The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is charged with the sizeable task of upholding security guidelines, in conjunction with customer care and support for the aviation sector, which has long been a prime target for attack. Recent security delays experienced by travelers and airlines alike have not gone unnoticed by lawmakers, and as checkpoint lines lengthen, patience is growing thin.
The House Committee on Homeland Security held a hearing on Wednesday to address how TSA is responding to the rise in checkpoint wait times and what measures are being taken to address what many consider an unacceptable travel burden with significant economic and security repercussions.
Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, noted that the travel delays the American public is currently experiencing did not happen overnight. He said “airports and airlines have been sounding the alarm for months.”
“The wait times are not soaring simply because security is much tighter, it’s because the TSA bureaucracy has gotten weaker, the agency has struggled to keep up with the high demand, and has been unable to put the right people, in the right place, at the right time,” said McCaul. “Change is not happening fast enough.”
The nightmare scenario that is unfolding at airports across the nation has included wait times of three hours or more, 450 American Airlines passengers stranded overnight at Chicago O’Hare airport, an 80 percent increase in wait times at John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) in New York and numerous missed flights and long delays.
As Homeland Security Today previously reported, the situation has become so dire that several of the nation’s busiest airports are threatening to privatize the security screening process. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which oversees JFK and Newark, recently sent a letter to TSA saying they could “no longer tolerate the continuing inadequacy of the TSA passenger services.”
McCaul said he is looking to Congress to advance the legislation necessary to reform efforts taken by TSA. While the House has often been a supporter of this legislation, previous bills were unable to gain Senate support and approval.
During the hearing, TSA Administrator Peter V. Neffenger said that within 10 months, he has spearheaded efforts to renew TSA concentration on security, updated alarm resolution procedures, invested in new technology, and reinstructed the entire workforce. Though significant changes have been made, there remains room for improvement.
Neffenger said an increase in travelers—seven percent compared to this same time last year—combined with more passengers bringing carry-on bags, which may or may not meet security standards, created a “perfect storm” leading to the egregious wait times experienced at checkpoints today.
TSA is closely collaborating with airports and airlines to find solutions to these challenges, which will not only continue to guarantee effective security measures, but also practical wait times for travelers.
In a statement to Homeland Security Today, TSA spokesperson Mike England said, “TSA’s primary focus is the current threat environment, as the American transportation system remains a high value target for terrorists. Our strong economy means air carriers are enjoying record travel volume, which is resulting in heavier than normal volumes of travelers at our nation’s airports– some with double digit increases over last summer.”
Working with Congress, TSA is striving to maintain strong security levels, while not compromising security screening processes or increasing security checkpoint wait times.
Through a recent request to Congress, TSA sought to reallocate $34 million budget dollars; Congress has approved this request, as well as given permission to augment the screening workforce. Plans include adding almost 800 new TSA officers and compensating current staff with additional overtime opportunities.
While increasing the TSA workforce is expected to aid in decreasing checkpoint delays, it will not completely solve the challenge. Within many airports, having additional TSA screeners would not actually reduce wait times, as screening lanes are largely already at capacity.
Since an increase in workforce will not happen immediately, TSA has made some suggestions to the public to implement in the meantime, in hopes of decreasing travel anxiety and frustrations.
“In addition to arriving at US airports up to two hours prior to departure, we encourage travelers to enroll in TSA PreCheck or other trusted traveler programs such as Global Entry, Nexus, or SENTRI, which improve security and reduce wait times,” said England. “TSA is addressing the growing volume of travelers, with measures including more canine use, overtime, and accelerated hiring."
England continued, “We are appreciative that our airline partners are working with us by asking travelers to arrive at the airport as much as two hours early for domestic flights, which will help to alleviate some of the expected summer congestion.”
On Thursday, to further support efforts to assist the traveling public, the House Homeland Security Committee advanced bipartisan legislation, put forward by Rep. John Katko (R-NY) to decrease wait times and enhance traveler screening checkpoints at airports across the country.
The legislation allows local TSA officials to adjust staffing as necessary. The Checkpoint Optimization and Efficiency Act of 2016 highlights best practices designed to send TSA employees to the areas of greatest congestion to decrease wait times, enhance TSA’s PreCheck program to increase efficiency and create clarity on TSA’s staffing allocation model.
“We have heard consistently from airport and airline stakeholders that there needs to be more local authority provided to TSA officials for adequately staffing and optimizing security checkpoints,” said McCaul. “This legislation is a critical step towards ensuring that the traveling public receives security screening that is not only effective but also efficient. The status quo is unacceptable, and it is incumbent upon Congress to act swiftly to alleviate the problem.”
The two bipartisan bills, HR 2843 and HR 3584 have been passed by the House, and await Senate approval before going before President Obama for signature.
The timely introduction of this legislation is no coincidence; it was intentionally presented before the start of the busy Memorial Day holiday weekend.
“It was my top priority to ensure this bill was introduced in advance of the Memorial Day holiday, when millions of Americans will take to the skies. I commend Chairman Katko for his tireless efforts to develop this bipartisan legislation,” said McCaul.
Once this legislation is passed, TSA is eager to accept Congressional support, which will promote a timelier and more efficient travel atmosphere.
“Traveler security is TSA’s first priority and we remain intensely focused on our important mission,” said England.