Quick action by TSA and lawmakers has reduced security lines at airports

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Membership in the TSA PreCheck program has reached more than 3 million. The TSA is required, through a bill passed in Congress, by mid-October to have PreCheck application procedures that can be handled entirely online or at kiosks.
Membership in the TSA PreCheck program has reached more than 3 million. The TSA is required, through a bill passed in Congress, by mid-October to have PreCheck application procedures that can be handled entirely online or at kiosks.

In early May, as long TSA screening lines were starting to make daily national news, the peak wait time at Chicago O'Hare airport hit 104 minutes, according to the Chicago Department of Aviation.

By the second half of July, however, the peak wait times at O'Hare, the nation's second busiest airport, had dropped to just eight minutes. Meanwhile, average wait-times at lines at O'Hare dropped from 15 minutes to just two minutes during that same time span.

What's more, the significant, rapid improvement at O'Hare was largely echoed across the country after public outrage and concerns about the impact security lines would have on the summer travel season forced quick action not only by Congress and the TSA but also by airlines and airports.

Indeed, while waits of an hour were relatively common in May, the TSA now says the average wait time nationwide is less than 10 minutes.

In mid-July, Department of Homeland Security secretary Jeh Johnson stated that more than 90% of the public was waiting in lines for less than 15 minutes. That same month, the TSA asserted on its website that 97% of TSA PreCheck-enrolled passengers were facing queue times of less than five minutes.

"It has truly been a collaborative effort between the airports, TSA and the airlines," said Christopher Bidwell, vice president for security at the trade group Airports Council International -- North America.

The TSA, with the help of other industry officials, stunted the long lines, in part, due to an assist from Congress. Legislators enabled the TSA to shift $62 million within the existing 2016 fiscal year budget in order to increase the number of TSA agents at airports. As a result, the agency was able to hire 768 officers by mid-June and to increase overtime. In addition, the TSA converted 2,784 agents from part-time to full-time at the nation's 20 busiest airports, with 600 more officers still to be hired.

The agency also stepped up efforts to enroll people in PreCheck, which now has more than 3 million members, shifted resources strategically and added canine teams.

Meanwhile, in May, United, American and Delta each put up $4 million for nonsecurity functions, such as moving bins and managing security lines.

Airports took similar steps. Seattle's Sea-Tac Airport, for example, hired 90 contractors shortly before Memorial Day to work nonregulatory positions in front and behind the X-ray machines so that the TSA officers could be freed up for the actual screenings.

Bidwell said that one of the most important changes that was made as the summer approached was the establishment of an incident command center, which coordinates daily morning calls between the TSA, airlines and airport officials at airports around the U.S.

The new channel of communication enables the various players to identify areas of concern and to better deploy resources.

"It has allowed TSA and the industry to identify problems ahead of them becoming a significant issue," Bidwell said.

At O'Hare, the combination of these various efforts is evident not only in reduced wait times but in other statistics as well. Between early May and late July, the TSA tripled the number of canine teams at O'Hare from four to 12 while upping staffing from the equivalent of 1,368 full-time screening officers to the equivalent of 1,663 screening officers.

Despite the results this summer, however, travel industry advocates said that more has to be done to make sure short lines remain the norm even as airport security remains strong.

"We're pleased with the short-term measures and are hopeful that we can avoid subsequent hiccups or crises through longer-term reforms we think can still be implemented," said Jonathan Grella, executive vice president of public affairs at the U.S. Travel Association.

Grella said that U.S. Travel is especially interested in seeing changes implemented to get more people enrolled in PreCheck. Because PreCheck members are verified as safe travelers, they aren't required to take off their shoes and belts or to remove laptops from cases. As a result, security screening of PreCheck passengers is quicker and less labor intensive than it is for flyers who are not enrolled.

As part of the FAA reauthorization bill passed by Congress in July, the TSA is required by mid-October to publish PreCheck application procedures that could be handled entirely online or at kiosks. That will represent an improvement over the current process in which applicants must first fill out a form online before going to a PreCheck enrollment center for a scheduled appointment.

Grella called that and other PreCheck-related measures in the FAA bill a positive development, but he said that U.S. Travel will put forward several additional recommendations related to PreCheck in November as part of a broader package of proposals on ways to make TSA security screening more efficient for the long term.

Among other things, the package will include recommendations on marketing PreCheck, reducing the program's $85 price tag, enabling payment in installments and providing for automatic renewal.

"Inasmuch as there is such a thing as a silver bullet, in our mind PreCheck would be it," Grella said.

Bidwell said Airports Council International wants to see the TSA's funding automatically increase in proportion to the growth of passengers at airports. He also said the group is still calling on Congress to return money to the TSA that it diverted from the 9/11 Passenger Security Fee, a $5.60 levy that carriers must pay per one-way ticket.

This year alone, Congress is diverting approximately $1.25 billion from the security fee, Bidwell said.

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