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As air travel rebounds, TSA warns of longer waits at start of busy summer season

Travelers must wear face masks and should allow plenty of time to get through security checkpoints, officials say

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas speaks about aviation security ahead of the summer travel season during a news conference at Reagan National Airport on Tuesday, in Arlington, Va. (Patrick Semansky/AP)
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U.S. air travel rebounded Sunday to the highest level of the pandemic era as the Transportation Security Administration continues to bolster staffing for the busy summer travel season set to kick off this weekend, federal aviation security officials said Tuesday.

The 1.8 million passengers screened at TSA checkpoints Sunday was the highest daily number since the coronavirus pandemic began. It amounted to 90 percent of travelers seen on the same day in 2019 and a sevenfold jump from the same day last year, said Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas.

As more Americans get vaccinated, they are showing a pent-up demand for traveling and visiting long-distance friends and family, officials said. As a result, they said, waits at some checkpoints have grown from their pandemic lull.

The travel bump “is a positive sign that our nation is beginning to recover from this challenging pandemic,” Mayorkas said during a news conference at Reagan National Airport.

TSA warns of longer wait times at checkpoints as travel ramps up

Asked how long air travelers will have to wear masks — particularly since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently advised they were no longer necessary in most indoor settings for fully vaccinated people — Mayorkas said he encouraged more Americans to get vaccinated.

“We are going to release the mandate when the science and the data establishes that that is in the best interest of the American public’s health,” he said. “We are working as quickly as possible to see that day.”

The TSA recently extended the mask requirement through Sept. 13.

Since requiring face masks in airports and on planes, the TSA has investigated more than 1,300 cases of noncompliance and more than 60 cases of TSA employees being physically attacked, said acting TSA administrator Darby LaJoye.

LaJoye said waits at some TSA checkpoints are increasing along with passenger volumes. He said the TSA has hired more than 3,000 employees since January and expects to add another 1,000 by July 4. The agency expects to hire a total of 6,000 officers by Labor Day, he said. In February, the TSA had said it hoped to hire more than 6,000 screening officers “by summer.

TSA positions remain unfilled as airlines anticipate a surge in travelers

LaJoye said air travelers should arrive early to allow time to get through airport security. He also reminded those with guns to pack them in checked luggage, saying the TSA has seen an “alarming trend” in guns found at checkpoints. Even with the “drastic reduction” in air travel in 2020, LaJoye said, TSA officers discovered more than 3,000 guns in carry-on bags — double the rate of 2019, he said.

While most people caught with guns told officials they had forgotten about the firearm, LaJoye said they posed “a clear threat to public safety” because nearly 90 percent were loaded.

Travel industry leaders said they are heartened by the return of leisure travel but worry about the anemic business and international travel markets — a key source of revenue for the industry.

Nicholas Calio, chief executive of Airlines For America, said airlines hope to begin to break even by the end of the year.

“We need to open up business travel, and we need to open up international markets,” Calio said. “That’s where most of the revenue is, and that revenue subsidizes a great number of our domestic flights.”