The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is warning travelers in the United States to expect even longer waits than usual at airport security checkpoints in the coming months, with the agency's new chief of operations saying that chronic understaffing and more thorough screening procedures mean "this is going to be a rough summer."
"We are probably not at the staffing level we would like to be to address the volume," the TSA's Gary Rasciot told the New York Times, in anticipation of the busy travel months to come. "This is why we are talking about people getting to the airport a little earlier than planned."
As it stands, wait times at airport security checkpoints are unpredictable. A rudimentary poll among friends found that people waited anywhere between 25 minutes to two hours to remove their shoes, pass through a metal detector, and have their bags scanned at US airports in the past year. Last month, at Charlotte Douglas International Airport, 600 passengers reportedly missed their flights after understaffing led to waits exceeding three hours. Brent Cagle, the airport's interim director, filed a complaint and told The Charlotte Observer that the entire episode was a "fiasco."
The glacially slow screening process isn't necessarily an indication that TSA is being thorough, either. Since its inception, the agency, which was hastily established at a cost of $1.3 billion by the George W. Bush Administration as an arm of the Department of Homeland Security in wake of the 9/11 attacks, has routinely failed undercover tests. Last year, checkpoint screeners failed to detect mock explosives and weapons in 95 percent of undercover tests carried out by Homeland Security.
On Monday, undercover Homeland Security agents tested TSA's passenger screening thoroughness at Minneapolis-St Paul International airport. The TSA screeners reportedly failed nine out of 12 tests. The result of another test, in which an undercover agent slipped through a body scanner with a mock explosive strapped to his or her leg, was deemed "inconclusive" because the machine wasn't calibrated properly.
While letting fake bombs slip past, TSA agents are notoriously vigilant about confiscating lotions and other liquids in containers larger than 100 millileters, along with a broad range of toys and other seemingly innocuous items. In 2011, the website Salon compiled a list of contraband seized by TSA agents that included a butter knife from an airline pilot, a teenage girl's purse with an embroidered handgun design, a four-inch plastic rifle from a GI Joe toy on the grounds that it was a "replica weapon," a toddler's plastic Star Wars lightsaber, and a liquid-filled baby rattle from airline pilot's infant daughter.
Members of congress and security experts have frequently lambasted TSA its ineffectiveness. Bruce Schneier, a security expert, described TSA's practices as "security theater" in his book Beyond Fear: Thinking Sensibly About Security in an Uncertain World.
"When people are scared, they need something done that will make them feel safe, even if it doesn't truly make them safer," Schneier wrote on his blog. "Often, this 'something' is directly related to the details of a recent event: we confiscate liquids, screen shoes, and ban box cutters on aeroplanes. But it's not the target and tactics of the last attack that are important, but the next attack. These measures are only effective if we happen to guess what the next terrorists are planning."
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Rasciot told the Times that TSA is going to do its best to keep waits at checkpoint lines to a minimum this summer. He said the agency plans deploy 768 additional officers to the busiest airports by June 15 — about a week before the summer officially begins.
"TSA's primary focus is the current threat environment, as the American transportation system remains a high value target for terrorists," the agency said in a statement to VICE News.
"The rise in checkpoint wait times is fueled in part by the unprecedented rapid growth in travel volume, with the number of travelers up more than seven percent over last year, coupled with more people traveling with carry-on bags," the statement said. It added, "At many airports, adding additional TSA screeners would not do much to reduce wait times as the airport terminals already are accommodating the TSA screening lanes and screeners at capacity. (Think of a funnel.)"
Anthony Roman, a former pilot and founder of the security company Roman & Associates, told VICE News that TSA's system has improved dramatically since Peter Neffenger was appointed administrator last year, and that's why airport lines seem longer.
While Roman recognizes there is a staffing issue, he also notes that TSA is saddled with the difficult task of balancing public safety and public satisfaction. "There's a constant tug of war… and there will always be unhappy passengers."
"You have to provide reasonable safety for the public, while protecting the privacy and dignity of those people you're trying to protect," Roman said. "You also have to remain unpredictable by changing your procedures according to the severity of a fluctuating threat. It's never going to be perfect."
To avoid lengthy waits and missed flights, TSA has urged people to sign up for PreCheck, which offers special lanes where travellers aren't required to remove their shoes, take off their belts, or unload laptops and other electronic devices. So far, only 2.5 million people have paid the $85 application fee and gone through the enrollment process — far short of the 25 million passengers the TSA had hoped to recruit.
A bill introduced after the recent deadly attacks the airport in Brussels, Belgium, proposes what is essentially an overhaul of airport security. The measure would bring in "new safeguards against terrorism," and streamline security checks to address concerns over maddeningly long lines. It would also establish new security measures to protect against attacks similar to the ones in Brussels, particularly around "soft" targets like airport baggage claim areas and ticket counters.
The new bill passed the senate 95-3 and awaits a vote by the House. That means change could be on the horizon — but probably not in time for you to go on vacation this summer.
Follow Tess Owen on Twitter: @misstessowen