Why TSA Lines Have Gotten So Much Longer

Denver at times has unmatched waits for security screening but it’s Atlanta that’s threatening to privatize So the TSA promises to try harder (like Avis used to!) in Atlanta by summer. (HT: Ryan) Of course the federal government has a history of blocking airport attempts to outsource security functions despite a legal right to do so in any case.

Meanwhile Minneapolis-St. Paul just wants the TSA to try harder for them.

Airport Policy News gets into the reasons that screening lines are on the rise. Indeed, there’s no relief in sight.

[TSA Administrator Peter] Neffenger arranged a conference call with officials at the 20 largest airports the last week of February. But the news was not good. He could offer no near-term relief, meaning that long lines are projected to be even worse during this summer’s peak travel season.

As I predicted when the Homeland Security Inspector General’s report found that the TSA failed to find prohibited items 95% of the time — that the TSA couldn’t spot a terrorist if one came up to the checkpoint wearing an “I am a Terrorist” t-shirt — the TSA basically reacted like this:

Indeed, last June Neffenger declared the need for the TSA to become less efficient moving passengers through checkpoints. And now screeners spend more time per passenger through the checkpoint.


TSA Agents in Charlotte Watch News of the TSA’s Failure to Detect Weapons and Bombs, Instead of Searching for Weapons and Bombs (HT: >Tocqueville)

Screeners now get centralized training — both new hires and existing employees have to go to the agency’s training center in Glynco, GA for two weeks of courses. This now increases “the total time to get a new screener on board from the previous six weeks to more like 13 weeks.” That means fewer people manning the checkpoints while their colleagues are in training.

There’s also a complaint that the TSA isn’t getting more money to hire more screeners (they’ve spent it all on expensive toys like the mothballed backscatter nude-o-scopes). But the issue isn’t the total number of screeners it’s deployment and utilization. Private industry knows how to schedule workers to meet peak demand and reduce staffing during lulls. Governments do not, cannot, and will not. So their only solution is increased staffing and budgets.

The TSA thinks more people should join PreCheck. To grow PreCheck TSA wants to use third party providers. There’s only one so far, Morpho Trust, and they’re suing to prevent the process of adding other companies from going forward.

The protest is bizarre in that Morpho is not only the sole current provider of PreCheck enrollment processing (at about 350 locations); it is also one of the seven bidders on the expanded enrollment and marketing program. In effect, what the company is doing is trying to maintain its enrollment monopoly for as long as possible, while hoping to gain one of the new contracts eventually.

Currently 6 million are enrolled in TSA’s program or collaborative programs. But their goal is 25 million. It’s not clear how PreCheck scales to that. Already PreCheck lanes are slower, not from more passengers but from screeners spending more time on each person already considered a ‘trusted traveler’.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. When I am a 40+ year frequent flier with the US airlines I fly, why does my boarding pass still only get randomly assigned PreCheck every 5-6 flights instead of every time? Are there 40 year frequent flier Al Quaeda sleeper agents? This is grossly inefficient.

  2. Msp just opened new 17 million dollar security line renovation, that immediately created catastrophicly longer waits instead of promised improvements.

  3. @matt, totally TSA’s doing. They demanded that MSP consolidate its checkpoints, which were working brilliantly, from 6 to 2 so the TSA would be able to “staff them more efficiently.” After MSP not only complied but footed the bill for the totally unneeded “upgrade” TSA pulled half their staff off the line, leaving most of the new entry points unstaffed. The MAC, the Mpls Star Tribune, and Senator Amy Klobuchar have been beating on the TSA trying to get them to fulfill their agreement, so far without success.

    The TSA claimed to have a staffing shortage, which Klobuchar unmasked as a fraud; they have funding for hundreds of unfilled TSA positions which they aren’t even moving to fill. Many more agents are MIA because they have been pulled out of action for extensive retraining. According to the local paper, the TSA’s latest move is to offer to bring in some drug-sniffing dogs instead of more TSA agents. Meanwhile, one of the best-managed airport security lines in the nation has been made into an embarrassment, through no fault at all of the local airport commission. Infuriating. Fortunately the last time I flew was through Terminal 2, which was unaffected by the debacle. I’m just hoping they give us back our full complement of agents before my next trip.

  4. @ Gary, I continue to disagree with fundamental assumptions behind your criticisms of the TSA – including “Private industry knows how to schedule workers to meet peak demand and reduce staffing during lulls. Governments do not, cannot, and will not.”

    Almost the entire planet uses government security workers in airports, but your complaints focus on American airports; so you might qualify your statement above to focus solely on “the American Government does not, cannot, and will not”.

    Second, I’d like to see the proof of such a statement. Government run police departments, public hospitals, the military, and air traffic controllers – to name just a few – manage to schedule workers based on demand, so why can’t the TSA? Or maybe they do, just not very well?

    Third, do you really think that there’s no difference between private sector security guards, retail employees, Starbucks baristas, and airport security workers?

    The private sector is better at many things than the government, but there is ZERO evidence to suggest that they are better on airport security. None whatsoever. In fact, the private security industry was on the job on 9/11. That’s why they were replaced, and whatever your opinions, the facts indicate that the TSA’s record is superior, at least so far.

    Complain about the TSA’s incompetence all you want, but don’t suggest that the problem is simply that they’re government employees, which is offensive and untrue.

    The comments that you incite from the anti-TSA crowd sound like conspiracy theorists who would not out of place at a GOP rally. Don’t encourage it by making generalizations that have little or no basis in fact.

  5. My totally unproven theory is that the TSA wants the lines to be so long that complaints reach enough of a crescendo that they can get the funding they want from Congress. There’s everything about the way this bureaucracy has operated in the last 15 years to suggest that their number one priority is enlarging their staff, budget and reach (see VIPER teams). Safety is important to them but secondary to enhancing the bureaucracy.

  6. Considering TSA screeners are being instructed to tell frustrated passengers to “contact their congressman” for more TSA funding, this is a deliberate slowdown. I’ve been contacting my congressman for years, to get rid of the TSA but that’s not worked, so I’m not sure why TSA thinks people asking for more funding would help them.

    @Joe: Private contractors were following the guidelines given to them by the government. Box cutters were fully allowed. What failed on 9/11 was our government’s intelligence department. Despite many warnings, these people were allowed to roam the nation, take flight training classes in Florida, get drunk, go to strip clubs, and do all sorts of other things that so-called Muslims do. Our government stood there with its thumb up its arse, with no one agency willing to share info with another.

    If for a moment you think TSA adds any security, you’re sorely mistaken. TSA’s charter was to “reassure the public” into “feeling safer”. Note, no part of it was to actually make air travel safer. If it was, screening would be minimal. By the time an attacker is at the airport, you’ve already lost. To date, TSA has stopped ZERO, ZLICH, NADA terrorist attacks. Informed passengers have stopped several. TSA are holding US citizens hostage, not the terrorists. I’ve curtailed much of my flying due to it. That’s lost revenue for airlines, taxis, hotels, and restaurants of the places I would have gone for business & leisure travel. It’s about a 90-95% reduction in travel compared to what I used to do. That’s not inconsequential.

  7. Governments get bigger, and they get less efficient as they grow. It’s pretty much the only thing they’re good at.

  8. A friend of mine is an international flight attendant on a major American airline. She claims the whole TSA screening thing is an elaborate illusion to keep the public from fearing to fly. She told me that they fly packages for UPS and other shipping companies on almost every flight, and never screen any of them. These packages could easily contain bombs, since UPS and other companies don’t screen them at their source. She said every time she gets on a plane, she knows it could be her last. She is a very adventurous person.

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