It was late afternoon Monday and four different airports — in New York, Los Angeles, Seattle and Atlanta — were beset by the same problem that had passengers fuming: more than a 30-minute wait to get through the TSA security checkpoint.
With those passengers in mind, the Department of Homeland Security on Wednesday said it was taking steps to minimize the delays.
DHS Secretary Jeh C. Johnson said checkpoint staffing would be increased, that a program which allows passengers to go through expedited screening without removing their shoes or laptops would be expanded, and that the TSA would seek to delegate some tasks such as returning bins to the front of waiting lines to airport or airline personnel.
Johnson said in a statement that he and TSA Administrator Peter Neffenger “are acutely aware of the significant increase in travelers and longer wait times at airports, and their projected growth over the summer.”
This is forecast to be the biggest year for air travel since the Great Recession, one that may set an overall record, and the U.S. Travel Association is worried that long security lines may deter people from flying.
“It’s alarmingly likely that the mere perception of security hassles at U.S. airports will have an effect on travel — which supports employment for 1 out of every 9 Americans — as we head into the summer travel season,” Roger Dow, president of the industry trade group, said Wednesday.
The security checkpoint workforce at the Transportation Security Administration is growing, TSA officials say, but they forecast that the number of passengers at some airports may increase by 50 percent this summer.
“We’ve dramatically accelerated our hiring over the last few months,” Neffenger said last month. “We’re pushing roughly 200 new [transportation security officers] a week out into the workforce. Right now we’re not seeing a problem hiring or getting people trained.”
He said he’s also shifted some administrative personnel to manage security lines and stockpiled funds to pay for overtime during the two summer peak months, when 220 million passengers are expected to fly.
“This is one of the highest volume travel years we’ve ever seen,” Neffenger said. “On average, across the board, I think it’s about an 8 percent growth rate, but some airports are seeing double-digit growth rates over this time last year.”
On Wednesday, Dow expressed gratitude “that the well-documented problems with TSA security lane resources have the full attention of the Obama administration and Congress.”
Some members of Congress have used recent hearings to criticize the pace with which the TSA has addressed security, particularly in the aftermath of the Brussels Airport bombings. At a hearing last week, the House Oversight Committee chairman, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), said that 103 of the TSA’s 48,000 airport screeners quit each week because “they really don’t like working there.”
“Our greatest hope is that the process of sorting out TSA’s issues not be chiefly characterized by a lot of finger-pointing,” Dow said. “Some have blamed TSA’s problems on insufficient resources, while others have maintained TSA has simply not deployed its existing resources as efficiently as it could, but the winning approach is to look at how to do better on every side of the equation.”
After Neffenger came into the job last year, one step he took caused security lines to lengthen.
The TSA runs a program known as Pre-Check, where travelers who have applied and been certified as low security risks qualify to pass through expedited screening lines. Until recently, some passengers selected at random also were permitted to use the Pre-Check lines under a program known as managed inclusion. Neffenger discontinued the practice.
Despite a big public campaign to enroll fliers in the Pre-Check program, TSA has fallen short by more than half of reaching its goal of 25 million enrollees.
Neffenger was nominated for the job a year ago after a sting operation by the inspector general in which undercover operatives were able to slip through airport security with weapons and phony bombs more than 95 percent of the time.
“What is most clear is that Congress and TSA must communicate openly and forthrightly about the agency’s operational needs, and that the solution must remain the only objective, rather than how to retroactively allocate blame,” Dow said.