Remember when the Transportation Security Administration -- the government agency in charge of the nation's airport security -- promised last year to have travelers through security checkpoints within 10 minutes?
Not anymore. Last week, at a congressional aviation hearing, TSA officials not only backed away from that pledge but refused to provide new guidance for travelers expected to pack the nation's airports this summer in numbers not seen since before Sept. 11, 2001. Getting through security today at any of the nation's airports within 10 minutes, said TSA spokeswoman Chris Rhatigan, "would be a false expectation."
With the biggest crowds yet to come, major airports including Washington's Dulles, Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson, Las Vegas International and Los Angeles International are grappling with security lines that average more than an hour -- and have been as long as five hours during peak periods. Passengers at Dulles and Hartsfield-Jackson routinely wait in lines for as long as 90 minutes, airline officials said.
Doug Wills, a spokesman for the Air Transport Association, said the airlines have suggested various ways for the TSA to reduce the waits, but the process has been slow.
"If Disney can do a good job at line management and small retailers can manage lines, you would think the TSA could take from those best practices to get people through more quickly," Wills said.
And while the TSA works on reducing airport waits, it also has to work on training some of its employees better in how they treat airline passengers.
According to the Department of Transportation's Air Travelers Consumer Report, airline passengers filed more than four times as many complaints against security screeners in March than against the airlines themselves.
The screener complaints centered on the handling of checked bags and carry-ons and excessively long processing times at checkpoints. Inappropriate screening of bags accounted for 519 of the 2,728 complaints, the most in any category. Discourteous treatment by screeners received the second most complaints.
Rhatigan said the biggest cause for the delays is staffing. Because of congressional budget cuts late last year, the number of screeners was cut to 45,000 this year from 55,000. Currently, the TSA employs about 43,800 screeners and is slowly building up to its maximum allotment as TSA officials conduct background checks and train new hires before they are dispatched to airports, she said.
Rhatigan said the agency was constantly training and retraining screeners, paying particular attention to how the screeners relate to passengers while focusing on security.
"We want to treat all of our customers with the highest levels of dignity and respect possible. Those individuals who provide less than that are pulled to the side and retrained," she said.
Yesterday, the TSA announced it was adding 800 screeners nationwide at airports where travelers experienced long lines. By June, Dulles will have 100 more screeners, Reagan National will have an additional 25 screeners and Baltimore-Washington International will have 21 more screeners, Rhatigan said.
The TSA isn't the only federal agency preparing for the flood of summer travelers. Last week, the Federal Aviation Administration unveiled a new Web site, www.FAA.gov/wireless, where travelers can find out whether their flight is delayed or on time as well as send compliments or complaints to the government about how the airlines are treating them.
"We're acting more like a business with a focus on the customer," FAA Administrator Marion C. Blakey said at a congressional aviation hearing last week. "Our goal is to keep the passenger informed every step of the way."
But the FAA's new service gives no guidance on how long passengers may have to wait in security lines. That information should come from the TSA, elected officials said. Blakey said the FAA has tried to work with the TSA to get that information. But Stephen J. McHale, the TSA's deputy administrator, said the agency could not provide it.
The airlines aren't providing much help either. They generally advise passengers to arrive one to two hours before departure, but those times may need to be increased depending on the day and time of flight. None of the airlines we contacted last week said they plan to revise that guidance.
Rep. John L. Mica (R-Fla.), chairman of the House aviation subcommittee, which hosted last week's hearing, said the TSA needed to do more and make the information available to travelers. "Don't tell me it can't be done," he told McHale. "In 60 days, you come back with a plan to figure out how line times can be included on the FAA wireless system."
So how much time should an airline passenger factor in for airport security? Minneapolis-based travel expert Terry Trippler said passengers should arrive at least two hours early, especially if they're checking bags and flying on the busiest days: Sundays, Mondays, Thursdays and Fridays.
"Plan that it's going to take an hour to an hour and 15 minutes to get through security," he said. If you get through security more quickly than that, Trippler said, at least you don't have to worry about missing your flight. "Go have dinner or a cocktail, but at least you're there," he said.