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Convenience or security? Lawmakers push TSA to find better balance

Lawmakers and airlines press the TSA for action on long passenger delays, including reintroducing an expedited-screening effort.

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    A TSA official helps passengers load their carry-on belongings onto an automated conveyor belt at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport Wednesday, May 25, 2016. Lawmakers Thursday pressed the agency for action to deal with security delays that have caused 70,000 American Airlines passengers to miss their flights this year.
    David Goldman/AP
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Lawmakers are pushing the beleaguered Transportation Security Administration to do more to address airport screening delays.

Security-linked delays have gotten so extreme, said one an airline official, that more than 70,000 American Airlines passengers have missed their flights this year.

The long lines, some lasting more than two hours in major regional hubs like Chicago, have frustrated passengers and airlines alike. The TSA points to staffing shortages and a steadily growing number of passengers.

The TSA will screen 740 million people at airports across the country this year, said an agency official, a 15 percent increase over 2013 – even as its staff has been cut by 12 percent.

The agency’s woes include low morale, fueled by a scarcity of full-time jobs for screening officers and what some call a culture of retaliation.

Lawmakers say those challenges are symptoms of the deeper problem: that the agency has lost sight of how to balance security concerns with convenience and efficiency for travelers.

Make no mistake, security is first and foremost.… But TSA has to find a way to maintain security while fulfilling its duty to keep passengers safely moving through the system,” said Rep. John Katko (R) of New York, chairman of the House’s Transportation Security Subcommittee, during Thursday’s hearing.

The agency is tackling delays by hiring additional full-time workers, but it may not be able to resolve all the problems in time for the busy summer travel season, TSA administrator Peter Neffenger told lawmakers on Wednesday.

"Chicago was a preventable incident in my opinion," Mr. Neffenger said at a House Homeland Security Committee hearing, referring to delays this month that left some passengers sleeping on cots.

This week, the agency said it was able to reduce wait times at the city’s O’Hare International Airport to as little as 15 minutes by converting many part-time TSA staff to full-time and adding additional bomb-sniffing dogs.

On Monday, the agency overhauled its management team, replacing Kelly Hoggan, the agency’s top security official, who some employees said had played a role in punishing whistleblowers in the agency by reassigning them to other airports.

Mr. Hoggan also received $90,000 in bonuses over a 13-month period, even as a Department of Homeland Security report showed auditors were repeatedly able to sneak fake weapons past security screeners. The report by the department’s inspector general found that in 70 covert tests, auditors were able able to get the fake weapons and explosives through security 96 percent of the time.

Kerry Philipovitch, senior vice president for customer experience at American, the world’s largest airline, told lawmakers Thursday that TSA should consider reinstating a risk-based program where selected passengers are screened for explosives and then allowed to use faster PreCheck lanes.

The program was cancelled last year amid security concerns prompted by two Homeland Security reports. The second report found the agency let a convicted domestic terrorist use PreCheck, which allows passengers to keep their shoes on and go through metal detectors instead of body scanners. Typically, passengers have to be previously vetted to use the lanes.

The agency’s move assuaged security concerns. But the end of the “managed inclusion” program forced about 10 percent of all passengers – nearly 70 million a year – to use normal screening, leading to longer lines, the Associated Press reports.

An airline trade group has also pushed Congress to return $13 billion in TSA security fees, used since 2013 to reduce the deficit, so the TSA has more funds for improving passenger wait times.

“If Congress wanted to take constructive and well-justified action,” wrote Airlines for America president Nicholas Calio in a letter to Sen. Dick Durbin (D) of Illinois last week, “it would immediately pass legislation putting that money, paid by airline passengers, where it belongs."

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