SALT LAKE CITY — With summer air travel season expected to peak in the coming weeks, security at the state's largest airport is ramping up to meet the safety demand.
The Transportation Security Administration and authorities at Salt Lake City International Airport are gearing up to provide enhanced security, particularly during the peak summer travel season.
The TSA projects the number of passengers traveling from Salt Lake City will jump by about 12 percent over this same period last year, and agents at the airport are expected to screen an average of 25,000 people per day, with the busiest period starting in mid-July and continuing through August, explained Lorie Dankers, TSA public affairs manager for Utah.
The busiest days travel days are expected to be Sundays and Mondays, along with Thursdays and Fridays, with peak times at the security checkpoint projected to be from 4:30 a.m. to 10:30 a.m., and 2:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m., she said. Passengers are advised to plan ahead to limit the impact of the peak travel periods.
"We do recommend during peak travel times that passengers arrive two hours early to allow time to check baggage and check in, come through security and get to your gate," Dankers said during a news conference Tuesday at Salt Lake City International Airport. "With a 12 percent increase, you will find that every step of the process will take you a little more time."
Peak travel months nationally will be June and July, including the Fourth of July weekend. During the busiest days of the summer, the TSA will screen more than 2.5 million passengers per day, she noted.
Among the more pronounced safety measures being implemented at airports across the country will be added canine security officers, including several in Salt Lake City.
"These canines are specially trained to detect explosives and explosive components," Dankers explained. "They are also trained to detect explosive components that are mobile and trained to pinpoint the source of that odor."
The use of passenger screening canines will help the TSA improve the efficiency of the screening process, she said. The dogs are trained to work in bustling transportation environments, employing their keen sense of smell to monitor travelers and their belongings.
The animals will be screening passengers at security checkpoints, making some travelers eligible for expedited screening, Dankers noted.
Working canines should not be petted or fed by anyone except their handlers. Nationwide, TSA has nearly 1,000 explosive detection canine teams working at airports, mass transit facilities and maritime locations, she said.
The canine handlers are trained to observe their dog’s behavior when the animal detects an explosive scent, often without the source being aware and even if the source is mobile.
"We are in the passenger line, and he is actively sniffing," explained Joanne Vasek, an explosive detection canine handler and transportation security specialist. "It really speeds up the line when we're in it."
Vasek, who began her career as a canine handler in the U.S. Navy as a military police officer, works with Bruce, a 4-year-old fox Labrador retriever. She said Bruce is well-suited for his duties because he loves his job so much.
"He's a great partner. He just wants to work for his 'paycheck,' which is his (Nerf Frisbee) toy," Vasek said.
The dogs are tethered to their handlers and can often be seen working in close proximity to passengers at the airport. If a dog alerts the handler of something suspicious, there is an established protocol in place to resolve the issue, Vasek said.
The explosive detection teams complete 12 weeks of intensive training at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. The teams are regularly tested and must maintain certification annually to continue their duties, explained Sgt. Larry Kuivila, canine trainer and supervisor for the Salt Lake City International Airport Police Department.
"They bring a highly reliable explosive detection capability," Kuivila said. "They're not trained as attack dogs or patrol; they are single-purpose detection canines."
Airport police canine teams work in the lobby and baggage areas, or near and on the aircraft, in conjunction with the TSA teams that screen passengers, he said.
"Our teams are used for bomb threats and things of that nature," Kuivila said. "There is also a huge deterrence factor. If we can deter someone from ever bringing explosives in here in the first place, then we're way ahead of the curve."