Is Phoenix airport opting out of the TSA?

Airport lines are long and expected to get longer this summer, between higher numbers of travelers and heightened security. 

Mark Henle/The Republic/AP
Baggage sits in the special events parking lot, Thursday, May 12, at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. More than 3,000 checked bags missed their outbound flights in Phoenix because of a problem with the screening system, said TSA officials.

Phoenix airport may call it quits with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) after a puzzling technical problem caused 3,000 checked bags to get stuck at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport on Thursday. 

The bags were on their way by Friday, but Deborah Ostreicher, the assistant aviation director at the Phoenix airport, called the headline-making baggage debacle the latest in a long list of frustrations with TSA, and a representative for the ground crew complained that TSA seemed to have "no plan B."

The threat to go private is more serious than it may sound, and it's one of several solutions airports are considering as summer travel heats up and security lines get longer.

International airports in San Francisco, Kansas City, and Bozeman, Mont. (near Yellowstone) have already opted out of TSA, according to TSA's website. These airports and 19 others still provide security under federal oversight, but private companies handle their pre-boarding and baggage screening.

The search for new security solutions comes as the agency admits it cannot keep pace with ever-growing numbers of airline travelers and heightened security. Airline bookings began hitting season highs at Thanksgiving, as the combination of an improved economy and plummeting fuel prices finally pulled airlines out of their post-9/11 and Great Recession slump and into profitability, The Christian Science Monitor has previously reported. Summer bookings continue to soar.

Meanwhile, TSA staffing has been down as the struggling agency loses screeners at rates of 100 per week, the AP reported. The reduced staffs have coincided disastrously with a security increase following the Brussels airport terrorist attack in March. 

Congress and several airlines have urged fliers to enroll in TSA PreCheck, which shortens lines because pre-screened passengers can board with only pre-9/11 level screening. PreCheck enrollment costs $85 for five years and requires a background check and interview, although active military and regular fliers have several methods to mitigate the fee, Mark Jackson wrote in a Brad's Deals blog.

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson met with press on Friday to offer reassurances and urge travelers to enroll in TSA PreCheck, as the agency's lines have stemmed partly from under-enrollment in the effort-saving program.

With Congress still debating where to draw the line between security and ease of travel, two senators on Tuesday took the unusual step of sending a letter to 12 of the nation's largest airlines. 

"We write in the wake of reports of staggeringly long lines expected this summer at Transportation Security Administration (TSA) screening checkpoints in airports across the country," wrote Sen. Edward Markey (D) of Massachusetts and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D) of Connecticut.

"We call on airlines to take a smart, common sense step to help thwart this growing problem: stop charging checked bag fees during the coming summer months, the busiest travel season of the year," they wrote.

Since checked baggage fees were a response to the burgeoning fuel costs of 2008, the senators argued, the current decline in oil prices should allow airlines to safely drop them now. The senators wrote that while this would not be a "panacea," it might temporarily ease the strain on airports as passengers would be de-incentivized to overpack large carry-ons that extend the wait times at security checkpoints.

While passengers would welcome no-fee baggage, it might not solve the underlying problem: Security lines at Chicago's Midway Airport, which flies mostly Southwest's fee-free flights, are also backing up. 

Their proposal also would not have solved the problem at the Phoenix airport, where airline workers sent shipped checked bags to airports as far away as San Diego and Las Vegas for screening while the TSA system was down. 

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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