Lines at airport security checkpoints have stretched beyond an annoyance. Wait times exacerbated by an employee shortage have caused tens of thousands to miss flights. While temporary measures are in the works for the summer, travelers need long-term fixes.
The Transportation Security Administration should improve workplace conditions to retain workers, and the federal government should provide money to hire more of them.
Airlines, airports and security officials agree that the lengthy waits are a problem. Nearly 6,800 travelers missed flights in one week in March. Some 600 missed flights in Charlotte in one day. Three of the worst cities for delays — Atlanta, Dallas and Philadelphia — are among the five most common destinations for fliers leaving Miami International Airport, where TSA lines are manageable, Miami-Dade Aviation Department spokesman Mac Henderson told the Editorial Board. But if the problem persists elsewhere, it could wreak havoc on fliers during June, July and August, typically airports’ busiest months.
Congress last week allowed the TSA to move around $34 million to pay for overtime and hire more than 750 additional short-term employees. Airlines have temporarily offered staff to help with the lines, and American Airlines pledged this week to spend $4 million to hire contract staff at their key airports to relieve TSA officers from performing nonscreening functions like managing the lines. Officials hope these solutions stave off the delays this summer, but they are impermanent fixes, and it is not yet clear how much they will help even in the short-term.
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The TSA is also encouraging fliers to sign up for its pre-check service, which lets passengers circumvent the normal lines and keep their shoes on, but the service carries an $85 application fee. The ability to make it onto a plane should exist for anyone arriving at a reasonable time, not just those who can afford an extra charge.
There are not enough federal workers screening travelers at many airports. Low retention rates and morale problems within the TSA have been documented for years. A congressional hearing last week revealed the TSA lost more than 4,600 employees in 2014, only hiring 373. Between 2013 and 2015, the U.S. lost more than 5,300 transportation screeners, an 11 percent drop. Those trends aren’t sustainable and have to be reversed.
The TSA cannot, however, be handcuffed by a shrinking budget. The agency has a budget of about $7.4 billion, down from about $7.8 billion four years ago, while the number of people flying has gone up. The newly reallocated money allows for more than 750 new hires, but the head of the union representing TSA screeners called for 6,000 — which would put the workforce slightly above 2013 levels.
Airlines and airports are providing help in the short term, but money must be available for increased hiring in the future until the delays subside. The next federal budget ought to move the TSA back toward funding levels it had earlier this decade. Soon, children will get out of school and families will head to the airport for vacation trips. As the flying season heats up, short-term solutions must prevent unacceptable wait times.
However, the TSA faces continuing problems and must find ways to keep up its workforce — with adequate public funding that reflects the importance of keeping air travel moving smoothly.
This editorial first appeared in the Tampa Bay Times.