The summer travel season has begun in earnest and with it comes a soaring increase in wait times at passenger security checkpoints nationwide. Not surprisingly, the traveling public’s outcry over the shortcomings of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) was swift and heavy, most notably with the creation of the “ihatethewait” hashtag that blanketed social media platforms for weeks.
The public has spoken, and TSA, believe it or not, has listened. The Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and even Congress – given the bipartisan nature of this issue – have banded together to develop near-term, workable strategies to drastically reduce wait times, as well as to invest thought and man power from the private sector to develop future screening innovations.
Here is a recap of what turned out to be a busy month at our nation’s airports and on Capitol Hill:
Two important bills were discussed in the House of Representatives. The Checkpoint Optimization and Efficiency Act of 2016, approved by voice vote, would require the TSA to man checkpoints with behavior detection officers. It also gives greater authority and flexibility to local TSA directors with regard to staffing.
Of course, the question of how to pay for any shift in addition to current staffing levels is always a hot button issue, and the Funding for Aviation Screeners and Threat Elimination Restoration (FASTER) Act addresses a potential solution to this problem. The FASTER Act would mandate that money collected from airline passengers as part of the 9/11 security fee go directly to financing the costs of airport security screenings. Currently, only a small portion of this fee is allocated to security, while the bulk of this tax revenue is diverted to paying off unrelated government expenses. This reallocation would increase funding for additional TSA agents, as well as provide an easier authorization process for overtime hours worked by current TSA employees.
TSA is making some big time changes to address wait times and alleviate the stress, not to mention the missed flights they are causing.
Just before Memorial Day, it was announced that Rod Allison, the former Director of the Federal Air Marshal Service, would become the TSA’s Deputy Chief of Operations, working directly with Gary Rasicot, Chief of Operations, to direct screening operations throughout the country. Both Allison and Rasicot will lead the TSA’s renewed focus on staffing needs and proper allocation of forces to combat threats and satisfy theessential needs of the Administration. TSA has also set up the National Incident Command Center, which will monitor airport activity nationwide and troubleshoot problems in real time.
In Atlanta, TSA is testing the use of “innovation lanes,” which allow five passengers to pass through security lanes at one time. In addition to passengers moving through the process in groups, luggage is also funneled into five automated screening stations. If a bag requires further inspection, it is simply diverted out of the line so as not to backlog the process.
Secretary of Homeland Security, Jeh Johnson, has called on Congress and his own staff to explore even more near term solutions, including:
— Requesting Congress to divert an additional $28 million to convert approximately 2,700 part-time TSA agents to full-time. It is estimated that doing so would allow an additional 82,000 passengers to be screened each day.
— Increasing the number of canine teams at the nation’s seven busiest airports, allowing for 40,000 more passenger screenings each day.
— Requesting a volunteer agent corps from current TSA staff to be temporarily reassigned from smaller airports to some of the country’s busiest locations.
Even the airlines are lending a hand. American, Delta, and United Airlines have authorized extra funds to allow their own employees to supplement TSA staff members at checkpoints, assisting with crowd control and replenishment of screening bins.
In addition to immediately addressing staffing and backlog issues, TSA is also looking to implement new technology to ensure past mistakes and the negative passenger experiences they caused will not be repeated.
TSA hopes the innovation lanes being tested in Atlanta will pass with flying colors, allowing them to be used throughout the country. The Administration has also approached the security industry to assist in the development of artificial intelligence that would completely change the way body-scan machines operate. The goal here is to use advanced algorithms to detect explosives on a passenger, allowing them to keep their shoes and jackets on, which drastically reduces the amount of time it takes to pass through the scanner. TSA also aims to apply this strategy to carry-on luggage, allowing the same computer algorithms to detect questionable liquids, without passengers having to remove them from their bags. Preliminary estimates say these innovations would allow at least 300 passengers to pass through security per hour, which is twice as fast as the current pace.
Because of these actions and initiatives, and with continued cooperation, airport wait times will be well on their way to meeting the standard set forth by the Department of Transportation – 29 minutes or less!