Facing a growing backlash over extremely long airport security lines, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson on Friday asked fliers “to be patient” as the government takes steps to get them onto planes more quickly.
Travelers across the country have endured lengthy lines, some snaking up and down escalators, or through food courts, and into terminal lobbies. At some airports, lines during peak hours have topped 90 minutes. Airlines have reported holding planes at gates to wait for passengers to clear security.
Johnson said the government has a plan to deal with the lines but won’t neglect its duty to stop terrorists.
“Our job is to keep the American people safe,” Johnson told reporters at a news conference. “We’re not going to compromise aviation security in the face of this.”
The Transportation Security Administration has fewer screeners and has tightened security procedures. Meanwhile, more people are flying. Airlines and the TSA have been warning customers to arrive at the airport two hours in advance, but with summer travel season approaching even that might not be enough.
In the past three years, the TSA and Congress cut the number of front-line screeners by 4,622 — or about 10 percent — on expectations that an expedited screening program called PreCheck would speed up the lines. However, not enough people enrolled for TSA to realize the anticipated efficiencies.
Congress this week did agree to shift $34 million in TSA funding forward, allowing the agency to pay overtime to its existing staff and hire an extra 768 screeners by June 15 to bring it up to the congressionally mandated ceiling of 42,525.
But that might barely make a dent on the lines. This week, the president of the union representing the TSA officers sent a letter to congressional leaders suggesting that 6,000 additional screeners are needed. J. David Cox, Sr. wrote that the $34 million just provides “a small amount of temporary relief for travelers” and defers dealing with the long-term, larger problem.
Additionally, the agency loses about 100 screeners a week through attrition.
Airlines and airports have hired extra workers to handle non-security tasks at checkpoints — such as returning empty bins to the beginning of the line — as part of an effort to free up as many TSA employees to handle passenger screening.
The help can’t come quickly enough.
Friday morning, American Airlines held at least five flights at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport because of passengers stuck at security lines, according to airline spokesman Ross Feinstein.