Skift Take

Airport security lines are getting worse, and the TSA hasn't been able to do enough to fix it. One of the problems is that PreCheck enrollments have not met expectations.

Rarely a week has gone by this spring without a negative article about the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and the security lines wrapping around U.S. airports.

The problem is snowballing toward what may be a miserable travel season this summer and the TSA is just now reacting by attempting to release more agents back into the field.

That effort may too late, however, as passenger and airline frustration starts to boil over.

At its root, the problem stems from the simple issue of not enough security agents and too many passengers. Earlier this year in The Wall St. Journal, Peter Neffenger, TSA administrator, pointed to staffing cuts, an increased volume of passengers, and “efforts to fix significant screening lapses” as the reasons behind growing lines.

On top of those constraints, the agency is also struggling to contend with the failed implementation of TSA Precheck. That program was supposed to enlist 25 million passengers by this summer, alleviating the loads in mainstream security lines and allowing the TSA to cut staff. Instead, it has only secured 9.3 million enrollees while staff cuts remain in place.

Security screenings, meanwhile, have not become any faster after the end of the agency’s managed inclusion program coupled with more robust security after reports of a 95% failure rate within the TSA’s detection capabilities.

As security lines continue to grow and TSA staff become more overworked and demoralized, frustration across security checkpoints is surging.

Security checkpoints have become so disruptive that air carriers and airports have waded into the fray. Typically, most carriers leave responsibility solely within passengers’ hands to make (and if necessary pay to rebook) flights. But the volume of flights now being missed by passengers has potential to seriously disrupt daily airline operations — after all, aircraft are running at near-capacity and there is often no room to reaccommodate passengers.

Today, airlines are starting to step up advocacy, both directly through passenger outreach over email and social media and indirectly through Airlines for America, the industry trade group. That campaign encourages consumers to vocalize their unhappiness with the state of airport security, using an #ihatethewait hashtag on social media to unify the message.

Airports are also asking for action to be taken. Earlier this year, Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson airport threatened to outsource its security away from the TSA while Seattle-Tacoma has been actively managing lines and customers over Twitter.

Bowing to pressure, the TSA announced on May 4 that it would increase staffing at security checkpoints, with focus primarily on airports with the longest delays. Additionally, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson confirmed that extra canine teams would be allocated to checkpoints, allowing for some Precheck lanes to accommodate a wider range of travelers.

Whether the bandages will be enough to hold a hemorrhaging security checkpoint network is largely dependent on passenger volumes and the industry’s tolerance this summer. For now, long security line outbreaks seem to be few and far in between. But as soon as the veneer of stability is disrupted — whether through increased summer volumes, bad weather or some sort of security screening instability — expect wait times at checkpoints to go through the roof.

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Tags: airport security, tsa

Photo credit: In this Oct. 30, 2014, file photo, a TSA officer, left, checks a passenger's ticket, boarding pass and passport as part of security screening at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. Mark Lennihan / Associated Press

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