No one particularly likes taking off their shoes in the airport, but burgeoning wait times in security lines are enough to make almost anyone long to reach the body scanner.
On top of outcry about hours-long Transportation Security Administration (TSA) lines at airports nationwide in recent weeks, the head of that agency cautioned last week — just in time for Memorial Day weekend trips — that the wait will be even worse during the peak summer travel season.
With accusations of mismanagement flying while authorities scramble to cut wait times down, the situation is as messy as airport screening areas themselves. Here’s a brief primer on what (and who) is to blame:
What’s the holdup?
TSA chief Peter Neffenger said ultimately, it’s a numbers problem. As the number of travelers has increased steadily, the amount of TSA screeners has gone the other way. The volume of passengers in the U.S. has increased 15% since 2013, from 643 million to a projected 740 million flyers this year. But there are now 42,525 screeners, roughly 10% fewer than the 47,000 in 2013.
On top of that, the security process itself is taking longer for two main reasons. That’s partially because travelers are increasingly bringing carry-on bags to avoid checked luggage fees, slowing the screening process. The second is due to changes in TSA procedures after the agency botched a screening audit. Agents are now supposed to be more conscientious in certain screening techniques, and refrain from sending passengers to expedited security lanes with as much frequency as before.
Who’s fault is this?
The blame game over wait times is in full swing. Irate customers have taken their issues up with airlines and airports, which in turn have chiefly blamed the TSA, which then points its finger at Congress for not providing enough funding. Passengers are venting or posting photos of crazy lines with a hashtag campaign (#IHatetheWait) spurred by an airline trade group.
Both airlines and Congress blame TSA for some combination of not allocating its $7.4 billion budget effectively enough, not hiring enough staff, not allowing enough overtime, not deploying enough K-9 units, and not keeping its screening technology current enough.
The TSA and the larger Department of Homeland Security, on the other hand, said Congress hasn’t provided it with enough funding to employ adequate staff numbers or overtime hours. Congress said its current budget is more than enough, but mismanagement within the TSA is wasting money.
TSA officials also blame airlines for charging passengers to check luggage, incentivizing the spike in carry-on bags that take longer to screen. Some members of congress have echoed this; Senator Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Edward Markey, D-Mass., wrote a letter to twelve major airlines asking them to reduce the fee this summer to help decongest security lines ahead of the expected spike in travel. (The airlines have balked at this request.)
How is TSA fixing the delays?
Congress has shifted $34 million of TSA’s budget to security staffing. The agency will spend $26 million of that figure on overtime pay, and the other $8 million on hiring and training new agents. In the short-term, the plan is to hire 768 new officers by mid-June, though they will need to undergo a lengthy training process.
TSA is also placing more K-9 units in major airports. After that, the agency will research technology to update its systems and practices.
In the meantime, TSA will more aggressively market its PreCheck program, which has passengers pay $85 for a background check and pre-screening that would allow them to use accelerated lines. TSA had hoped to sign up 25 million passengers by 2019; only 7.25 million are currently enrolled.
What about the airlines?
Even if it’s not their jurisdiction, airports and airlines have stakes in how quickly security lines move. They don’t want bad experiences to discourage customers from flying, and their operations are disrupted when they fly planes that aren’t full because stuck passengers miss their departure times.
Many airlines have allocated non-screening staff to help with tasks like moving the bins in the screening areas or directing the flow of traffic. A few airlines, such as American Airlines, United and Delta have hired extra staff for this reason. And some have started reevaluating the design of their queues or other factors within their control to see if there are faster options.
Some airports have said they are exploring the option of hiring private security contractors to do screening work; 22 of roughly 450 commercial airports in the U.S. have already made this choice. The private companies would not remove many procedural challenges, however, since they have to follow TSA screening regulations.
How can travelers prepare?
Airlines have advised travelers to leave ample time for the security lines, which could mean arriving two or three hours early even for domestic flights. TSA said it will help travelers know what to expect with apps that show real-time data about security wait times.
Other than that, passengers can help move lines along by familiarizing themselves with the process and rules.
Will it ever get better?
That depends. Anthony Roman, a pilot and founder of security company Roman & Associates, says “the entire system needs an overhaul.” But he thinks that improvement in technology and staffing structure is possible, and that the problem now is only at its worst during certain rush-hour periods.
“I think what we’re seeing are pulses during periods of lower staffing or unexpected volumes of passengers,” Roman says. “But I don’t believe it’s a constant chronic problem. It’s more a periodic, acute problem . . . TSA could redeploy resources immediately and make it better.”