With the kickoff of summer travel season this week, Port Columbus officials have to juggle more variables than usual to ensure that travelers make their flights and that those flights take off on time.
The issues: Long security lines. A maintenance program that has left only one runway open. Drone incursions and bird strikes.
The federal Transportation Security Administration's staffing and performance have come under fire as hours-long waits to go through security checkpoints have plagued airports across the country, particularly the major hubs.
That kind of problem hasn't occurred at Port Columbus. Columbus Regional Airport Authority CEO Elaine Roberts said last week that the longest security wait time at Port Columbus was 53 minutes; that was early on a recent, especially busy Monday morning.
That wait was out of the ordinary for the airport. TSA regional spokesman Mark Howell said waits at Port Columbus checkpoints rarely exceed 20 minutes.
But with Port Columbus passenger traffic up more than 7 percent this year and a new airline — Frontier — beginning service this week, Roberts said Port Columbus officials are evaluating whether workers should be added from the airport's budget. They wouldn't be TSA workers, but additional airport employees could help with crowd control and other matters that could help speed lines.
Some large airports have done this to help reduce wait times, but Roberts said there is debate among airport executives nationwide about whether it is good to help "take pressure off" the feds to devote more resources to TSA staffing.
TSA officials have promised to hire an additional 768 agents across the country by mid-June. Howell said those agents, who will actually begin working over the next couple of months, probably will be allocated mostly to the big airports where delays are worst.
On another front, a few surprises also have occurred since Port Columbus closed one of its two runways April 4 for 180 days of planned heavy maintenance. Since then, mishaps have closed the remaining runway twice. Even Mother Nature played a little joke when it snowed on April 9, resulting in a brief closing while snowplows cleared the remaining runway.
"We had a lot of discussion about when to close the runway" for maintenance, said Rod Borden, chief operating officer of the Columbus Regional Airport Authority. "We thought April would be pretty safe weather-wise. You just never know."
Five days after the April snow, a Southwest Airlines jet landing at Port Columbus struck a hawk, breaking a landing light. Four flights were diverted to the Dayton and Indianapolis airports while glass and other debris were cleared from the runway, which took 45 minutes.
And one week ago, a tire blowout on a small private plane ended up causing a two-hour closing of the runway, leading to a dozen diversions to other airports and several delayed departures. The longest delay was about three hours for a Delta Air Lines flight from Columbus to Atlanta.
"We expect to have a handful" of such unforeseen closures this summer, Borden told airport board members at a meeting last week.
Borden and Roberts emphasized, though, that planning and quick response to unexpected events should minimize delays. Roberts said, for example, that crews are mowing around and sweeping the runway at night rather than during the day to avoid even brief delays in takeoffs and landings.
Port Columbus also is grappling with surprises on a fairly new front. A pilot recently reported a close call with a small remote-control aircraft, also known as a drone. The incident didn't lead to an injury or flight delay, but it's being investigated by federal officials, who could levy a fine against the drone's owner.
Although travelers can't do anything to avoid delays resulting from accidents or mechanical issues, TSA and airport officials offer tips to help avoid security delays:
- Review TSA guidelines on topics such as prohibited items, carry-on limits and rules on liquids. This information can be found at www.tsa.gov/travel/travel-tips.
- Pack correctly, observing rules on liquids and prohibited items, and don't try to sneak through a bag that's too big to carry on. Many travelers have been doing this to try to avoid bag-check fees, but Roberts says the TSA might start cracking down on too-large bags at security checkpoints.
- Arrive at the airport at least 90 minutes — and preferably two hours — before the flight's scheduled departure time.
- Consider applying for TSA Pre-check, the program that gives those who are approved the ability to sail through a designated "trusted traveler" security lane. Some premium credit cards will even reimburse the $85 annual fee. See www.tsa.gov/tsa-precheck.