Lawmakers grill TSA head over airport lines: 'People are fed up'

Lawmakers grill TSA head over airport lines: 'People are fed up'
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The head of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) told lawmakers Wednesday that the agency has deployed additional agents and canine units, established a centralized command center and is training nearly 800 new screening officers to help battle long airport lines this summer.

But members of the House Homeland Security Committee who grilled TSA Administrator Peter Neffenger about growing airport wait times worry the actions won’t be enough to ease travelers’ pain in time for the Memorial Day holiday, one of the busiest travel weekends of the year.

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“The American people are fed up,” Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas) said. “Change is not happening fast enough.”

The hearing follows growing national frustration over massive airport security lines, with frequent reports of passengers missing their flights and some becoming stranded overnight. 

The agency has cut its screening staff in recent years, intending its PreCheck program to expedite the overall screening process. But not enough passengers enrolled in the service, in which fliers give the TSA identifying information in exchange for expedited security screenings.

Neffenger assured lawmakers his agency is taking a number of steps to tackle the surge in travelers without compromising security, especially in the wake of an EgyptAir plane crash that might have been caused by an act of terror.

Speed and safety “are not mutually exclusive,” Neffenger said. “There are things we can do to dramatically improve our ability to process people more efficiently while still doing our job.”

A $34 million funding shift in the TSA’s current budget that was recently approved by Congress has allowed the agency to begin hiring and training 768 new screening officers, who are expected to start by June 15, and provide overtime for current employees.

The TSA also has established a centralized incident command center to track daily screening operations and funnel resources to where they are most needed.

Additional agents and canine units with bomb-sniffing dogs — which can help speed up the screening process — have already been deployed to Chicago, where screeners have been particularly overwhelmed. 

“In Chicago, a couple of key adjustments we made ... dramatically decreased the line waits,” Neffenger said.

Some airlines are also pitching in, with Delta announcing Wednesday it would invest $4 million to supplement TSA staffing at 32 airports in the U.S.

Neffenger said the TSA is working with airlines to ensure they enforce baggage carry-on limits, is exploring innovative technology solutions such as the automated lanes currently being tested in Atlanta, and will add additional vendors to its PreCheck program later this year in an effort to spur competition and expand enrollment options.

But not every lawmaker seemed persuaded that travel disruptions would subside.

Some members blasted the TSA for using its resources poorly, such as doling out excessive bonuses, not always opening up PreCheck lanes and allowing screening officers to be used for campaign rallies and other events.

“If everything we’ve heard today about the importance of keeping our transportation safe and making sure that people can get there in a timely manner in this crisis, where is the priority of supporting these events that have nothing to do with your core mission?” Rep. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) asked.

Neffenger said that since stepping into his role last summer, he has worked to crack down on mismanagement, overhaul screening operations and focus on the agency's core mission of transportation security.

He recently removed the agency’s head of security, who came under fire in a separate congressional hearing for receiving a $90,000 bonus over a 13-month long period despite screeners failing to detect fake weapons and bombs during security tests.

“In just 10 months, I have taken a systematic and deliberate transformation of TSA,” Neffenger said.

Lawmakers are exploring legislative options to further prod the agency into action.

McCaul said he is preparing legislation that would create more staffing flexibility, saying local airports should be able to give input to the TSA in order to help better identify staffing needs. 

The bill from McCaul, which he plans to introduce this week, would also likely shift 3,000 officers from a controversial behavior-detection program to screening duties and move more part-time employees to full-time. Neffenger said he has already begun to initiate some of those steps to provide immediate relief for travelers.

Rep. John Katko (R-N.Y.) advocated for his own measure, which passed the House by voice vote last year and would help expand enrollment in the PreCheck program.

Similar language and other provisions to enhance airport screening and security were tacked onto the Senate’s reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

But the full House has yet to consider any FAA bill, while Katko’s measure is being blocked in the Senate over concerns that the fees collected from PreCheck aren’t under congressional control through the annual appropriations process. 

“Unfortunately, the Senate has failed to pass these bills, which is unconscionable,” McCaul said. “So, today, I would like to send a message to my colleagues in the other body: It’s time to get moving.”