The project to rebuild Salt Lake City International Airport has flown into a significant problem with the Transportation Security Administration: The federal agency says it can’t afford the new X-ray screening machines for carry-on luggage needed at new security checkpoints.
“TSA is obligated to provide these things, but they don’t have the resources,” airport Executive Director Bill Wyatt said Wednesday at a meeting of the Airport Advisory Board.
So the airport and airlines figure they must come up with $10 million to $15 million to buy the machines to ensure that the first phase of the $3.6 billion airport rebuilding project is able to open as scheduled on Sept. 15, 2020.
Ironically, the airport then must present the machines as a gift to the federal government.
“TSA has to own the equipment," Wyatt said, “so we buy it and then we gift it to them — along with a maintenance contract.”
Simply moving and reusing existing equipment is not an option, Wyatt said.
“It is old and cannot be moved,” he said, at least not overnight. The switch from the old to new airport is planned to happen literally overnight. A few magnetometers used to screen people might be moved but not the larger X-ray machines for carry-on bags.
Also, the new airport’s design counts on using newer high-tech systems designed to speed people through security faster than current machines allow.
At the airport now, people line up single-file to empty pockets and put belongings in gray bins. They push them to the X-ray machine and grab them on the other side and stack bins. If problems occur, officers often ask aloud who owns the problematic bag — and sorting out issues can back up the flow.
Wyatt said the airport plans to switch to a system similar to one now used in Las Vegas and a few other airports.
There, numerous travelers at the same time step up to separate compartments where they place belongings into individual bins that are 25 percent larger and are equipped with radio frequency chips. A conveyor automatically takes them into an X-ray machine.
Bins with materials deemed safe receive a green light and roll to the pickup area (where machines automatically send bins back to staging areas). Bins with suspect items are diverted automatically to a separate area for TSA inspection. Such systems are estimated to process passengers 20% to 30% more quickly.
“We need 22 of these setups for the new airport,” Wyatt said. While he’s not happy that the airport and airlines will be paying for them, he said the bright side is the new systems “are state of the art. I think the passenger experience will be vastly improved.”
Wyatt adds that the airport held meetings with Delta Air Lines — which operates more than 70% of flights in Salt Lake City, and pays the bulk of user fees that largely are funding the airport rebuild — and other airlines about the problem. He said they OK’d buying the security machines to keep the project on schedule.
“The airlines are supportive because there just isn't a choice,” he said.
Delta has run into similar problems in other airports, said Wyatt, and has been in the process of buying new security systems in several terminals nationwide to help improve its service.
Airport board members asked if they, the city or others could help lobby Congress for money and help. Wyatt said national airport organizations already have been pushing hard. “I don’t think lack of lobbying is the problem,” he said, pointing instead to tight budgets.
Wyatt predicts that “airports and airlines are going to continue with their more direct financial responsibility for these types of activities.”
Airlines believe they already are doing that through hefty federal taxes they and passengers pay, Wyatt said. “As with all other taxes, half of it goes to the intended purpose and half of it goes to pay the national debt.”
The quicker security lines — even if they come at an unexpected cost — were among pleasant surprises passengers may see at the new airport, the advisory board was told in reports Wednesday. Among others mentioned were:
• Parking at the new garage may actually be a bit cheaper because it has twice the capacity as the current one. The airport plans a study before rates are set.
• Each seat in waiting areas will have power plugs, plus two individual armrests (so passengers need not elbow each other to use shared armrests). The new airport will also have 5,000 more seats in waiting areas than the current airport.
• Restrooms for women will have extra facilities after studies show women usually require more time in bathrooms and have longer lines.
• The new parking garage will also have charging outlets for electric cars and capacity to add more over time.
• The airport will have an extra long pickup area reserved for ride-hailing services such as Uber and Lyft.