At airport, early bird gets the wait

Travelers, including Amy Black (left) and Craig Samford, line up to check in at the Continental Airline counter at the Charleston International Airport on Friday.

Shortly before sunup Friday morning, Chris Watson turned the corner inside the Charleston airport's "A" Concourse and stopped with a stunned look on his face.

"Jeezus," the Daniel Island resident blurted as he gazed at a line of more than 250 people preparing to take off their shoes, belts and metal objects as they waited to pass through security.

"You'd think they would have expected us coming," Watson said of the overwhelmed security screeners.

Watson isn't alone in his observations. Dozens of fliers say the early morning people-management plan for Charleston International Airport this holiday season is a snarled mess. To a degree, they're right.

Here's why: Contrary to popular belief, the first flights of the day out of the Charleston airport aren't the easiest; they're often the most crowded.

As many as 14 flights from various carriers will take off from 5:40 to 7:15 a.m. daily this month, lined up in a narrow 95-minute window.

That means passengers arriving at the airport within a few moments of each other can create a bottleneck potentially involving hundreds of holiday fliers who'd expected to have an early jump on the day.

Instead of passing right through ticketing and security, they end up waiting in line, together.

Compounding the problem is the burden on Transportation Security Administration screeners during the two-week Christmas/New Year's rush, one of the heaviest travel periods of the year.

Their apparent lack of staff was debated by several fliers on Friday who said that a few changes, such as having someone available at the screening lines to take those in danger of missing their departures ahead in line, would have helped.

If that had happened Friday, 28-year-old Richard Watson might have made his 6:15 a.m. Delta flight to Atlanta.

"Everyone is so indifferent," Watson's mother said as her son was forced to book a new flight.

Debbie Engel, a TSA security director whose jurisdiction includes Charleston, said there are no extra staffers available to be line managers.

The other problem, she said, is that if several flights from several carriers are leaving at the same time, there's no way to decide who should be singled out to move to the front of the line. In larger airports in larger cities, a concourse might be controlled by only a few airlines, or maybe just one, making it easier to construct a hierarchy of passengers.

What's also clear about airport operations is that some of those who work inside the building sometimes have competing agendas.

Carriers are trying to keep their on-time flight schedules current and avoid government criticism, while at the same time, government screeners are trying to keep planes and passengers safe with their sometimes time-consuming inspections at concourse checkpoints.

Other airports are dealing with the same sorts of problems. At Charlotte Douglas International Airport, officials are moving toward installing "universal" kiosks that can handle ticketing for all carriers, and away from kiosks that are exclusive to certain airlines, as a means of moving lines along.

Charlotte's Aviation Director Jerry Orr said the most important thing is to get customers accustomed to doing tasks on their own and to keep them moving, not standing still for any long period of time.

To be fair to Charleston airport officials, after the passenger rush of several hundred cleared through Friday morning, the airport returned to a slower pace, by about 7 a.m.

But it sure was hectic in the previous hour.

Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551 or skropf@postandcourier.