Malfunctioning X-ray device causes huge weekend headaches for Okaloosa air travelers

Tom McLaughlin
Northwest Florida Daily News

EGLIN AFB — A failed Transportation Safety Administration X-ray device is being blamed for drastically slowing the speed of processing passengers trying to board weekend flights at Destin-Fort Walton Beach Airport.

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Travelers complained of Saturday lines extending out the front door of the airport, down the sidewalk and into parking areas. Nick Giacomini of Springfield, Illinois, said his family stood in line for three hours to board an Allegiant flight that had been canceled the day before. 

"I've never seen anything like it," Giacomini said. "I would have thought I was in a different country." 

First responders were called in to treat four people suffering from heat-related maladies, according to Okaloosa County Public Safety Director Patrick Maddox. Some of those requiring treatment were airline staff, county Airports Director Tracy Stage said.

A failed Transportation Safety Administration X-ray device backed up the security screening at Destin-Fort Walton Beach Airport boarding for hours.

Stage confirmed that one of the four TSA checkpoints available for passengers to pass through before boarding planes had to be shut down Saturday because of the failure of an X-ray machine.

"Unfortunately, the technician we could get had to come from Tampa. We had to overnight parts and get the technician in here," Stage said. "An equipment failure with TSA is out of our control." 

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The equipment issue had not been resolved as of Monday morning, but it would be by that afternoon, Stage said. He said he did not expect the weekend's events to be repeated during the upcoming Fourth of July holiday.

Giacomini said while waiting to board his flight he saw backed-up luggage areas, crying children, passengers forced to sleep at the airport and tempers flaring to the point deputies had to intervene to keep the peace.

"Nothing was being done to help people," he said. "That was the sad thing."

Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Michele Nicholson said there were no calls Saturday to deploy extra deputies at the airport and no incidents were documented by law officers either Saturday or Sunday.

"There were some upset passengers, but nothing rose to the level of fighting or anything like that," Stage said. "Everybody was kosher. Most of them understood." 

Stage said that airport staff provided water to those forced to stand in the long line and portable fans were given out to help lessen heat impacts on passengers waiting outside the terminal.     

Several factors could have played a role in exacerbating the weekend travel nightmare, Stage said. The airport encounters "peak travel loads" on weekends, and Destin-Fort Walton Beach is in high demand for summer visitors who spent 2020 cooped up because of COVID-19.

Coupled with that, employers across the board are dealing with staffing shortages. Those shortages extend to the airport itself as well as the individual airlines operating there and businesses like rental car and taxi services and on-site restaurants.

Even TSA is offering incentives to maintain staffing, Stage said.

Another contributor to Saturday's mess might have been the result of flights having been delayed or canceled. Giacomini said his family was supposed to have flown out Friday, but after passing through security saw their Allegiant Air flight delayed four times before ultimately being canceled due to "an issue with the plane." 

Allegiant spokeswoman Hilarie Grey did not immediately respond to a request for confirmation that its flight had been canceled.

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Stage said there were "a number of delays" of weekend flights, primarily because of weather. 

Many of the problems encountered during the weekend will be diminished if not resolved in April 2022 when a new concourse opens at Destin-Fort Walton Beach Airport, Stage said. 

Additional TSA stations are being added as part of the construction as is a new baggage handling system. Both should greatly improve the flow of traffic through the airport, he said. 

It is also hoped the second concourse will prevent lines backing up outside of the terminal, he said

For those traveling during the holiday weekend, Stage advised monitoring flight information provided by the airlines and keeping an eye on the flight schedule. He said it is also wise to arrive at the airport well in advance of the planned flight.