Tales of three-hour waits, left many Americans flying on Memorial Day braced for long security lines.
After all, this Memorial Day Weekend was expected to be the busiest since 2005 and the beleaguered Transportation Security Administration (TSA) had already caused some 70,000 travelers to miss their flights this year.
So when Mike Saresky told the Associated Press, “Wow, I mean, wow,” after speeding through Philadelphia airport security Friday evening, it was a rare jolt of encouragement for an agency often called the ugly – not to mention unpopular – stepchild of the Department of Homeland Security.
TSA's challenge since 19 Al Qaeda-linked hijackers took off without notice from US airports on Sept. 11, 2001 has included two divergent missions: complete airline security and complete efficiency, in the summation of Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson (R), the chairman of the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.
There's some evidence the TSA is now getting the balance right.
On one of the busiest traveling weekends in the US, progress is apparent thanks to a confluence of events ranging from stepped-up help from the airlines, the gradual return-on-investment from efficiency programs, more security dogs, and even some rare help from Congress.
LaGretta Watkin, for one, told the Associated Press that only weeks ago she could “barely move” in a TSA line. But departing from Atlanta Saturday morning, she had a smile on her face: “Today,” she said, “it’s smooth sailing and refreshing.”
In an uncertain world, there are few jobs more thankless than being a TSA screener – work that’s “challenging … with a great deal of pressure and scrutiny,” according to congressional testimony by Rebecca Roering, the assistant TSA secretary.
Yet part of the agency’s problems all along have been more about bureaucracy than personal competence on the part of screeners. Politics, too, have played a role. As a result, the TSA has struggled to maintain morale, the lack of which has created higher-than-average employee turnover. Being asked to abandon common sense for bureaucratic demands (see: Lenore Zimmerman, the 84-year-old New York grandma who endured a full strip search at the hands of the TSA in 2011) have fueled employee dissatisfaction, which in turn has fed passenger frustrations.
Last year, Robert Cammaroto, a retired TSA official, blamed the hurried, and harried, creation of the agency in the wake of the 9/11 attacks for fostering an unhealthy culture.
According to Mr. Cammaroto, “those who resisted or spoke out about concerns ranging from security gaps to personnel moves say they were muzzled, pushed aside or forced out, depleting the number of experienced managers or causing upheaval in parts of the agency,” The Center for Investigative Reporting wrote earlier this year.
Reform has proven difficult. As the agency struggled with corruption in 2013, then deputy administrator John Halinski pleaded in an video message to the agency’s 60,000 employees: “Folks, we’re better than this.”
To complicate matters, the agency’s screener workforce is now smaller by 5,000 people since 2013, even as the number of screened passengers is rising from 643 million in 2013 to as many as 740 million this year.
To many, the TSA’s task is Sisyphean. Every day, the TSA screens 1.1 million checked bags, 3 million carry-on bags, across 25,000 domestic and 2,500 international flights. It’s also tasked with safeguarding 4 million miles of roadways, 600,000 US tunnels and bridges and 2.6 million miles of pipeline.
“It’s an enormous challenge [that we need to] talk about … as honestly as possible if we’re going to find real solutions,” Sen. Johnson said during Congressional testimony last year.
In a scathing 2014 Politico memoir entitled, “America, I saw you naked,” former TSA screener John Edward Harrington probed the surreal, yet high-stakes, world of what he called the “post-9/11 airport security show.”
Mr. Harrington related one incident from 2008 where he had to confront a group of Marines returning home from Afghanistan, including a wounded vet in a wheelchair, over something in their luggage.
After confiscating a bottle, “it fell to me to tell this kid who would never walk again that his homecoming champagne had to be taken away in the name of national security,” he wrote.
This year, still dogged by high-level departures and simmering mini-scandals, the TSA seemed poised for another summer of passenger grumble.
So, what’s at play to explain the shorter, faster lines at the airport this Saturday?
For one, the agency has stepped up its use of bomb-sniffing dogs, now employing nearly 900 teams at unidentified airports across the US. The dogs "have the ability to screen large groups of passengers for explosives, making the removal of shoes and laptops and such unnecessary," TSA spokesman Mike England told the AP wire service.
To be sure, sign-ups for the TSA’s PreCheck service – which allows travelers five years of expedited checks for $85 – has fallen far below expectations. Yet for all its unmet expectations – part of which were used to justify reducing the TSA workforce – the program is proving popular among many travelers, and is expected to continue to faciliate faster lines.
Feeling some sympathy for the TSA, Congress is pitching in funds to add 768 screeners and cover overtime pay. And Congress appears to be ready to reverse a 2013 government shutdown compromise that sends 2.5 percent of TSA funds to reduce the US deficit.
But outside the bureaucratic bickering in Washington, it turns out that some of the chief improvements may have come from frustrated airline executives.
"Two words: TSA lines," American Airlines CEO Robert Isom wrote in a recent letter. "Right now those words evoke frustration from all of us, as well as our customers who continue to miss flights due to lines that are literally out the door."
After airlines have enjoyed several years of low fuel prices as well as rising ridership, airlines like American and Delta have begun to help. American, for one, vowed on May 18 to spend $4 million to hire contract staff to help TSA staffers.
And in Atlanta, Delta spent two months coming up with a system that it hopes to spread around the country: The $2 million system at Hartsfield scraps the laborious bin system in favor of an automated conveyor belt, allowing baggage that raises alarms to be ferreted to a separate inspection area. And the airline added five different “divestment points” that means quicker travelers don’t have to wait for those taking longer to take their shoes off.