One fix for growing airport lines: more dogs

As long lines dog security checkpoints at the Atlanta airport, officials think one solution could be more screeners like Miley, Jo and Dougie.

They are part of Hartsfield-Jackson International’s five-dog squad of four-legged security screeners, and general manager Miguel Southwell thinks having more could help speed the flow and hold down rising wait times.

“Either additional inspectors or additional canine units — we need those right now,” Southwell said. “I believe we could use about four to five more canine units or the equivalent in the number of employees.”

The specially trained dogs patrol lines at screening checkpoints, sniffing for explosives or potential bomb-making ingredients on passengers and their carry-on bags.

Their presence gives the Transportation Security Administration a form of expedited screening, as passengers scrutinized by dogs might be able to keep their jackets or shoes on or leave their laptops in bags to speed the line.

In addition, the dogs bring “a degree of comfort and security” to passengers, said TSA’s Atlanta canine lead, Anthony K. Jones.

“Those dogs are very sharp,” agreed Caterina Angerami, of Norcross, adding that she thinks using canines for expedited screening is “a great idea.”

Long lines have become a more urgent issue over the last year, with wait times at the world’s busiest airport reaching as long as 52 minutes during peak travel periods.

Southwell last month said he was considering the drastic step of privatizing security if TSA — whose overall screener force is smaller now than it was five years ago — cannot cut wait times.

Southwell has since had talks with the agency and said he believes it will bring "additional resources, including employees, canine teams" and new technology to process passengers.

During the recent holiday rush, extra dogs from Fort Lauderdale helped at Hartsfield-Jackson, Southwell said. But those teams were returned afterward.

Summer rush

Now Southwell is worried about the summer rush, writing in a Feb. 12 letter to the TSA that airport officials are “dreading” long wait times.

During the busiest travel days, such as the Sunday after Thanksgiving, TSA screens as many as 88,000 passengers in a single day at Hartsfield-Jackson.

TSA’s five certified passenger screening canines at Hartsfield-Jackson include Miley, a chocolate Labrador; Jo, a German shorthaired pointer; Dougie, a yellow Lab; Balou and Betty, both black Labs.

The TSA refrains from using pointed-eared dogs like German Shepherds, which can appear more threatening.

There’s already funding for another four passenger screening canines that are still in training to work at Hartsfield-Jackson. Other TSA dogs are used to screen cargo.

The bomb-sniffing dogs work in half-hour to one hour shifts at the main security checkpoint, sniffing passengers, their bags and the air for any hint of explosive materials.

It’s tough work, Jones said.

‘They’re pretty exhausted’

“As many people as Atlanta pushes past these dogs, they’re trying to catch each one, they’re pretty exhausted,” he said. “You can see it… [The dog’s] tail is not wagging like it used to be, he’s dropping his head a little bit more.”

The dogs wear belts with “Do not pet” on them. An even bigger potential distraction: Other dogs. And cats.

TSA advises that passengers with pets in carry-on carriers avoid getting in the queue if there is a passenger screening canine there, and to head to the Terminal North or Terminal South checkpoint instead. When travelers are afraid of dogs or don’t want to be sniffed by the dogs, the handler can put the dog into a sit position as the passenger walks by, according to TSA. The dogs can still sniff the airflow for nefarious indications.

Each canine team costs as much as $220,000 in the first year to cover the handler’s salary, training and certification, veterinarian services, kenneling, dog food, a climate-controlled vehicle for the dog’s break periods at work and other equipment, according to TSA.

Some wash out

Basic training takes place at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas.

“All dogs are not cut out for this,” Jones said. “Some dogs wash out.”

The training is followed by an acclimation period at the airport and operational training, with tests to see if they detect training aids. Dogs learn the area where they are expected to be in working mode.

“Basically, the checkpoint is their cubicle,” TSA spokesman Mark Howell said.

The dogs work for rewards — tennis balls, rubber toys and most importantly, a “Good boy!” or “Good girl!” from their handler.

When not on duty at Hartsfield-Jackson, the dogs go home with their handlers. But they are not treated as pets and typically stay in kennels when off the job.

If being home is non-stop play time, “the dog is not going to want to work,” Jones said. “Their fun is working.”