If you sense that airport security lines are getting longer – much longer – you’re definitely not alone.
A combination of fewer Transportation Security Administration screeners, tighter budgets, new checkpoint procedures and growing numbers of passengers has created a mess at airports around the country. In recent weeks, passengers have reported epic lines at TSA checkpoints, causing heartburn and angst, as well as missed flights.
While the TSA says it is hiring and training hundreds of additional screening officers, matters are not likely to improve anytime soon. Airline and airport officials have said they fear that the current slowdown will last through the year and could cause a summer travel meltdown when travel demand peaks.
Charlotte Douglas International Airport recently said it had experienced three-hour wait times. Brent Cagle, the airport’s interim director of aviation, complained to the TSA director that about 600 passengers missed their flights on Good Friday because of an inadequate number of screeners. He called the episode a “fiasco.”
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“This situation could have been avoided, had the TSA had the proper staffing (or overtime budget necessary) to meet customer demand,” Cagle wrote in a letter. (TSA officials denied that the wait had ever been that long, telling local reporters that it had been 75 minutes for a short time.)
This was far from an isolated incident. Airports in Atlanta, Miami, New York, Seattle, Denver and Chicago, among others, have all experienced similar problems in recent months.
Last month, Denver Airport advised travelers to get to the airport as much as three hours before their flights. Still, people waited for more than an hour and a half to clear security.
Airport workers walked up and down the line with therapy dogs and handed out bottled water and candy to travelers, according to one report. The airport accused the TSA of providing an inadequate number of screeners on what was an average Saturday.
‘A volume issue’
TSA officials say the main reason for the longer lines is an increase in the number of travelers this year.
“Where it starts is actually a volume issue,” said Gary Rasicot, who was recently appointed to a newly created position as the TSA’s chief of operations. “It’s really a good-news story. The economy is doing well, Americans are traveling more, and this equates with record numbers at our checkpoints.”
At the same time, he said, the number of TSA screeners has declined by about 5,800 because of tighter budgets. The agency currently has 42,350 agents assigned for security checks.
To deal with the expected summer crunch, Rasicot, who was previously a senior official with the U.S. Coast Guard, as was the TSA’s administrator, Peter Neffenger, said the agency was hiring and training 768 officers and planned to assign them to the busiest airports by June 15.
Even so, passengers should brace for some tough months ahead.
“This is going to be a rough summer. There is no doubt about it,” he said. “This is why we are talking about people getting to the airport a little earlier than planned.”
American Airlines said that the slower security lines had forced it to delay flights and rebook passengers who had missed connections. For instance, in a one-week period in mid-March, the airline said, about 6,800 of its passengers missed their flights after being stuck in TSA lines too long.
“TSA lines at checkpoints nationwide have become unacceptable,” said Ross Feinstein, a spokesman for American Airlines. “Lines grew in January, February and March, and now in April, too. We are really concerned about what happens in the summer.”
Another factor that lengthens wait times is that passengers are carrying more bags on board to avoid paying fees for checked luggage.
But there’s not much airlines can do, except warn passengers to show up three hours before takeoff for international flights and as much as two hours before their flights for domestic travel.
There are other factors at play as well. Last year, the agency vowed to make changes to security and screening procedures to address widespread safety lapses that had been uncovered by the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general.
The audit found that agents had failed to spot weapons and explosives in 95 percent of the undercover tests. The findings prompted criticism by some former and current TSA employees, who claimed that the agency was keen to keep passengers moving quickly through the lines.
In response, the TSA stopped randomly processing some passengers who had not enrolled in a prescreening program to go through its expedited PreCheck lanes.
It eliminated a program known as Managed Inclusion II, which let officers trained in behavior detection direct some passengers through the faster PreCheck lanes after checking them for explosives using trace detection samplings.
Now, TSA agents send unvetted passengers through the PreCheck lanes only if they have been checked by explosive-sniffing dogs while waiting in line. (That policy is called Managed Inclusion I.)
Meanwhile, TSA agents have been finding record numbers of guns and other weapons that passengers are barred from carrying on the plane.
Both the airlines and the TSA said that one way to alleviate the longer wait is to sign up for PreCheck, which allows eligible passengers to go through the speedier lanes without having to take off their shoes and belts or remove laptops and other electronic devices from their bags.
So far, 7 million people have enrolled in one of several trusted traveler programs, including 2.5 million in the TSA PreCheck program and 2.5 million in Global Entry, a program run by Customs and Border Protection.
There is an $85 application fee for the TSA program, and a $100 fee for Global Entry. Both are valid for five years.
The TSA has added more PreCheck lanes, but the number of people enrolled still falls well short of the 25 million the TSA would like to sign up.