Sept. 17, 2003 – It won't come wrapped in holiday ribbons, but passengers using Cyril E. King Airport this December will still receive a present — streamlined security procedures in a new $1.6 million reconfigured pre-clearance area that's expected to eliminate bottlenecks.
Passengers now are advised to check in at the St. Thomas airport three hours ahead of their flight time, an hour earlier than at the mainland airports. There's a reason for this: The CEK screening facilities are hopelessly inadequate for the volume of passenger traffic at peak travel times.
Speaking before the Port Authority board on Wednesday, representatives of the U.S. Transportation Security Administration and U.S. Customs and Border Protection and architects Donna and Robert deJongh detailed how the reconfigured airport screening system will work. And how the old one doesn't.
Darlan Brin, VIPA executive director, had met earlier with all of the parties and outlined a comprehensive modification plan for the terminal to meet passenger demands and to implement new security equipment to be provided by the TSA.
"It was a problem last season, and we will have more passengers this season," Brin said. "We are working on a very tight schedule."
Lee F. Duffy, TSA local security director, said the agency will provide two additional baggage-checking machines, provided that additional floor space is made available for them. The airport now has two machines.
"Without the additional machines, CEK would not be in compliance with the congressional mandate to screen all checked luggage electronically," Duffy said. Further, he said, "If space is made available, requests for TSA to provide additional passenger screening equipment such as X-rays and walk-through metal detectors will be processed."
The plans drawn up by the deJonghs will ensure that there is adequate floor space and much more.
The current screening situation at the airport is "desperate," Duffy said. "It's a horrendous process, starting with checking in three hours ahead. I worked all last winter with unhappy passengers and unhappy airlines."
Airlines project an increase in passengers
Duffy said the airlines are estimating the airport will handle 3,500 to 4,000 passengers a day for the coming season, a marked increase over previous years.
The heart of the screening problem is that most outbound passengers are booked on flights with the major airlines that are scheduled to depart between 2 and 4 p.m. "More than 50 percent of the total number of passengers we handle each day are processed in less than a two-hour window," he said.
With two passenger screening lanes now for the main checkpoint, Duffy said, the airport now can screen only 350 passengers per hour. During peak travel times, he said, "demand reaches 800 passengers per hour, and the lines extend from the checkpoint outside and down the curb to the arriving passenger bag pick-up."
Then there are the bags. "That's even worse," Duffy said. "TSA must screen 1,076 bags per hour, and our current capability is only 360 bags per hour."
The result: Passengers miss flights, baggage is late and flights are delayed. And the situation can become life-threatening, according to Duffy and Terrence Drafts, senior U.S. Customs and Border Patrol officer. The clearance area becomes overheated by the mass of people awaiting inspection, Drafts said, and "we have had people pass out from the heat."
With the new system, Drafts said, Customs could double the number of passengers it now processes. "It's a win-win situation," he said.
Duffy pointed out that the way tourists are treated at departure may well affect their level of desire to return. It's a situation keenly felt by locals, as well. "If I didn't live here, I would never return," one resident said after a recent experience at the airport. "With only one carry-on bag," he said, " it took me an hour and a half to get through Customs and inspection. I just barely made my flight."
Duffy said he will have to hire 51 part-time screeners this year. He said hiring part-time employees is difficult. When TSA advertised for full-time employees two years ago, he said, about 1,000 persons applied. When the agency advertised part-time positions, about 48 persons applied, "out of which maybe 10 were qualified," he said.
"After the new system is put in place," Duffy told the VIPA board, "you can go to the airlines and ask them to increase flights. You don't have that capability now."
A "single-step process"
Using a diagram of the airport's current floor plan, with shadings indicating the changes, Robert deJongh explained how the new system works now and how it will be changed.
Now, you give your bags to be checked to the airline agent, walk down to a hallway where you show your ticket and boarding pass to another agent, then you walk to a rack where you pick up your baggage and check with another agent before proceeding into the Customs and TSA clearance area.
The new plan will eliminate all of that. It will scrap the whole baggage pre-clearance area and establish four passenger walkways for federal inspection services. Customs, Immigration and Agriculture inspections already are covered in one operation under U.S. Customs.
Robert deJongh explained that passengers will take their bags through a walkway directly to the pre-clearance area. He said this will avoid a major upheaval at the ticket counter area, and it might provide some additional employment for the airport skycaps. "It will be a single-step process, which will give passengers a lot more ease and personal comfort," he said.
The new plan will affect the concession area in the main boarding lounge, as well. "A significant amount of space will be needed to accommodate the new machines," he pointed out. Because of the heavy traffic at the airport, most of the construction will have to be done at night, he said.
Air-conditioning in the airport now is "not balanced," deJongh said, and this has caused intense discomfort to passengers. "It has to be redistributed," he said.
There are a multitude of other issues to be corrected, including a review of the cistern overflow system, lighting efficiency, and the airport generator system to assure an uninterrupted power supply. Donna deJongh detailed these concerns in a meticulous plan with a timetable that calls for getting everything done by mid-December.
Brin said the authority will issue a "pre-qualification" request for contractors within the next week in order to expedite the bidding process. It's a complex procedure," he said, adding that bidding is "open to anyone."
The authority also will submit an application to the Federal Aviation Administration to implement a $3 passenger facility charge to fund the estimated $1.6 million cost of the project. The airlines would collect the charge as part of passenger ticket costs and remit it to the authority.
Robert deJongh wouldn't commit to a firm figure on the cost. The $1.6 million, he said, should be considered a "preliminary professional opinion."
In other matters, the VIPA board approved a request from Seaborne Airlines to lease 327 square feet of space at the Ann E. Abramson Marine Facility in Frederiksted. The airline will use the space for a customer lobby and cargo facility. The lease is for one year with no option to renew, pending finalization of improvements to the Frederiksted pier proposed by the Public Finance Authority.

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