TSA chief: Help is on the way to address long airport lines

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WASHINGTON (AP) – The Transportation Security Administration will add 768 new screeners by mid-June to deal with increasingly long airport security lines that have caused passengers to miss flights even before the busy summer travel season, the agency’s chief told Congress on Wednesday.

Most of the new screeners will be sent to the nation’s busiest airports in Chicago, New York, Atlanta, Los Angeles and other hubs, TSA Administrator Peter Neffenger told a House committee.

The TSA also has increased the use of overtime in Chicago and other major airports, converted some part-time workers to full-time status and increased the use of bomb-sniffing dogs to help with security lines, Neffenger said.

And it is launching an incident command center that will track daily screening operations and shift officers, canine units and other resources to shorten lines at the busiest times, he said. The group includes officials from major airlines and industry associations.

“We have a challenge this summer, which we are aggressively meeting head-on,” Neffenger told the House Homeland Security Committee.

Rep. Michael McCaul, the panel’s chairman, was unconvinced. Congress has granted a request by the TSA to reallocate $34 million to hire more officers and pay overtime, yet wait times are growing, he said.

“The American people are angry and frustrated as we head into the busiest travel season of the year, starting this Memorial Day weekend,” said McCaul, R-Texas. “They deserve answers.”

The crisis “didn’t just come out of nowhere,” McCaul said. “Airports and airlines have been sounding the alarm for months. Wait times are not soaring simply because security is that much tighter. It’s because the TSA bureaucracy has gotten weaker.”

A combination of factors contribute to increased wait times to pass through security screening, Neffenger said: More people are flying this year and fewer people than anticipated have applied for the government’s PreCheck program, which expedites screening for those who submit to a background check and pay an $85 fee.

In addition, airline fees for checked bags have boosted the volume of carry-on bags, putting extra pressure on screeners. About four times more bags are brought through TSA checkpoints than are checked at the ticket counter or curb, Neffenger said.

The TSA expects to screen 740 million passengers this year, a 15 percent increase over 2013. That increase comes amid a 12 percent drop in the TSA’s workforce that has reduced the number of screeners to about 42,000 at 440 airports nationwide. The 768 screeners to be hired next month will boost the number of inspectors by less than 2 percent.

McCaul pressed Neffenger about the abrupt ouster of the agency’s top security official. Kelly Hoggan was removed Monday and replaced by Darby LaJoye, a former federal security director in Los Angeles and New York.

Neffenger declined to explain why he removed Hoggan, saying only that “I needed a new direction going forward.” Hoggan, who received more than $90,000 in bonuses in 2013-14, remains at the agency on paid administrative leave.

Long lines have been plaguing airports since early spring, but the issue came to a head in recent weeks when thousands of passengers in Chicago missed flights because of lengthy checkpoint waits.

Despite those problems, there are signs of improvement, Neffenger said. The agency has installed a new management team in charge of screening operations at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport following an incident in which 450 passengers were stranded overnight because of long security lines. TSA also has increased use of overtime and made other changes that appear to be working. The longest wait time at O’Hare on Tuesday was about 15 minutes, he said.

American and United airlines say they are spending $4 million each to bring in contract employees who can take over nonscreening chores such as handling bins and managing lines, freeing up TSA agents to focus on screening. Delta Air Lines will spend at least $3 million and is redesigning two checkpoint lanes at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport to speed things up before Memorial Day.

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, who oversees TSA, has asked airlines to temporarily reduce or eliminate fees for checked bags to speed up inspections at checkpoints. Airlines have balked at the suggestion, saying TSA is to blame for the long lines.

Besides reducing fees, airlines should enforce rules limiting carry-ons to one bag plus one small personal item, Neffenger said. “Every additional bag coming through the checkpoint is a potential slowdown,” he said.

Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-La., said the stakes for getting it right are high. Richmond, who represents New Orleans, said his region depends on tourism.

“The last thing we want is people to come down and have a good time and then have a bad taste in their mouth because they waited in an airport line or they missed their flight,” he said.

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