Security lines at airports are getting longer — much longer — and wait times could reach epidemic levels when air travel peaks this summer, according to airlines, airports and federal officials.
A combination of fewer Transportation Security Administration screeners, tighter budgets, new checkpoint procedures and growing numbers of passengers is already creating a mess at airports around the country.
While federal security officials say they are hiring and training hundreds of additional screening officers, matters are not expected to improve anytime soon.
This is going to be a rough summer; there is no doubt about it.
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Airline and airport officials have said they feared that the current slowdown would last through the year, and could cause summer travel chaos when more than 220 million passengers are expected to fly during the peak travel months of July and August.
“This is going to be a rough summer; there is no doubt about it,” said Gary Rasicot, who was recently appointed to a newly created position as the TSA’s chief of operations. “We are probably not at the staffing level we would like to be to address the volume. This is why we are talking about people getting to the airport a little earlier than planned.”
To deal with the expected crowds, Rasicot said the agency planned to assign 768 new officers to the busiest airports by June 15. The agency is also allocating an extra $26 million for overtime pay, and is looking for ways to move its explosive-sniffing dogs where they will have the most effect on reducing wait times.
A ‘volume issue’
Already, passengers have reported epic lines. Social media is replete with travelers complaining of lines that exceed an hour’s wait, stretch to the curb, snake to other terminal levels or even extend into different concourses.
At Charlotte Douglas International Airport in North Carolina, about 600 passengers missed their flights on Good Friday because an inadequate number of screeners led to waits exceeding three hours, airport officials said. Brent D. Cagle, the airport’s interim director of aviation, complained to the TSA, calling the episode a “fiasco.”
“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 to the security agency. (TSA officials denied that the wait had ever been that long, telling local reporters that it had been 75 minutes.)
5,800 Number of screeners airports are down nationwide because of tighter budgets
This was far from an isolated incident. Atlanta, Miami, New York, Seattle, Denver and Chicago, among others, have all experienced similar problems in recent months.
TSA officials say the main reason for the longer lines is an increase in the number of travelers.
“Where it starts is actually a volume issue,” said Rasicot, who was previously a senior official with the U.S. Coast Guard, as was the TSA’s administrator, Peter V. Neffenger. “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 screeners had declined by about 5,800 because of tighter budgets. The agency now has 42,350 agents assigned for security checks.
“We need to stop losing people and we need to add more,” he said.
Seemingly ill prepared
He said some airlines were helping by assigning their own employees to perform some tasks, like helping direct passengers to the right lanes or advising them on when to take off their shoes.
Still, many passengers complained that the agency seemed ill prepared to handle the crowds.
Ben Cheever, a support engineer for an online security firm, recently missed a flight in Seattle despite getting to the airport two hours before his 6 p.m. departure to San Diego. Two lines spilled into the airport lobby, he said. A third was reserved for passengers who had signed up to a trusted traveler program called TSA PreCheck that allowed them speedier access.
After 90 minutes, TSA opened a couple of extra lanes, but he still missed his flight. “It was too little, too late,” he said. The next day, he showed up three hours before time. “It was the most miserable business trip I’ve ever had.”
TSA lines at checkpoints nationwide have become unacceptable. Lines grew in January, February and March, and now in April, too. We are really concerned about what happens in the summer.
Ross Feinstein, a spokesman for American Airlines
American Airlines said that the slower lines had forced it to delay flights and rebook passengers. In a one-week period in March, the airline said, about 6,800 of its passengers missed flights after being stuck in security lines.
“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.”
There are other factors at play beyond fewer screeners and bigger crowds.
For one, passengers are carrying more bags on board to avoid paying fees for checked luggage.
Then there is the screening process itself, which has become more deliberate and thorough. Last year, after the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general uncovered widespread lapses, the agency made changes to security and screening procedures that slowed the process.
For example, the TSA stopped randomly assigning some passengers to the PreCheck lanes even though they were not enrolled.
It also eliminated a program that allowed officers trained in behavior detection to direct some passengers through PreCheck lanes after checking them for explosives using trace detection samplings.
Now, agents send unvetted passengers through the PreCheck lanes after they have been checked by explosive-sniffing dogs while in line.
The TSA said it still assigns PreCheck clearance to a small number of passengers when they receive their boarding passes using a program based on information that TSA collects from airlines.
Both the airlines and the TSA said that one way to shorten the wait was to sign up for PreCheck. Under that program, eligible passengers go through the speedier lanes without having to take off their shoes and belts or to remove laptops and other electronic devices from their bags.
So far, 7 million people have enrolled in one of several trusted traveler programs, but that figure falls far short of the 25 million that the agency would like to sign up.
But even passengers with PreCheck have had close calls.
Something needs to be done. It is just crazy.
Anne Marie Harrison, PreCheck passenger who flies out of Newark Liberty International Airport about twice a month
Anne Marie Harrison, a wine saleswoman who has signed up for PreCheck and who flies out of Newark Liberty International Airport about twice a month, said she nearly missed her flight after waiting more than an hour recently.
That day, the security line started downstairs, in the baggage check-in area. That was odd, she said, especially for a Sunday morning when the airport is usually empty.
“Something needs to be done,” she said. “It is just crazy.”