Maybe those long lines at the Transportation Security Administration’s airport checkpoints won’t be so bad this summer after all – not because TSA will process them much faster, but because many travelers might decide to avoid the airport altogether rather than face an extra-long wait for screening.
That’s the ominous conclusion of a new consumer survey conducted by the U.S. Travel Association (USTA), which found that almost 22 percent of Americans planning a summer plane trip “will either travel by other means or delay or cancel their trips because of saturation coverage of hours-long waits at airport security checkpoints.”
Saturation coverage is no exaggeration: Major media outlets have been serving up daily stories on the miseries of security line waiting times; Congress has been holding well-publicized hearings on the issue this week; and social media have been clogged with consumer posts and tweets of long TSA lines, inspired by the @HatetheWait campaign started by Airlines for America (A4A), the airline industry’s main lobbying group.
“We’re looking at convincing data that says hundreds of thousands of people are potentially reconsidering whether to get on an airplane every single day. Given the importance of travel to both our economy and our way of life, it is not an overstatement to call that a national crisis in need of a national solution,” said USTA CEO Roger Dow.
No doubt consumers are especially dubious about air travel when they hear statistics like those presented to a congressional committee this week by a senior American Airlines executive, who estimated that so far this year, some 70,000 passengers and 40,000 checked bags missed their flights due to TSA screening delays – and that was just on American.
Some help is on the way. Congress recently approved plans for TSA to reshuffle its budget so it has more money to spend on staff overtime and on hiring additional screeners. The private sector is also getting involved: Delta, American and United Airlines have each said they expect to spend up to $4 million or more this summer in assigning their own employees to help out the TSA with non-screening duties at security checkpoints, like managing lines and moving plastic bins from one end of the checkpoint to the other; some airports are also hiring private contractors to handle the same kinds of tasks.
Still, that may all amount to applying Band-aids to a gaping wound. Everyone seems to agree that the real problem nationwide is in the raw numbers: TSA estimates it will need to screen 740 million travelers this year, a 15 percent increase over 2013, even though its staff of inspectors has been reduced by 12 percent during that time due to budget cuts.
There is some evidence that throwing resources at the problem can help. At Chicago O’Hare, where passengers were facing line times of two hours or more a few weeks ago, the wait dropped to just 15 minutes this week after TSA added more inspectors, extra canine units and a new management team, according to the Chicago Tribune. But it’s unlikely that the agency could do the same at a large number of airports in the immediate future.
It’s ironic that Congress is so outraged by TSA’s shortcomings in passenger screenings, according to A4A, which charged this week that Congress largely created the problem by short-changing the agency’s budget. The government collects a security fee from every passenger to pay for airport screenings, but A4A alleged that under terms of the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013, Congress directed that billions of dollars from those collections be diverted away from TSA’s budget to pay for deficit reduction instead.
All parties seem to agree that one of the best solutions would be a surge in enrollments for TSA’s PreCheck program, which gives travelers access to expedited screening procedures with shorter lines. But that’s all they agree on. Some airline executives have suggested that TSA should revert back to earlier procedures that allowed its inspectors to direct non-suspicious travelers into the PreCheck lanes just to even out the screening workload. But some members of Congress, TSA executives and newspaper editorialists have called for airlines to eliminate checked baggage fees at least for the summer so that fewer passenger would be dragging overstuffed carry-ons through the security lines.
Readers: You probably belong to TSA PreCheck so you’re not that concerned, but what would you suggest as the best way for government and/or the private sector to address this “national crisis”?
NOTE: Be sure to click here to see all recent TravelSkills posts about: United’s newest, longest flight + Tipping Uber drivers + Qantas 747 Trip Report + Confusion over PreCheck policies + No-fee earlier flights