A big summer for air travel and the TSA

The number of Transportation Security Administration screeners is under scrutiny.

Teresa Crawford/AP
Travelers lined up to go through a security checkpoint at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport on May 16.

Airport security lines have been long, and some people have predicted a difficult summer for air travelers. But federal officials, airport representatives, and others are working to come up with safe solutions.

Why have security lines been so long?

Several factors have aligned to make lines longer. Since last Thanksgiving, amid an improving economy and plummeting fuel prices, airline bookings have been setting highs. Summer bookings have continued the upward trend, with an expected 4 percent jump from last season, according to the industry group Airlines for America (A4A).

The increased volume of travel coincides with heightened levels of airport security in the United States following the terrorist attacks at the Brussels airport in March. The crash of an EgyptAir flight last month has also raised concerns.

“When you have more people flying, then you have more people waiting in security lines, even if you have no increase in security measures,” says Daniel Simon, a microeconomics professor at Indiana University in Bloomington who has researched the effect of airport security on traveler volume. “It’s getting compounded probably right now because of recent events.”

Can Congress help?

Lawmakers gave the Transportation Security Administration $34 million in mid-May to hire new screeners and pay its current workers overtime through the summer. Congress and the TSA have been trading allegations for months, with both saying the other has mismanaged federal security operations and the money that is supposed to fund them. The TSA replaced its top security official on May 23.

One issue is that in the past three years, lawmakers have cut the TSA’s funding for workers with the expectation that more travelers would enroll in TSA PreCheck (more on that later). Enrollment has been slow so far, and when combined with high turnover at the TSA, there has been a shortage of screeners for the number of passengers.

On May 10, Sens. Edward Markey (D) of Massachusetts and Richard Blumenthal (D) of Connecticut made their own proposal. The two sent an open letter to 12 major US airlines suggesting they suspend baggage fees for the summer. The fees, which airlines began to add in 2007 amid rising fuel costs, have increased the number of carry-on rolling bags by 27 percent, said the senators, referencing the TSA.

Since oil prices have plunged in the past two years, many airlines have reinstated such niceties as free in-flight snacks. But the suggestion about baggage fees has proved unpopular with airlines so far.

What are airports doing about the problem?

In the busiest US airports, workers from nonsecurity positions are being brought in to handle the less sensitive aspects of screening, such as rotating the bins for belongings.

Some airport officials, saying the lines have decreased their confidence in the TSA, have threatened to switch to private contractors for the passenger screening process. International airports in San Francisco; Kansas City, Mo.; and Bozeman, Mont., (near Yellowstone National Park) have already opted out of using TSA screeners, according to the agency. These airports as well as 19 others still provide security under federal oversight, but private companies handle their preboarding and baggage screening.

What should travelers expect at airports this summer?

Officials have been telling travelers to arrive for their flights at least two hours early, although the busiest airports have been starting to receive more screeners and canine units.

A4A has set up a website called “I Hate the Wait” where travelers can crowdsource wait times at airports.

Many travelers had been braced for long lines over Memorial Day weekend, but operations appeared to go better than expected, even though some backups were reported.

Is TSA PreCheck the way to go?

TSA PreCheck, offered by 16 airlines, is designed to let “low-risk” travelers avoid the more stringent, post-9/11 security screenings by preregistering. In participating airports, passengers with PreCheck use a separate, usually shorter line where they can keep shoes and belts on and leave laptops and liquids in their bags.

Enrollment requires filling out an online application, accessed via the tsa.gov website, or completing the whole process in person at an application center. Applicants can use the site to make an appointment at an application center, usually located in major cities or near airports, to be fingerprinted and make a payment. PreCheck costs $85 for five years. Active duty US military and National Guard members and reserves also receive TSA PreCheck benefits without any application, as do some federal, civilian employees who already have security clearance. The US Customs and Border Protection programs Global Entry, SENTRI, and Nexus provide the TSA PreCheck benefits, at a higher cost. The Citi Prestige Card and American Express Platinum (each have a $450 annual fee) include Global Entry as part of their cardholder program. 

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