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TSA offers new measures intended to cut airport gridlock

Passengers wait in a security line Friday at Ronald Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C. Fliers across the country have been facing growing lines, which during peak hours have topped 90 minutes at some airports.
Passengers wait in a security line Friday at Ronald Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C. Fliers across the country have been facing growing lines, which during peak hours have topped 90 minutes at some airports. Associated Press

With anger boiling over as passengers wait an hour or more at airport checkpoints, Jeh Johnson, the Homeland Security secretary, said Friday that he had authorized steps to ease the lines, including more overtime for screeners, faster hiring and increased use of bomb-sniffing dogs.

Johnson, standing next to Peter V. Neffenger, head of the Transportation Security Administration, said at a news briefing at Reagan National Airport that although the moves would reduce waiting times, they would not eliminate them.

Our task is to keep passengers moving, but also, and most importantly, keep passengers safe.

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson

“Our task is to keep passengers moving, but also, and most importantly, keep passengers safe,” Johnson said.

The long lines in recent months have led airlines to delay hundreds of flights and passengers to miss many more. Airlines and airports are fearing gridlock during the summer travel season.

The TSA has attributed the lines, in part, to tightened security procedures and budget cuts that have produced a shortage of screeners. Some members of Congress, however, have pointed to what they call management problems at the agency.

Many airports have threatened to replace TSA screeners with workers from private companies if the agency cannot reduce waiting times.

Sens. Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts, and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, both Democrats, have called on airlines to lend a hand in reducing waiting times by waiving the fees for checked baggage.

“Without charges for checking their bags, passengers will be far less likely to carry them on, which snarls screening checkpoints and slows the inspection process,” they said in a letter to a dozen major airlines.

Johnson urged travelers to sign up for TSA Pre, an expedited screening procedure that allows passengers to leave their shoes on and keep computers in their bags. Enrollment in the program has fallen short of expectations, exacerbating the long security lines.

Fewer screeners

The TSA and its congressional supporters note that budget cuts have left the agency with 10 percent fewer screeners than it had in 2013. At the same time, the number of people flying is expected to increase 12 percent this year, reaching a record.

“The long wait times we’re seeing now are a direct result of Congress’ failure to give TSA the money it needs to do its job,” said J. David Cox Sr., president of the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents airline screeners.

Congress has given the agency the authority to hire 768 additional screeners.

But Rep. John L. Mica, R-Fla., a longtime critic of the agency, said during an impromptu news conference of his own at the airport that the problem was not a lack of money or people.

“The problem is a huge government bureaucracy,” he said.

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates Kennedy International Airport, La Guardia Airport and Newark Liberty International Airport, recently sent a letter to the TSA saying that security waiting times had “risen dramatically in recent months,” leading to delayed and missed flights. The Port Authority threatened to hire private security workers if the TSA did not increase the number of screeners at the airports.

Officials at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta sent a similar letter in February. Other airports, such as Douglas International Airport in Charlotte, North Carolina, are also considering using private security contractors.

Under the TSA’s Screening Partnership Program, 22 of the approximately 450 commercial U.S. airports, including San Francisco International Airport, use private screeners.

But some transportation experts point out that airports with private screeners are also experiencing longer waiting times as passenger volume increases. Private screeners still have to follow TSA security procedures.

And even if larger airports like the ones in New York and Atlanta moved to switch to private screeners, they could not do so in time for the increased summer travel. The TSA review process takes about a year on average.

The complaints about longer waiting times add to continuing problems at the TSA, which consistently ranks in employee surveys as one of the worst places in the government to work.

The agency has been racked by accusations of mismanagement and misconduct, including the awarding of bonuses to supervisors who ignored warnings about security lapses and accusations that employees who reported problems were reassigned to other airports.

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