On Mother’s Day weekend, New York resident Jill Lauren was at Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR) with her husband on their way to Colorado, when she got a transparent look at the current status of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).
Lauren said they were in the PreCheck line when they noticed the officer at working the line looked “frazzled.” When she was talking to him, Lauren said he told her that a bunch of other people had just quit.
“I just said to him ‘I hope you don’t quit,’” she said. “When I walked away I left with the thought that these are the people who have been tasked to protect us and to just see how transparent he was about the whole thing.”
Lauren’s experience is one of thousands being reported by travelers across the nation experiencing massive delays as a record crush of passengers descends on airports for the beginning of the summer travel season to meet security checkpoints not ready to meet the demand.
Kevin Burke, president and CEO of ACI-NA, said warning signs for an issue with wait times was already starting to show in spring. U.S. airports saw a “very challenging,” spring break proving to be a precursor to the glut hitting airports as summer began.
“Absolutely we saw this coming,” he said during a May 23, press conference. “We had routinely warned Congress and TSA about the upcoming travel season.
Burke said ACI-NA is speaking with Congress about putting solutions by funding needed changings to TSA and facilities.
Airport security scrutiny hit a fever pitch as the summer travel season began in late May. Backups were reported across the nation and a viral video made by a passenger made at Chicago Midway International Airport (MDW) showing a line stretching nearly endlessly created increased ire from travelers.
Airports continue to be major hubs of economic activity, Burke said, and long wait times are hitting these sectors and impacting the bottom line of operations. When a passenger is delayed in a security line they’re forced to rush to their gates and don’t purchase food or other concessions.
“Often times it’s the airports that get the blame,” Burke said. “It’s the TSA inspecting the bags, but people say ‘I’ll never got back to that airport because we spent three hours in line.’”
As the large hubs struggle with domestic security lines, it could mean a loss in revenues from foreign passengers as well.
According to a 2014 study by SITA, an extra 10 minutes spend in a security queue reduces a passenger’s spending on retail by 30 percent on average.
“If you’re a traveler and going through security takes an hour or hour and a half, your attitude and predisposition to spending money in the retail shops and concessions is completely different than if you grazed through security in 10 minutes,” said John Grant, senior analyst with OAG Avaition. “When you put yourself under a time pressure it changes your mood.”
Airlines Step In
Some airlines are also addressing the issue by investing money into additional security resources.
On May 18, American Airlines Chief Operating Officer Robert Isom issued a public statement saying the company is investing $4 million to provide contract staff its U.S. hubs and gateway airports. The staff relieves TSA officers from non-screening tasks in order for them to focus solely on security aspects.
American is also looking into ways to fund additional canine teams and is aggressively promoting PreCheck.
The airline declined further comment, saying the letter covered its views.
“We all agree that the TSA plays a vital role in protecting the traveling public and we’re not in favor of anything that jeopardizes that safety,” the letter states. “However, tens of thousands of customers have missed their flights and tens of thousands of checked bags have been delayed in TSA resolutions rooms due to low staffing. This is unacceptable to all of us, and the federal government can, and should, do better.”
By May 25, Delta Air Lines reported it was also investing $5 million to help TSA agents at 32 airports across the U.S.
Christopher Bidwell, vice president, security ACI-NA, said the organization is working on a national level to address the issue and come up with a solution for the challenge.
“The transportation security officers do a great job,” he said. There are just not enough of them and that’s the bottom line.”
One of the biggest issues facing TSA is the shortfall of the PreCheck Program. While Burke said it’s one of the best concepts the agency has ever implemented, only 2.5 million have registered for the program, which is about 10 percent of what was expected by this time.
There are concepts being discussed to improve enrollment, such as having applicants go through the Post Office similar to obtaining a passport.
Burke said ACI-NA is working with TSA and Congress to make sure changes come through for addressing the security issues. However, if there isn’t anything done fairly quickly, it’s a sign of a much greater problem.
“If we’re talking about this again next year, then there’s a complete failure in the system,” he said.
Airports are feeding record numbers of travelers to airlines, which are seeing record profit, Burke said, and with the economy doing fairly well, more people are traveling than they have in a long time.
“We don’t have enough officers to inspect these people,” he said. “You see PreCheck lanes being closed down and officers put on regular lines. When you spend $85 for PreCheck line, you see why they get upset about it.”
TSA is ramping up efforts at larger airports as the summer season progresses. On June 1, Miami International Airport (MIA) announced TSA is providing resources to open the Concourse D Checkpoint 4 during peak travel times. The Concourse services primarily American Airlines passengers, which hubs at the airport.
Grant said one of the symptomatic issues at hand is how carriers operate in the U.S. All of them want to fly at the same time of day. For example, he said there are 44 flights between South American countries and U.S. airports between 4 a.m. and 5 p.m. on a daily basis. Between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., one flight — from Argentina to John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) — flies into the U.S.
“If we’re going to alleviate this, we need to make better use of resources throughout the day, rather than at special times of the day.” he said.
Smaller airports could see bigger role
While large hubs are seeing the brunt of the TSA strain, medium and small hub airports are avoiding many of the issues at the beginning of the summer travel season, but leaders are still being diligent.
Kevin Dillon, executive director of the Connecticut Airport Authority, said average security wait time at Bradley International Airport (BDL) are about 30 minutes, but can spike up to 40-45 minutes during peak times.
He said the authority recognizes there are days when there will be too many sick calls from the TSA and times can bump up, but staff are working to keep wait times down for passengers, and open up additional security lines.
“One of the things we’re doing to enhance wait times is we’re working with the TSA to free up some of the positions where it isn’t required to have a certified TSO,” he said.
Dillon said the airport is also reaching out to the public to educate travelers and infrequent flyers to plan for trips. It’s also promoting the PreCheck enrollment center, which he said has been very successful.
Dillion said airports like Bradley promotes itself as an alternative to the large hubs in order to avoid the security crush, however, there is concerns about large hub backups hitting medium hub airports.
“The TSA is a national organization and if they don’t keep up staffing at Bradley or they don’t allocate overtime fairly amongst the entire system, yeah, we could be in the same situation as well,” he said. “We hope we don’t see that for places like Chicago or Boston or New York who have become oversubscribed that they start pulling agents from other operations to supplement and then we see it deteriorate at all airports.”
Grant said the long lines hitting TSA checkpoints are born out of the very strong demand by travelers as it is anything else, so there’s a challenge in getting people to their destinations. Foreign travelers can instead look at flying into airports in Canada, then connecting to smaller U.S. airports in order to avoid the security issues.
“One of the great challenges as consumers is for the airlines to find the best possible connections to our destinations and that puts pressure on that connectivity and minimizing the connection time, so the airlines try and send more and more people through that funnel,” he said. “It seems to me that it’s inviting people to find alternative options in ways to travel to their destination.”
Lauren said while she hasn’t considered changing travel plans for smaller airports, security remains a big issue. With the recent crash for EgyptAir and media reports of TSA agents missing 95 percent of contraband in testing coupled with long lines and curt agents, it wears on the experience of traveling by plane.
“It’s almost like we’re grocery items being processed in the grocery store,” she said. “I don’t feel like we’re any more significant than a grocery item. That’s how it seems like the system works.
“It’s harsh and that’s how it feels.”