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The TSA wanted 6,000 new officers by summer. Most positions are unfilled as airlines expect a passenger surge.

Security checkpoint wait times have spiked at some airports because of passenger volumes and TSA staffing issues

Travelers walk past a sign pointing toward a coronavirus testing location at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. (Angus Mordant/Bloomberg News)
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The Transportation Security Administration has undertaken an effort to recruit thousands of new officers for airport checkpoints as cooped-up travelers increasingly resume flying.

The agency has hosted virtual recruitment fairs and is seeking candidates on social media. To get recruits in the door quickly, the agency recently began offering a $500 bonus to candidates at some airports if they fill out background-check paperwork within five days.

But with Memorial Day approaching, the TSA is about one-third of the way to reaching a goal it publicized in February to hire 6,000 officers by summer. Internal agency bulletins reviewed by The Washington Post indicate that checkpoint wait times are sometimes more than 45 minutes at some airports because of passenger volume and staffing issues.

Air travel tumbled during the first months of the pandemic, but millions of Americans are flying each week and airlines expect more will be itching to take vacations after coronavirus vaccinations. The TSA announced the hiring drive in February to get ready for a surge in travel, outlining a massive push for an agency that employs about 47,000 officers.

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Susan Tashiro, assistant TSA administrator for domestic aviation, said in a statement that the agency is “well-positioned to support increased travel volumes through the summer.” The statement said the agency has hired about 2,200 officers in advance of the summer and that the goal to hire 6,000 officers actually reflects a target for the budget year, which runs through September.

“Travel patterns changed somewhat during the pandemic and some passengers may have grown accustomed to walk-up screening,” Tashiro said. “Passengers should anticipate that wait times will begin to return to pre-pandemic levels.”

The pandemic dealt air travel a devastating blow, with passenger numbers plunging last spring and airlines receiving billions of dollars in aid to keep workers on the payroll. For much of last year, many TSA officers were kept home.

Those who continued to work risked exposure to a virus that has infected more than 7,700 agency employees. Sixteen TSA employees and a contractor have died of covid-19.

Some forecasts initially predicted the recovery of air travel would take years, but recent passenger levels show demand for leisure travel, in particular, has rapidly bounced back. TSA officers are regularly screening 1.5 million people each day — a large jump from a year earlier, but down from 2019, when 2.5 million screenings per day were routine over the summer.

In the midst of its recent hiring drive, the TSA began a switch to a new computer system used to process recruits. A bumpy transition hampered the recruitment effort.

Patricia Bradshaw, assistant TSA administrator for human capital, acknowledged the problems in an email Friday to senior agency managers that was obtained by The Post.

“I’ve heard from many of you the challenges your teams are facing with getting your hiring actions through the new ServeU Human Capital Hub system,” Bradshaw wrote. “We are facing a number of system issues which are preventing the automated features to run as expected.”

In the email, Bradshaw said there were manual workarounds for personnel systems that had yet to come fully online, adding, “We appreciate your continued patience!”

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The process to become a TSA officer can take months and involves testing, interviews, medical reviews and a background check. Among the issues Bradshaw outlined was the ability to advance a candidate who had passed a medical check to the background investigation.

The lengthy hiring process also raises the prospect of candidates finding work elsewhere. Tashiro acknowledged that people applying to the TSA could be pursuing other opportunities that might lure them away.

“This is normal, and a great sign that our economy is recovering,” she said.

The TSA officers union has long complained about low pay, which at some airports starts at $16.51 an hour, according to recent listings.

Joe Shuker, a vice president at American Federation of Government Employees Council 100, said where he works in Philadelphia, classes of newly hired workers that were scheduled to include 12 people have ended up with six.

The TSA slowed hiring as the pandemic hit and fewer workers were needed, but agency officials said hiring began to ramp up late last year before the effort was publicized in February.

A hired officer still must be trained, a process that can take up to six more months, although recruits can begin work on some jobs before they finish. In its statement, the TSA said the 2,200 officers who have been hired are at varying stages in the pipeline, but “all of them will be ready and functional within a couple of weeks.”

John Hubert, an officers union vice president in Florida, said training could prove to be an especially lengthy process because officers don’t see serving as a mentor to recruits as a desirable opportunity.

“It’s one thing to hire them — you still have to train them to do the job,” Hubert said.