The Transportation Security Administration’s website showed delays of “31+ minutes” to get through airport security lines at John Wayne Airport and Los Angeles International Airport’s security checkpoints on a recent Thursday morning.
A few weekends ago, it took passengers two hours to pass through security at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, causing 450 people to miss their American Airlines flights. During the week of Spring Break, March 14-20, American Airlines said 6,800 passengers missed their flights because of security lines – and that’s just one airline’s customers.
TSA is taking some action to speed up the lines, firing its head of security and installing Darby LaJoye into the position. LaJoye has managed security at two of the country’s busiest airports, including LAX.
TSA also got more money, with Congress agreeing to quickly (by government standards) shift $34 million to help TSA hire and train 768 new officers and to pay overtime for current screeners this year. Unfortunately, this is unlikely to make a big difference during most of the approaching busy summer travel period.
One of TSA’s primary excuses for the long wait times is that it has far fewer airport security screeners than it used to. That is true; its screener workforce has declined by 12 percent, from 47,630 in 2011 to 41,928 in 2016. Meanwhile, the number of people flying increased by more than 11 percent during that same period.
The agency has blamed budget cuts, but TSA’s staffing problems are partly its own making.
TSA reduced its workforce, in part, because it expected millions more travelers to sign up for much faster PreCheck lanes, which allow “trusted travelers” who have undergone background checks to go through an abbreviated security check. However, the agency has repeatedly delayed efforts to recruit people into the PreCheck program, resulting in low sign-ups and more people in the regular security lines than TSA forecast.
The best quick-fix for the summer security lines was put forth by Mississippi Democratic Rep. Bennie Thompson, the ranking member of the House Homeland Security Committee, who urged TSA to reassign its Behavior Detection Officers to regular checkpoint screening duties. BDOs, mostly former checkpoint screeners who have received a few extra days of training, are supposed to look for and identify high-risk suspects.
However, audits by the Government Accountability Office and other outside experts find zero evidence that BDOs add any meaningful value to airport security or that they have any success spotting terrorists. There are about 3,000 BDOs on TSA’s payroll, and most of them already know how to do checkpoint screening, so reassigning them now would quickly add several thousand trained screeners to help shorten this summer’s lines.
Over the longer term, US airports should look to opt out of TSA-provided screening, as San Francisco, Kansas City and 20 smaller airports have already done. These airports hire certified, private security companies, overseen by TSA, to provide screening services.
The largest opt-out airport-San Francisco International-has not had serious screening delays this year. In contrast, nearby San Jose International, which uses TSA screeners, has been plagued by screening delays. TSA-certified private screening companies are much better than TSA at matching their screener staffing numbers to peak passenger flows, partly by making greater use of part-timers to handle peak flying periods.
That’s also how it is done in the rest of the world. In most major airports in Europe, passenger screening is an airport’s responsibility, not that of the national government. The governments oversee and regulate the process by setting and enforcing the standards for screening. All Canadian airports use government-supervised private companies for screening.
With some U.S. airports encouraging passengers to arrive three hours before their flights so they have time to get through security, and with travel groups forecasting a record number of flyers this summer, it’s time to focus on both short- and long-term fixes for TSA and airport security.
Robert Poole is director of transportation policy at Reason Foundation, where he’s advised four presidential administrations on transportation issues.