The federal government wants to hire more agents to pat you down, X-ray your luggage and herd you through airport checkpoints this summer because of the complaints about long waits in line.
Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson announced Friday that the Transportation Security Administration will hire 768 additional officers this year to speed up the process of screening airline passengers. Johnson said the agency is expediting the hiring process to bring in additional officers by June 15. Those new staff will be in addition to 576 TSA officers added this year, he said.
The agency further plans to beef up checkpoint staffing by maximizing the use of overtime, using $34 million in additional funds already approved by Congress. Johnson said the agency will also deploy more bomb-sniffing dogs and shift additional TSA staff from other jobs into screening lines. The TSA is also working with airlines to reduce the size of carry-on luggage and their number.
(No word on whether the government will do anything about those hefty fees airlines charge for checked bags, thus incentivizing the craze toward putting everything but the kitchen sink in the overhead bins.)
Johnson also said the agency is “doubling down” on research for more technology and innovation to help screen passengers and luggage. And he said both the federal government and the airlines were teaming up to market TSA’s PreCheck program; he said the government was also encouraging businesses to reimburse their employees for the enrollment fee.
But Johnson, speaking Friday at a news conference at Reagan National Airport, also urged travelers to arrive at the airport with “appropriate expectations.”
“There will be wait times,” Johnson said. As if he had to remind us. It seems as if the time has come for people to head to the airport three hours before a flight, not two. In response to a question about whether to start the screening process outside the airport, Johnson sounded cool to the idea of pushing security perimeters back, as occurs at some airports around the world.
“Our task is to keep passengers moving but to also, and most importantly, keep passengers safe. In this, we cannot and we will not compromise the security of aviation or the American people,” Johnson said. “Recent events across the world confirm the continued need for vigilance when it comes to aviation security.”
The TSA announcement comes amid growing calls for privatizing airport security at airports in Atlanta, New York and Seattle, as travelers light up Facebook and Twitter with griping about missed flights and epic traffic jams at TSA checkpoints.
On Thursday in Arizona, a TSA software glitch caused more than 3,000 checked bags to be left behind at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. TSA administrator Peter Neffenger told reporters Friday that the problem has been fixed and technicians were working to identify its cause.
But it’s also true that the TSA is in a tough spot. Federal officials are working to screen record numbers of air travelers while also trying to thwart terrorist attacks such as those that struck Brussels’ airport and downed a Russian jet in Egypt. Before Friday’s news conference, TSA officials showed off some of the contraband — about 15 pounds of stuff a day, mostly knives — that they had collected at checkpoints just at National Airport.
“It’s a challenging job in a challenging threat environment,” Neffenger . He took over as TSA administrator last July, not long after an inspector general’s report found that undercover operatives had passed checkpoints with weapons and phony bombs more than 95 percent of the time. He also said the agency also loses a lot of agents as soon as it hires more. Neffenger said the turnover rate is about 23 percent. What’s more, the TSA has also been assisting at presidential campaign rallies to help screen attendees, and that’s an additional demand on resources, Johnson said.
But Rep. John Mica (R-FL), whose House Oversight Committee oversees TSA, swung by Johnson’s press conference, and he wasn’t having any of it.
Mica, who sat cross-legged on the terminal floor while awaiting his turn at the mic, ripped TSA’s plan as “a little bit late at the gate.” He said Congress had already foisted more money on TSA than TSA had asked for, and that TSA mismanagement was to blame for the growing lines at the nation’s airports. He said things are so bad, that there are long waits at TSA PreCheck lines.
“This isn’t a question of more people or more money,” Mica said. “This is a flawed system. . .This is a crisis.”