Security screening lines at the Denver International Airport earlier this month. “Waiting three hours for what may be a two-hour flight or 90-minute flight is not acceptable,” Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said. “It would tax everybody’s patience.” Andy Cross/Denver Post via Getty Images hide caption
toggle caption Andy Cross/Denver Post via Getty Images
It’s been a tough spring for air travel. Long lines at security checkpoints have stretched across terminals at airports from Atlanta to Denver to San Jose.
Nearly 7,000 American Airlines passengers missed their flights during a spring break week in March owing to security backups. In New York, the operator of the region’s three major airports calls the situation abysmal and is threatening to privatize the screening system. The U.S. Travel Association, an air travel group, says it’s a “national crisis.”
So Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson went to Washington’s Reagan National Airport Friday to give assurances that he feels the pain of air travelers and that help is on the way.
“Waiting three hours for what may be a two-hour flight or 90-minute flight is not acceptable,” Johnson said. “It would tax everybody’s patience. We want to reduce that as much as possible without compromising the safety of the American public.”
The problem has many parts. Air travel is at record levels thanks to a relatively healthy economy. But there are fewer Transportation Security Administration screeners because of faulty traffic projections in years past. What’s more, the TSA is finding it hard to hang on to the screeners it has. Many of them work part time, and in stressful conditions, for low pay. TSA Administrator Peter Neffenger says the attrition rate for part-time screeners, or TSOs, is as high as 25 percent. Neffenger said while “it is true that we lose a lot of our transportation security officers,” the agency is still “bringing on more than we’re losing.”
None of this has gone unnoticed by members of Congress. Florida Republican Rep. John Mica, who has long called for privatizing TSA screeners, was irate that some visitors to his office the other day missed their flights home. At a hearing this week, Mica fumed to Neffenger, “You cannot recruit, you cannot train, you cannot retain, and you cannot administer.” The TSA, he said, is “a huge, failing government program, and it will fail.”
But Congress is not without blame. Lawmakers demanded changes after a government watchdog was able to smuggle mock explosives past screeners 95 percent of the times it tried last summer. So the TSA ordered screeners to focus on inspecting bags and not to worry about long lines.
Massachusetts Democratic Rep. Stephen Lynch summed up the dilemma: “When we criticize you today about having long lines and taking too long to screen people — next week if there is a breach we will haul you up here again and lambaste you for not being more thorough.”
Congress gave the TSA authority to hire more than 700 new screeners, who are expected by mid-June, and the agency is redeploying others. It will also be making additional use of canine teams to help screen passengers, as well as stepping up marketing of the TSA Pre-Check program, which allows passengers who undergo a background check and pay $85 to go through expedited screening.
Still, Johnson says air travelers should expect “increased wait times” at security checkpoints this summer and that passengers should have “appropriate expectations.” And he is encouraging travelers to download an app called My TSA, which gives estimated security waiting times at airports.