TSA calls in the hounds to speed security lines as air travel soars

Congress has allotted TSA new funds to try and increase their ability to handle the increased number of airport passenger screenings through the summer.

Ted S. Warren/AP
A K-9 handler with TSA walks his dog through security lines at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in Seattle.

Long waits at airport security are becoming such a national problem that for some airports, the solution is to send in the hounds.

Officials at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport are awaiting the prompt arrival of 58 new security officers and four dog teams from the Transportation Security Administration. Wait times at the international air traffic hub have hit 1 hour and 45 minutes in some cases, and Illinois Sen. Mark Kirk (R) has demanded that TSA Administrator Peter Neffenger resign if the lines aren't moving faster by Memorial Day.

The call comes less than a week after Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson and Mr. Neffenger met with press at Ronald Reagan National Airport to offer a ten-point plan to cope with burgeoning security lines. This included $34 million in funding, quickly approved by Congress, to both hire new TSA officers and pay current workers overtime. 

"Our job is to keep the American people safe," Mr. Johnson told reporters at the news conference Friday. "We're not going to compromise aviation security in the face of this."

Airline bookings are expected to rise by 4 percent and reach a record high this summer as an improving economy and lower fuel prices make air travel more attractive to passengers than it has been in years.

Passenger loads have increased just as security fears have risen, and Sen. Charles Schumer (D) of New York asked for bomb-sniffing dog teams to join the airports in his state, which are some of the world's busiest. He cited a regional report stating that wait times at New York airports are up 82 percent from last spring, but said more canine units could cut the wait times in half.

Officials at New York airports have threatened to switch from TSA agents to private contractors for security screening. The call was echoed at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport in Arizona, where a TSA technical glitch stranded 3,000 checked bags on Thursday. Three other international airports and 19 others have already made the switch, and while federal regulations oversee the security process, private companies conduct the screenings of both passengers and bags.

Two US senators have filed a public letter to airlines asking them to remove fees for checked bags through the summer, saying while it is not a "panacea," the measure would provide a "simple solution" to passengers' overstuffed carry-on bags that take extra time during security.

The industry group Airlines for America has designed a website where frustrated passengers can share their wait times and security line selfies with the hashtag #iHatetheWait to raise awareness of the problems with airport security, where the number of agents is currently insufficient to meet demand.

But both airlines and Congress also continue to encourage passengers to sign up for TSA PreCheck, and TSA is working to speed up enrollment. The program has not generated much interest thus far, but for $85 dollars, a passenger can receive one interview and then move through an expedited security line sans shoe removal. Frequent fliers and active military can usually waive the fee.

This report contains material from the Associated Press and Reuters.

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