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A mixed bag on air security waits for this summer

Don’t expect to see dreadfully long lines at Buffalo Niagara International Airport’s security checkpoints this summer.

But watch out for them when you fly home.

A report in the New York Times this week raised the specter of long waits in airport security lines this summer, citing a combination of a growing number of passengers, tighter budgets, fewer Transportation Security Administration screeners and new checkpoint procedures. Gary C. Rasicot, the TSA’s chief of operations, predicted a “rough summer,” adding that the agency was “probably not at the staffing level we would like to be to address the volume.”

But Lisa Farbstein, a TSA spokeswoman, said those concerns don’t really apply to a smaller airport such as Buffalo’s.

“I think when people are traveling out of Buffalo, they can expect to see a checkpoint line that can be up to 20 minutes,” Farbstein said. But if they start the return trip through a busy airport such as in Orlando, Fla., Chicago or Newark, N.J., “then they can expect to see something closer in the neighborhood to 90 minutes.”

Not only is the Buffalo airport smaller, its number of outbound passengers has declined. The number of passengers leaving from the Buffalo airport in March decreased by 5 percent from a year ago, to 200,155, according to the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority, which operates the airport. For the first three months of the year, enplanements dropped by 3.5 percent from the same period in 2015.

The unfavorable monetary exchange rate for Canadians contributed to the drop-off. The Buffalo airport draws a large percentage of travelers from across the border, but the current exchange rate means that Canadians’ dollars don’t go as far as they used to in the United States.

“They may be cutting back on their travel,” Farbstein said. “It might be that Buffalo doesn’t see a summer spike percentagewise that you might see elsewhere around the country.”

Another reason for the drop-off could be the number of seats available to passengers traveling out of Buffalo, which has fallen as airlines have consolidated, said C. Douglas Hartmayer, an NFTA spokesman. The weekly seat capacity for flights out of Buffalo in March was down by 4.8 percent from a year ago.

If last year’s pattern holds, the peak season for the Buffalo airport will arrive in July and August. In each of those two months in 2015, enplanements surpassed the 225,000 mark.

The TSA advises people flying out of Buffalo to arrive at the airport 90 minutes ahead of their departure time, to give them sufficient time to park, get boarding passes, check their luggage if necessary and go through the security line. At the larger airports in major metro areas, Farbstein recommended arriving two hours ahead of time.

“When you’re returning to the Buffalo airport, you definitely want to have that in mind,” she said.

The TSA employs about 130 people at the Buffalo airport, and is looking to hire a dozen part-time officers, Farbstein said. Depending on the time of year and the day of the week, the TSA screens about 7,000 to 9,000 passengers a day at the Buffalo airport.

Hartmayer said the normal wait time at the Buffalo airport’s security checkpoints is about 15 minutes, although the wait might surge to 30 minutes, or no more than 45 minutes, at peak times.

The airport would always like to have more TSA screeners, Hartmayer said, but the airport works with the TSA to coordinate its staffing levels with the busiest times for flights.

Kevin J. Clarke, a business executive, gave the TSA overall high marks for the job that it does at the Buffalo airport, compared with his experience at some other airports that he uses for business and leisure travel.

“I find the staff works well together and is flexible about moving people through and handling peaks and valleys,” Clarke said. The staff members constantly communicate with passengers in line to remind them of how to move through the screening station as efficiently as possible, he said.

Clarke thinks that there are a few things that could make the process go even smoother, such as increased staffing to ease the flow during the crush from 5 to 7:30 a.m., and he suggested that the agency reach out for input from frequent users of the Buffalo airport.

For TSA screeners, it’s not only a matter of moving people through the security line. Many passengers are carrying their bags aboard, instead of checking them, to avoid paying the fees that many airlines charge. And screeners are conducting a more thorough search of bags than ever before because of security threats around the world, Hartmayer said, and it might add up to a couple of extra minutes of waiting for travelers.

And it doesn’t help when passengers try to bring unauthorized objects aboard. Farbstein posted an image on Twitter of a pink stun gun and a folding knife that she said a woman showed up with Sunday at a TSA checkpoint at the Buffalo airport.

email: mglynn@buffnews.com