency concerns. Baumgartner said processing
times slowed to two passengers per lane per minute.
Clearly more capacity was needed at the airport's 14 checkpoint lanes. So
Baumgartner spent $5 million to add six lanes in the central terminal area.
With 20 lanes operating, processing times improved to the point that five
passengers were passing through each lane per minute.
The quicker processing times held for a while, Baumgartner said. But the
next bump in the security road was just around the corner. The TSA began
cutting screeners at many airports earlier this year because of budgetary
problems. Denver is expected to go from 964 to 846 screeners, a 12 percent
To address some of the problems at the airport, Rep. Bob Beauprez (R- Colo.)
arranged for a July 2 meeting to hammer out plans for improvement.
Officials generated a seven-point plan at the summit. Airlines agreed to
share passenger load information with TSA officials to better schedule the
screener workforce. The TSA agreed to maximize screener coverage of
checkpoints during peak periods. To help meet that goal, the agency agreed
to cross-train all baggage screeners for passenger screening.
Baumgartner would like to see an express passenger-screening lane at the
checkpoints where travelers only carrying a briefcase or purse would be
allowed to enter for quicker screening.
Participants at the summit agreed that implementation of an in-line baggage
screening system needed to be accelerated. Baumgartner said that for more
than a year TSA officials have not authorized or funded either of the
airport's two proposed plans. Bag Screening Problems Unsolved
Spurring travelers to check their baggage at ticker counters so bags can be
screened for explosives is a major goal of the new aviation security regime.
But Denver faces a significant problem. Since the TSA has not authorized or
funded an in-line baggage system for screening bags, the airport has relied
on explosives trace detection (ETD) units at tickets counters.
There are not enough ETD machines at the airport, so a significant number of
checked bags are not screened for explosives. Instead, the bags are
reconciled with their passengers in a process called positive passenger bag
The airport does not believe it can meet the Dec. 31, 2003, deadline to
screen all bags by electronic means because not enough time remains to build
a conveyor and install explosives detection systems (EDS). Baumgartner
places the blame for the potential problems at the feet of the TSA.
Soon after 9/11, the airport studied the leading baggage screening equipment
and conveyor configurations. The airport completed two blueprints - one
including U.S. certified equipment and one involving uncertified machines.
"We found that the in-line baggage system was the only solution that could
work. All the other solutions created huge lines as long as three hours
long," Baumgartner said. Any in-lobby solutions would violate life safety
codes and emergency exit codes, he said. In addition, airlines would have to
shorten their baggage closeout times for flights since bags would be
significantly delayed in getting to baggage makeup rooms. Otherwise,
airlines would have needed to lengthen their flight schedules and provide
Baumgartner took the plans - complete with designs, a construction schedule
and a cost estimate - to the TSA in March 2002. But the plans haven't been
approved nor has funding been appropriated, he said.
The airport's preferred design costs about $90 million and would take around
nine months to complete. The plan would use the Smiths Heimann [London:
SMIN] EDTS - a two-machine unit that combines computed tomography and x-ray
diffraction technology. The unit, which has not yet been approved for use in
the United States, can scan upwards of 1,500 bags per hour, according to the
manufacturer. The alternative plan would take slightly less time to
construct, but it would cost as much as $130 million to install the slower
TSA-approved InVision Technologies [Nasdaq: INVN] 9000CTX.
"Remember, this is not my responsibility - it's the TSA's responsibility.
The reason I felt I could be a partner with [the TSA] is because I know the
airport, my staff knows the airport, my consultants know the airport. We
know how to do this," Baumgartner insisted.
"We've done things like this before, we know what it costs, we know what the
schedules are and we can get it done as quickly and as efficiently and cost
effective as anyone, as opposed to Boeing [NYSE: BA], which knows nothing
about this airport. Everything they know about this airport we've had to
teach them, which is a very inefficient process and a very costly process
and a very time consuming process," Baumgartner complained.
The Denver project was delayed because the TSA needed to authorize specific
baggage screening equipment, approve the system design and provide funding
for a number of airports, said Robert Johnson, TSA communications director.
At the time Denver applied, "we were working through [those issues] under
the [Dec. 31, 2002] deadline [for 100 percent bag screening], and with the
financial constraints, we had a lot of work to do in a short amount of
time," he said.
Denver has spent $15 million for a small in-line conveyor system that was
installed in a previously unused part of the airport. The system is intended
to test how various technologies work together to screen bags. Both InVision
and Smiths Heimann machines are installed to scan bags. Baumgartner opened
the Denver airport up to the Smiths Heimann machine because he feels the
unit possesses better screening throughput and explosives detection
capabilities. The machine is expected to undergo U.S. certification testing
In systems design, detection is a more important issue for the TSA than
speed, Johnson said. He noted that Smiths Heimann "has been working on its
own to get the equipment up to par. We will not bend or lower the standards
for machines just because someone wants [the equipment]."
Johnson added that construction of additional in-line baggage systems at
airports could start once funding issues are sorted out. Several more
airports may be able to meet the Dec. 31, 2003, deadline for all electronic
screening - either by EDS or ETD - for all passenger baggage. But Johnson
admitted that several airports might have to continue with less effective
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