The Transportation Security Administration has been warning travelers to expect extra-long lines at airport security checkpoints during the busy summer travel season. The agency has announced some steps it is taking to alleviate the problem, but other stakeholders in the industry are groping for solutions to the problem as well.
TSA got some good news this week as Congress approved the agency’s request to let it shift funds around among its accounts, freeing up $34 million that can be used to pay overtime for its airport officers, and also allowing it to hire another 768 new inspectors. It remains to be seen, though, how much this might help with the problem of long lines this summer.
One proposal that’s getting the most attention is one that’s least likely to happen. Two Democratic Senators – Edward Markey of Massachusetts and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut – have asked U.S. airlines to eliminate their checked bag fees for the summer. The thinking is that if travelers can check bags for free, they won’t haul so many overstuffed carry-ons through the security checkpoints, backing up the lines. Even if that might work, there’s no reason to believe that airlines are going to give up one of their most lucrative revenue streams just because a couple of politicians asked them to.
Delta is taking a more pragmatic approach. The airline said this week it will assign some of its airport employees to take over non-security-related tasks at checkpoints to free up TSA inspectors for actual inspections. That includes things like managing lines and returning plastic bins from one side of the checkpoint to the other. The airline will also lend expertise “from industrial engineers and other areas” to make recommendations on redesigning checkpoints for a more efficient flow of travelers, the company said.
Speaking of checkpoint redesigns, officials at Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport are hoping for a May 24 debut of an overhauled south security checkpoint, which has been closed for a few weeks for reconstruction. Two new lanes there will each have five stations where five passengers can simultaneously put their belongings into plastic bins for screening. The conveyor belts are automated so passengers don’t have to linger to push their bins into the scanner. And RFID tags on each bin will allow a TSA screener to shuttle suspect bins off to a separate line where an officer can manually inspect the items in them. There’s also a lower-level conveyor belt that automatically returns plastic bins back to the other side of the inspection station so that TSA agents don’t have to haul them there manually.
Some stakeholders want to give up on TSA altogether. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey – which operates LaGuardia, JFK and Newark airports — has become the largest airport authority thus far to tell TSA it is thinking of going private with its security inspections, replacing TSA staff with contractors of its own choosing. A similar idea has already been expressed by the Seattle and Atlanta airports. In a letter to TSA, the Port Authority said it can “no longer tolerate the continuing inadequacy of TSA passenger screening services.” It cited statistics showing that waiting times this spring at its airports were almost twice as long as last year.
Meanwhile, the airline industry, as represented by its trade organization Airlines for America, has launched a social media campaign called “I Hate the Wait.” At that site, travelers who are waiting in long security lines at the airport can click on pre-set buttons to send a Tweet to TSA customer service (@AskTSA) with the tag #ihatethewait or to post a photo of their waiting line on Instagram and tag it @TSA. “Help improve efficiency by sharing your security line experience with the TSA,” A4A says – although it seems like this program is designed more to harass the agency than to bring about real efficiencies.
TSA has suggested that the best way travelers can help alleviate the long lines is by joining the PreCheck program (or Customs and Border Protection’s Global Entry, which includes PreCheck privileges). It has also put part of the blame on Congress for cutting back its budget, leading to a reduction in the number of agents available for front-line inspections.
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