Cutbacks in screening at A.C. airport have passengers fuming

The Atlantic City airport has seen passenger numbers soar amid TSA cutbacks.

EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP, N.J. - The calling card of Atlantic City International Airport long has been convenience.

Compared with larger airports in the greater metropolitan area - including Philadelphia International and Newark Liberty International - passengers at ACY could expect easy travel to and from the airport, relatively inexpensive parking, and fairly quick security screenings.

But cutbacks that began in March in Transportation Security Administration personnel at the facility have limited the hours that security checkpoints are manned - now until only 8 p.m. daily.

The decrease in TSA passenger screening hours and a spike in the number of passengers using the airport have created longer wait times for screenings. And some passengers are fuming that they must arrive at the airport hours earlier than their flight departure and cannot leave the airport if their flights are delayed. Others have missed commercial flights because they arrive at the airport late and there are no TSA screeners.

"If a flight is going to be delayed, it's crazy to be told to get here four hours in advance and not be able to leave, but that's what we've had to do a couple of times in the last few months," said Annette Lombardi, 54, of Washington Township, who has been making monthly trips on Spirit Airlines to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., some at night, for the last year to visit an ailing family member.

"I'm at the point where if this keeps up, for time and convenience, it would just be easier for us to fly out of Philly," Lombardi said. "If they need more TSA workers . . . then they should bring more in."

Dale Tsu, 37, of Egg Harbor Township, said he felt as if he were being "held hostage" in the terminal waiting for a recent nighttime flight to Miami on Spirit.

"They kept delaying and delaying and there was no place to get anything to eat or drink," Tsu said. "Hours and hours you couldn't leave. It was awful. Nobody should be put through that."

The TSA declined to say whether it had reduced staff, but the cutbacks were confirmed by the South Jersey Transportation Authority, which operates the airport. The TSA also would not directly answer questions about the facility or the annual cost of TSA staffing in Atlantic City.

In an emailed statement, the TSA said that it had "adequate staffing" at ACY and that the federal agency's "budget and staffing levels are built around the schedule of departing flights."

The airport's last daily departure - on the facility's lone commercial carrier, Spirit - is scheduled at 7:40 p.m. Those flights vary daily but usually are to destinations in Florida.

But trouble for some passengers has occurred recently as Spirit has experienced "rolling delays" and had flights depart more than three or four hours behind schedule. The airline offers 10 departures a day out of ACY.

In an email, the TSA said such delays were "becoming more of an occurrence at ACY."

"Flights that are delayed well past the time that the checkpoint closes can result in some travelers not being able to board. We try to work as closely with the airline as we can to minimize the impact of service," according to the statement released by Michael S. McCarthy, the TSA's regional public affairs manager.

Spirit did not return calls for comment on the TSA's statement.

The TSA further suggests that if "the last flight of the day for 7:40 p.m. is delayed until 11 p.m., passengers must pass through the checkpoint before it closes at 8 p.m."

"We strongly urge travelers to pass through the checkpoint at the flight's originally scheduled departure time," McCarthy said in the email.

But passengers who have passed through the checkpoint cannot leave the terminal after checkpoint closes for the night to smoke a cigarette or have dinner off-site, even if a flight continues to be delayed for an indeterminate amount of time, according to the TSA statement.

The midsized facility is on a sprawling 4,300-acre site that straddles Egg Harbor Township and Hamilton Township, about 12 miles west of Atlantic City.

The situation also is distressing to airport operator SJTA.

"Our passengers are rightfully accustomed to a reasonable screening processing time and other efficiencies compared to larger airports, and the TSA cutbacks have adversely impacted our customers," according to a statement issued Thursday to the Inquirer by Tim Kroll, deputy airport director for the SJTA.

"ACY management is currently exploring all options to address this situation."

Over the last 20 years, government initiatives have pumped more than $50 million into the facility, including the expansion and modernization of the terminal, new gates, lounges and restaurants, and a $26 million six-story parking garage. The facility also is home to the 177th Fighter Wing of the New Jersey Air National Guard, which patrols the East Coast as part of its Homeland Security mission. It is adjacent to the Federal Aviation Administration's Technical Laboratory, the site of the nation's air marshal training ground and an emerging aviation research park.

With a capacity to handle up to a million flights a year if future expansion plans are approved, the SJTA and its parent agency, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, have long attempted to get major airlines to shift up to 50,000 flights a year from nearby airports to the smaller facility - but without much success.

Though the facility handles about a dozen charter and private-jet arrivals and departures daily, Spirit currently is its only commercial carrier, offering mostly flights to Florida destinations and connections to South America, the Caribbean, and Mexico. Charter and private jets have different security requirements and have not been affected by the cutbacks, according to SJTA officials.

Airlines such as United and the former Air Tran, which was purchased by Southwest Airlines three years ago, relied on government subsidies to keep ticket costs low and attract fliers who often had to fly to take connecting flights elsewhere to reach far-flung destinations. United stopped its flights out of Atlantic City in 2015 and Air Tran in 2013.

But despite only one commercial airline offering flights, the numbers at ACY continue to soar.

In 2015, on average about 90,000 passengers a month used the airport. Airport officials said that for three months straight beginning in December, a record number of passengers passed through the facility's gates.

In January alone, 97,171 people flew in and out of the airport - up from 92,255 in January 2015. Numbers aren't yet officially tallied, but officials said last month appears to have continued a "growth trend" that has seen a 5.7 percent gain in passenger numbers over the same time last year, according to the SJTA.

609-652-8382 @JacquelineUrgo jurgo@phillynews.com