Your Airport Line Nightmare Has Been Fixed—for Now
The TSA pulls out all the stops for the July 4 holiday. But can it last?
The 2016 U.S. Airport Summer From Hell tour has been postponed, though the band may reschedule for later this summer.
After weeks in which airlines and airports issued dire warnings that the Transportation Security Administration was likely to suffer nightmarish security-screening delays, the queues have returned to their traditional, non-newsworthy duration. The TSA even boasted on Tuesday about average wait times of less than 10 minutes over the July 4 holiday weekend, as well as PreCheck lanes half that duration.
“TSA’s success this weekend is a testament to the hard work of the men and women of the agency–both its leadership and, more importantly, those on the front lines at the airports,” Jeh Johnson, Secretary of Homeland Security, said in a statement. He added that the agency is “not declaring victory” and plans to do more.
So what happened to that long summer of productivity-killing airport mess? Some temporary fixes that may not last.
Johnson attributed the improved performance to the expedited hiring of 768 new security officers, a bigger overtime-staffing budget, and the conversion of nearly 2,800 part-time officers to full-time positions. He also cited airlines that assigned employees to help move the lines and began funding new technology to help speed the checkpoints.
The TSA has said the delays resulted from budget cuts that culled about 5,000 screeners since 2011 just as security lapses involving weapons being sent through led to more stringent screening protocols. At the same time, passenger volumes rose about 15 percent, the agency said. Meanwhile, airlines have been clamoring for the restoration of what they say are billions of dollars Congress took from the TSA to reduce the federal deficit.
The question is whether the solutions that led to a lovely long holiday weekend for American travelers can be repeated, say, come Thanksgiving. Many of the remedies were temporary, involving the reallocation of existing funds and reassignment of employees to choke points. After public wrath and widespread media coverage through the spring, Congress allowed the TSA to transfer $34 million from its existing budget to pay for new hiring and overtime. The agency also shuffled security officers into the most delay-plagued airports, while airlines began assigning employees to help. In short order, TSA lines began moving the way they had before many large airports descended into security-queue chaos this spring.
“In my view, it’s just a problem waiting to recur,” said David Swierenga, president of aviation consulting firm AeroEcon. “I haven’t seen that they’ve done any substantive changes in their procedures or manpower, so I don’t see that the problem is fixed.”
During the operational crisis, the TSA also began moving some travelers into PreCheck lanes by increasing the use of canine teams at major airports and by assigning some passengers to that lane using a “risk factor calculation” of intelligence, itinerary, and biographic information. This means that some travelers are shunted into a PreCheck lane, even if they haven't enrolled in one of the U.S. “trusted traveler” security programs.A TSA spokesman said this assignment occurs “only in a small percentage of cases” and doesn’t significantly affect wait times. The TSA credits dogs with helping to greatly speed security screening queues because they can help migrate passengers into the PreCheck lanes.
The TSA’s notice about wait times came the same day it announced a program with American Airlines Group Inc. to install new equipment at four of the airline’s hub airports to speed screening. The new automated belt systems, with larger bins in Chicago, Dallas-Fort Worth, Los Angeles, and Miami, are similar to lanes Delta Air Lines Inc. debuted earlier this summer in Atlanta.
American also plans to purchase a computed tomography (CT) scanner for a trial with hand-luggage screening at its Phoenix Sky Harbor hub later this year, allowing passengers to leave liquids, gels, and laptops in their bags, which would eliminate a major time drag. That’s the same technology used to screen checked luggage. American will donate the $500,000 cost for the machine and installation to the TSA, spokesman Ross Feinstein said. The TSA might expand the CT screening to other airports, depending on the trial’s outcome.