H-CENTRAL COAST

Apr 25, 2013 10:00 PM by April Hansen, KSBY News

TSA Security in Central Coast airports: How much is too much?

If you catch a flight at any of the public airports on the Central Coast, you have the convenience of quick check-in, shorter lines and a fast trip through TSA security screening.

While there is a lot less air traffic here than out of LAX or San Francisco, security has a big presence, even when the airport is very quiet.

KSBY looked into airport security staffing and found there are often several hours between flights leaving Santa Maria and San Luis Obispo. Raising the question: why have so many TSA agents been working at times when nobody is flying and there are no bags to check or passengers to screen?

On a recent day, we caught up with Michael Wight and his wife, leaving for two weeks to see their son in Australia.

They are from San Luis Obispo and instead of driving to Los Angeles or San Francisco, they chose to fly closer to home, but not necessarily because it's easier to get through security.

"I would say smaller airports are probably more strict than big airports," said Wight.

He says he's been traveling out of local airports for years.

He has flown from Santa Maria, San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara.

"They are all pretty similar," he said.

He says check-in is quick and baggage claim is a breeze, but when it's time to check bags and get scanned, he doesn't feel like he's at a small town airport anymore.

"The last time we went through here it seemed like there were a lot of them for the number of passengers. Here it seemed like more than needed," said Wight.

Nationally, about 50,000 Transportation Safety Officers screen nearly two million travelers every year, but with an airport like Santa Maria that had about 100,000 passengers fly through in 2012, Wight wonders why so many TSA agents are needed.

When we recently visited our three local airports, we saw at least a half-dozen TSA agents at one checkpoint line.

Each agent had a specific job.

One agent pushed bags through the scanner and another agent spent the entire checkpoint patting down just one passenger.

"There are a lot of different things going on at an airport that would determine how we staff an airport," said TSA spokesperson Nico Melendez.

He says there is no mandatory number of TSA agents required at security checkpoints.

"Every year we reevaluate the numbers in that particular airport and the numbers go up and the numbers go down," said Melendez.

He says a lot of factors go into play for how many TSA agents are assigned, including the number of checkpoints, flight schedules, passengers and technology.

Melendez says no two airports are identical.

"The types of technology and the means to do that vary, so at some of the bigger airports we have bigger pieces of technology that are a lot quicker. At some of the smaller airports we don't have the space to put those big pieces of technology, so we have labor intensive detection machines that take time and people," he said.

Many of the TSA agents employed here on the Central Coast work split shifts, which Melendez says saves taxpayer money.

Some airports like Santa Maria may be empty for several hours because planes aren't arriving or departing and some travelers may wonder what TSA is doing during those times, but Melendez says what is going on behind the scenes is just as important as security checkpoints.

"We don't want people there doing nothing during the day. We have training and other requirements that they need to have fulfilled," said Melendez.

He called it a balancing act.

"We meet the needs of the passengers when there are ebbs and meet the needs of the passengers when there are flows," said Melendez.

Wight says the number of blue shirts you may see in security on the Central Coast may seem similar to big cities, but you will never get the same experience as you would in a small town airport.

"They are very helpful. If you do something wrong, they say 'well this is what you have to do' and they don't hold you up for that reason," said Wight.

Melendez says airports are required to have police officers at security checkpoints.

The Santa Maria Airport has a contract with the Santa Maria Police Department to provide the officers.

Melendez says before 9/11, about 3% of bags were screened for explosives.

After the Aviation and Transportation Security Act passed in 2001, it required 100% of bags be screened, requiring better technology and more trained TSA staff.

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