Several days before the federal government announced it would cut the number of security screeners at the San Luis airport, a New Times analysis found that since 2002, those same screeners have confiscated twice the dangerous items from passengers compared to other airports around the nation.
Between February 2002 and March 2005, screeners with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) confiscated 11,044 knives, guns, fireworks, and other illegal items from the 360,000 passengers that flew out of the county.
However, other airports around the country with almost identical passenger loads - LaCrosse Municipal in Wisconsin; Greater Binghamton in New York; and Walker Field in Grand Junction, Colo. - only took between 5,000 and 6,000 items of contraband from their fliers in the same period.
A review of California's 28 airports shows identical findings: Similar-sized airports in Arcata, Monterey, and Bakersfield confiscate a little less than half the illegal items that San Luis screeners do.
Compared to all 452 airports in the nation, San Luis Obispo ranks No. 60 in terms of the likelihood that a passenger will have an item confiscated.
Why do local screeners confiscate the high numbers they do? No one seems to know why.
Craig Piper has worked as airport operations supervisor in San Luis since October 2000. Pre-Sept. 11, he explained, the airline Sky West performed security screenings, and other airlines helped cover the cost.
He described the airport's relationship with the local TSA as "great," and guessed that they confiscate so much because they are "very thorough."
Earlier this week, as he stood in the main terminal at the airport, Piper was less interested in talking about confiscating potential weapons and more interested in talking about the TSA's proposal to cut the number of local screeners from 21 to 13 on Oct. 1 - a dramatic increase compared to other airports.
"If they cut back, it's going to create flight delays," he said. "Then the airlines will cut flights."
Over the past three years, the airport has seen double-digit increases in its passenger load - a trend Piper expects will continue in the future.
During that same three-year period, the TSA has decreased the number of its screeners across the country from 55,000 to a congressionally mandated 45,000. Now the administration is making further cuts, according to a spokesperson, as technology makes some screening jobs redundant.
But Piper doesn't agree that's the case here in San Luis.
"We can't figure it out. It looks like somebody's playing with the formula to get the numbers down. We keep asking, 'How do you justify these numbers?'" he said.
In defense of the cuts, Nico Melendez, the TSA's spokesman, said it's unrealistic to compare the reductions in San Luis to the number of screeners at other airports since each airport has a unique number of flights, security checkpoints, and security lanes.
These cuts, he said, are based on a "snapshot" the administration took of the airport last year. "But if things have changed, we'll need to go back and address that," he conceded.
The TSA doesn't let individual screeners talk to the media and Joan Riley, who runs the TSA locally, was unable to comment on this story. Melendez said he didn't know why there was such a high number of local confiscations, but attributed it to "passenger habits."
"We don't get into that; we don't dig that deep," he said about comparing potential weapons seized at airports around the country. "Is SLO unique in some way? Maybe [passengers] are just not getting the [safety] message."
There are numbers to support the theory that fliers at smaller airports are perhaps more likely to forget safety regulations.
The No. 1 ranked airport in the country for seizure likelihood is in Olympia, Wash. In a three-year period, 322 passengers flew out and 294 items were confiscated. The Greater Rockford Airport in Illinois holds the No. 2 position: 2,593 fliers; 1,753 items held.
On the opposite end of the list, some of the nation's largest airports with the heaviest passenger traffic - Los Angeles; Washington, D.C.; Chicago - rank lowest.
But it's not a subtle gradient between the top and bottom of the list, San Luis Regional Airport being a perfect example. Ranked No. 60, the airport served 360,000 outgoing passengers and confiscated 11,044 items between 2002 and 2005.
Its closest neighbors on the ranking list had 26,000 passengers and 750 confiscations ( Delta County Airport in Escanaba, Mich.), and 9,500 passengers and 267 confiscations (Venango Regional in Franklin, Penn.) - a vast difference in size compared to SLO.
Piper, at the San Luis airport, said he's heard stories of people hiding lighters, but thinks most people are simply ignorant or forget.
"At least you're safe coming out of our airport," he said, smiling.
Staff Writer Abraham Hyatt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Data courtesy of Lee Davidson and the Deseret Morning News.
Nationwide comparison, Feb. 2002-March 2005
City State Airport Number items seized Number of passengers
Springfield IL Capital 7557 346775
Grand Junction CO Walker Field 6814 351218
LaCrosse WI LaCrosse Municipal 5883 355833
San Luis Obispo CA SLO County Regional 11044 358489
Binghamton NY Greater Binghamton 6344 360960
Redmond OR Roberts Field 9816 397087
Gainesville FL Gainesville Regional 6219 401938
Number of items seized, Feb. 2002-March 2005
Knives >3 in. 98
Knives <3 in. 3591
Sharp objects 5011
Replica weapons 29
Dangerous objects 25
Clubs, bats 81
Box cutters 34