HEBRON, Ky. – Flying Pig weekend. The Kentucky Derby. Peak spring and summer travel. All equate to a traveler uptick at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport. Good for passenger quotas. But the extra volume also maximizes Transportation Security Administration crews, who screen nearly triple the amount checked baggage during busier times.
Officials say they've ramped up staff in recent months to meet the increasing demand – CVG TSA supervisor Fred Augustin said they've seen a double-digit increase in checked bag volume since last year. But advances in technology also mean staffers don't even touch a vast majority of bags – although every bag is screened.
"Our technology here is phenomenal," Augustin said during a rare behind-the-scenes look at CVG's baggage screening operation.
Nationwide, TSA screens around 1.1 million checked bags each day for explosives and other prohibited items. At CVG, that average is around 4,000 daily. But during special events – like last weekend's Flying Pig Marathon, this weekend's Kentucky Derby, and over spring break and peak summer travel days – that number can hit 10,000.
Augustin says they've seen about a 15 percent increase in bag counts due to upped traffic at CVG, as airlines like Frontier, Allegiant Air and American add new routes. Allegiant, for example, is launching new nonstop service from CVG to Baltimore/Washington, D.C., on Friday. New nonstop service to Destin/Ft. Walton Beach, Florida, will begin May 20.
That's meant a staff increase. Augustin says they've added about 20 new hires over the last few months. All TSA newbies attend a two-week academy at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Glynco, Georgia, in addition to on-the-job training at the airport upon the program's completion.
Mornings are typically the busiest. And decisions are often made in a matter of seconds. If a scanned bag poses a possible threat, those in a control room have 45 seconds to determine if it warrants a personal look-over by the inspection team.
"The growth of TSA has been phenomenal. We make life and death decisions every day," he said. "It's a constant ebb and flow of our personnel, depending on the flight loads, and it's strenuous picking up bags all the time. But people like it. Right now, we're OK (on staffing), but if we start having a critical need, as we have people retire or as flights increase, we'll increase our manpower, too."
Augustin joined TSA in Orlando in 2002 and transferred up to Cincinnati in 2005. In that time, technology has advanced significantly. Today, if no search is required, it takes about 15 minutes for a bag to process through the system.
Mark Howell, TSA regional spokesperson, says the process is also closely monitored. CVG hasn't had a substantiated theft in 15 years. You'll know if your bag has been inspected by the calling card left inside, he said.
"That's a common misconception," Howell said. "With this system, we have accountability for these bags the whole way. Machines actually do the majority of the work for us."
Of course, all that technology means millions invested – CVG has four large X-ray type machines, for example; they look like hospital-grade CAT scans – to scan each bag in 3-D; they cost about million dollars each, and then there's more than a mile's worth of conveyor belts.
For this traveling to the Pig or upcoming Derby or Kentucky Speedway events, Augustin says one common item triggers the X-ray machine alarm virtually every time, thus resulting in a physical search: event programs, because they resemble components of an explosive.
"If the programs are packed in their (checked) baggage, every one is searched," he said.
And as far as all that special-event traffic – and the growing passenger load at CVG – further taxing the system, he said it was built with future demand in mind.
But, if CVG were to land a new carrier, that could all change.
"The system was designed to handle more than we have now, and that was on purpose; it allows us room to grow," Augustin said. "And as technology improves, we can swap out machines without affecting the whole system.
"At the rate we're growing, it probably still has another seven to 10 years," he added. "But if we bring in another major airline like JetBlue or Spirit or somebody like that, it cuts that timeline shorter."
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