Last updated: 07:00 AM ET, Wed May 04 2016

Understaffed TSA Could Cause Major Headache at Airports This Summer

Airlines & Airports | Josh Lew | May 04, 2016

Understaffed TSA Could Cause Major Headache at Airports This Summer

Photo courtesy of Department of Homeland Security

Long wait times at TSA checkpoints around the country, exacerbated by a 10 percent cut in the agency's workforce, are not just a problem for travelers. Airlines and airports, frustrated by costly delays, have begun speaking out.

American Airlines claimed that more than six thousand of its passengers missed flights because they were held up at TSA checkpoints during the busiest week of Spring Break. These incidents prompted AA spokesman Ross Feinstein to proclaim that “the lines at TSA checkpoints nationwide have become unacceptable.”

In another statement, he added a specific example to illustrate just how frustrating the situation had become. “At LAX, lines are going out the door to a whole other terminal… The staffing model doesn’t work right now.” 

READ MORE: American Airlines Joins Critics of TSA Screening Delays

Staffing and PreCheck mistakes

Airlines are concerned that this kind of thing will be repeated again and again during the busy summer travel season. The TSA had cut more than 5,000 staff members over the past three years in order to meet its budget goals. It will only have about 700 of these workers replaced by summer, so there will still be a very large deficit. Airlines have already started to tell passengers to arrive at least two hours early for domestic flights and three hours early for international flights. 

The biggest mistake that the TSA made was assuming that the popularity of its PreCheck program would take off. This has not happened. More than nine million people have signed up for the program, which allows them to pass through checkpoints with very limited screening. However, the TSA had projected that 25 million fliers would have signed up by now. Apparently, a number of people have balked at the $85 fee and application requirements, including a face-to-face interview. 

Could privatization be the answer?

The TSA has always been a target for criticism. However, now airports are joining the chorus, and some are threatening to actually do something about what they consider woeful under-performance by the security agency. 

Atlanta Hartsfield Jackson has been threatening to replace the TSA with a private firm, or at least to bring in contractors to make things run faster. 

This would not be an unprecedented move. A number of airports, including San Francisco International and Kansas City International, already rely on private firms to handle their security. 

READ MORE: TSA Pre: The Best $85 You'll Ever Spend on Travel

Privatizing might not cost the government any less money than the TSA in the long run, but private firms could be judged (hired and fired) based on their performance both in terms of security and in terms of how streamlined their operation is. The criticism is that having different companies handling security at different airports instead of a standardized approach used by the TSA would be a step backwards towards the pre 9/11 era. 

Changes probably won't come in time for summertime travelers

This is not a new idea. Five years ago, John Mica, then the chair of the House Transportation Committee, suggested that having private screeners working under federal guidelines would be a better solution than the “unwieldy bureaucracy “ of the TSA: "The private screening under federal supervision works and performs statistically significantly better, so our main purpose here is in getting better screening and better performance…”  

Going private could be a realistic option, especially since airports have both the power to make that change and a precedent to support such a decision. 

In the meantime, however, passengers traveling this summer should be ready for significant delays at security checkpoints around the country. 

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