The closing of a lightly used but strategic security checkpoint Monday at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport’s main terminal sparked outrage among airport officials who are pushing to have it reopened.
The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) said it shuttered the skyway checkpoint linking the InterContinental Hotel to Terminal 1 on Monday due to low passenger volume. But the move comes at a time when the airport is ramping up for the Thanksgiving travel season, and after long security lines at MSP this summer generated much grumbling among the traveling public.
“TSA has not held up its end of the bargain,” said Rick King, chairman of the Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC), at Monday’s commission meeting. He noted the MAC has spent $75 million on security measures at the airport since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, often at the behest of TSA officials.
More recently, the MAC shelled out $24 million to build the skyway checkpoint connecting the main terminal to the hotel, which opened last year. In addition to serving hotel guests, it also accommodated travelers with carry-on baggage who were dropped off at the hotel. Airport officials touted the checkpoint as a way for some passengers to avoid long security lines in the main terminal.
TSA spokeswoman Lorie Dankers said in a statement that the agency “will deploy its staffing resources to maximize the efficiency of screening operations to ensure full staffing at the busiest checkpoints at MSP.”
While the agency says it has 658 full-time equivalent security officers at MSP — the maximum number of officers permitted — staffing levels have become a sore spot with MAC and elected officials. King said another 30 officers have been hired beyond that.
“It just doesn’t make much sense with staff of 680 that you can’t spare three officers” for the hotel checkpoint,” he said.
Jim Graves, CEO of Graves Hospitality, which manages the hotel, said the checkpoint closure “is causing a lot of hardship and confusion for guests.” The 300-room hotel has about an 80% occupancy rate, and has marketed its restaurant and spa services to travelers connecting through the Twin Cities, perks that will become more difficult now that security access is more restrictive, he said.
Several members of the airports commission also said the checkpoint has not been properly advertised or deployed.
“Once word-of-mouth gets out, people will use it,” Commissioner Dixie Hoard said.
The checkpoint was also closed from December 2018 to April. When it has been in use, it was open only from 5:30 a.m. to 10 a.m. daily.
In announcing its closure last month, TSA noted only 37 passengers were screened on a Tuesday morning.
In October, Brian Ryks, MAC executive director and CEO, sent a letter to TSA officials requesting a meeting to discuss the skyway checkpoint and other issues with security at the airport. Minnesota Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith also sent letters.
TSA replied to Ryks last week, but set the meeting for Thursday — four days after the checkpoint closed. Ryks will nonetheless travel to Washington for Thursday’s meeting to discuss its fate.
“We’ve been asking TSA for months to properly staff all checkpoints, including the hotel,” King said.
Cliff Van Leuven, TSA’s federal security director at MSP, said Monday the agency “will have all hands on deck” for the Thanksgiving holiday, typically a busy time for air travel.
Nationally, TSA expects to screen 26.8 million people between Nov. 22 and Dec. 2.
At MSP, Van Leuven said up to 44,000 people will be screened the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, with roughly the same amount anticipated for the Sunday after the holiday. An average day involves TSA officers screening 36,800 people at MSP’s two terminals.
Long lines experienced at the main terminal this summer were related to a construction project in the main ticketing area, causing the two main checkpoints to be reconfigured.
While the project has been wrapped up, MAC officials are worried about TSA staffing levels, including staffing at Checkpoint 10, also on the skyway at Terminal 1, and the second security checkpoint at Terminal 2.