Multiple factors have contributed to long airport security lines

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Travelers wait in line for security screening at Seattle-Tacoma Airport in March. Flyers will likely face massive security lines at airports across the country this summer.
Travelers wait in line for security screening at Seattle-Tacoma Airport in March. Flyers will likely face massive security lines at airports across the country this summer. Photo Credit: Ted S. Warren/ AP

A perfect storm of events has created some of the longest airport security wait times in recent memory. From Seattle to Minneapolis to Atlanta, passengers are complaining of three-hour security lines, and airlines are asserting that thousands of people are missing their flights because of those lines.

And with the peak summer travel months approaching, it’s likely to only get worse.

“Literally thousands of our customers are missing flights every day because of security waits,” American Airlines president Scott Kirby said at the World Travel and Tourism Conference Global Summit last month. “The government has to step up and run TSA [the Transportation Security Administration] like a business would run it and staff to the level of demand.”

The confluence of events leading up to this point started last year when a TSA internal investigation revealed security failures at many of the nation’s busiest airports, where undercover investigators smuggled weapons through checkpoints in 95% of trials.

This caused the TSA to tighten screening methods and stop procedures that helped facilitate the faster flow of passengers, such as allowing TSA officers to use their judgment in moving certain people, such as families with children or the elderly, into the PreCheck lines. 

Meanwhile, the Islamic State began hitting more soft targets in Europe, including the downing of a Russian passenger jet in Egypt last year and the attacks at the Brussels airport last month, which resulted in heightened security levels in the U.S.

At the same time, airfares have come down significantly, encouraging more people to fly. 

But those flyers are finding airport security ill-equipped for their arrival. Since 2012, the number of Transportation Security Officers has fallen by about 15%.

The result is more travelers, fewer screeners and not nearly enough people enrolled in the TSA’s PreCheck program, either by itself or as part of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Global Entry program. PreCheck allows travelers to move through security more quickly. The TSA’s goal, and part of the reason it cut its screening staff, was to have 25 million flyers enrolled in PreCheck by now, but as of March 1, the total number of enrollees was about 7.4 million.

The rising crescendo of complaints, often from the airports themselves, is being heard. Last week, the TSA said it would increase both human and canine security staffing at airports this summer, and the agency has asked Congress for additional funding to pay screening officers more overtime in an effort to alleviate the issue.

Homeland Security secretary Jeh Johnson said he has taken note of the “significant increase” in both travelers and longer airport wait times as well as their projected growth this summer and had directed the TSA to take action.

Steps announced last week include more screening staff, increasing the number of bomb-sniffing dogs and expanding enrollment efforts for the PreCheck program.

In addition, the TSA will collaborate with airports and airlines to support nonsecurity operations that help expedite passenger flow, such as returning bins to the front of waiting lines.

However, airport and travel trade associations said this may be too little, and not in time for summer, and that a long-term solution is needed.

“If airports and airlines are having to tell passengers that they have to get to the airport three hours prior to their flight time, and in many cases they are missing flights because they can’t get through the regular lines, something is broken and needs to be fixed,” said Kevin Burke, CEO of Airports Council International-North America.

Burke said that after experiencing exceptionally long lines during the recent spring break travel surge, airports are “terrified” of the post-Memorial Day travel season. “If lines are bad now, what will it be like this summer when people go on vacation?” he wondered.

While Burke is pleased that Johnson and the TSA are taking action, he said it will take a while to have any impact, noting that it takes 13 weeks to train a TSA officer.

“Our solution to get through this season is have the TSA look realistically at their assets and redeploy whatever assets they can to airports where they have these problems and open more gates and get the lines down,” he said. “Congress has to be willing to give the TSA permission to reallocate funds within their budget to do so, and that would obviously include overtime.”

According to Christian Beckner, deputy director of the George Washington University Center for Cyber & Homeland Security, the TSA must increase the number of security officers by 10% to 15% to cut the wait times to a “level that the public will deem acceptable.”

“That’s something that will cost conservatively $400 million to $500 million a year additional to their budget,” he said. “There is no easy way to get out of this unless they are wiling to either look at increasing this without an offset somewhere else in the DHS budget or reopen some of the issues in terms of the passenger fees, which has been something that Congress has been reluctant to do.”

What all parties say is necessary is to get more of the traveling public into the PreCheck and Global Entry programs.

“It’s just marketing and getting out there and thinking like a business,” said Joseph Sitt, chairman of the Global Gateway Alliance, an advocacy group for the New York-area airports, which advocates opening PreCheck enrollment centers in airports “to meet passengers where they are.”

Perhaps one benefit of the soaring security wait times will be a surge in program interest.

“I think the TSA is hoping that the fact you have these increased wait times will lead to additional people enrolling,” Beckner said. “If it’s a three-hour line vs. 15 minutes, just having to go through that once will be likely worth it for many people [to enroll].”

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