A string of short-sighted decisions by the Transportation Security Administration has passengers facing a long summer of massive security lines and soaring wait times at airports around the country.
The TSA, already reeling from a number of high-profile security lapses, made critical choices about staffing resources and its expedited screening programs over the last year that failed to account for a surge in airline travel.
“The administration evidently was operating under some illusion that they could reduce the number of screeners and the budget at TSA,” Sen. John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneSchumer sets Monday showdown on debt ceiling-government funding bill Congress facing shutdown, debt crisis with no plan B GOP warns McConnell won't blink on debt cliff MORE (R-S.D.), chairman of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, told The Hill. “We’re paying the price for that now.”
Recent breakdowns at airports have been widely documented and are capturing the attention of Congress: three-hour wait times at security checkpoints, over 70,000 missed American Airlines flights and scores of passengers becoming stranded at airports overnight.
Lawmakers and officials are now scrambling to find solutions ahead of the busy summer travel months. About 2.6 million people are expected to travel through airports nationwide this Memorial Day weekend.
The problems can largely be traced to when the TSA began cutting back its staff, anticipating droves of fliers would sign up for its expedited PreCheck program. But enrollment numbers have largely fallen short.
The agency also is contending with high turnover rates, partly spurred by low morale at TSA.
Staffing levels have declined 10 percent, going from 47,147 full-time employees in 2013 to 42,525 in 2016, according to TSA data. Meanwhile, passenger volumes increased 15 percent during that time.
In its fiscal 2016 budget request, the administration proposed trimming $119 million and dropping 1,748 personnel – although appropriators have routinely given TSA more money than it asked for the past three years and will likely do so again this year.
During a budget hearing last year, then-TSA Administrator Melvin Carraway also boasted that the agency would be able to do more with less because of accelerated screening practices.
“Risk-based security methods have proven more efficient in moving people through the checkpoint than standard screening lanes, requiring fewer screeners and fewer lanes than traditional screening operations,” Carraway told senators in March 2015. “As a result, TSA continues to gain efficiencies through RBS [risk-based security] initiatives, with savings of approximately $350 million over the past two years at airports.”
But the TSA failed to adequately promote PreCheck, in which fliers give the agency identifying information in exchange for expedited security screenings. The goal is to have 25 million people enrolled in trusted traveler programs, but only 7 million were enrolled as of May.
Customers have lamented the $85 enrollment fee and the process for signing up, which entails going to an enrollment center or airport and providing fingerprints. Some passengers have even complained about glitches in the system allowing people to book appointments at times when centers aren’t even open.
The TSA only has one vendor for PreCheck, though it is now considering adding more to help improve the program. Lawmakers are pushing for a bill that would require the agency to develop a process for approving marketing materials and partner with the private sector to boost enrollment.
“In competition for this service, we may have better quality service," Sen. Dick DurbinDick DurbinSchumer sets Monday showdown on debt ceiling-government funding bill Democrats surprised, caught off guard by 'framework' deal Senate panel advances antitrust bill that eyes Google, Facebook MORE (D-Ill.) said at a press conference last week. “We’ve got to make TSA PreCheck much more approachable.”
Another factor that has greatly contributed to congested airports is TSA Administrator Peter Neffenger's decision to end a practice called "Managed Inclusion."
The program randomly selected passengers for the expedited security lanes, but Neffenger decided to stop the practice amid ongoing security concerns.
Neffenger stepped into the TSA's top post last summer after a scathing report revealed screeners were failing to detect fake bombs and weapons during security tests.
“The new guy comes in, and he is well-intentioned in saying he’s going to crack down,” Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) said on C-SPAN this week. “And he institutes the crack down, but there’s no Plan B.”
Neffenger admitted during a House Homeland Security Committee hearing on Wednesday that he knew ending Managed Inclusion “would dramatically increase the number of people back in the standard lines, and we weren’t staffed at the level we needed to be to man all the lines.”
The missteps by TSA have left some questioning whether the agency that helped create the mess is capable of correcting course. The headaches are prompting a number of airports to consider privatizing their security operations.
“Our government-run screening program hasn't lived up to the level of service or security we had hoped for,” Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) wrote in an op-ed for CNN. “The solution couldn't be any simpler: let's get the TSA out of the airport screening business altogether.”
But Democrats are pointing the finger elsewhere.
Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), ranking member on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said Republicans slipped a provision into the 2013 budget deal that diverts a portion of the revenue raised from the passenger security fee – about $1.2 billion per year – to deficit reduction.
DeFazio introduced a bill with House Homeland Security ranking member Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) that would divert the fees back to their intended purpose.
“Funding to help fix the wait times exists – it’s just being diverted,” DeFazio said in a statement. “I doubt most passengers know that a portion of the security fee they pay with every flight is being used for other purposes.”
Some Democrats also point to baggage fees for clogging up security lanes, because they say more passengers now bring their bags through checkpoints as carry-on luggage, slowing the screening process.
Although lawmakers may be split on what caused the overwhelming lines, they at least agree on one thing: travelers need immediate relief.
“Today we face a crisis at our airports,” Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, said during a hearing this week.
“Congress will not sit back as the situation gets worse,” he vowed.