Guest Editorial: How to shorten airport lines

Chicago Tribune
May 19
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Not long ago, the Department of Homeland Security went undercover at airports to check for vulnerabilities in the passenger screening process. The conclusions were scary: failures of technology, of procedure and human error at the Transportation Security Administration. “We found layers of security simply missing,” John Roth, the department’s inspector general, reported.

Peter Neffenger, who took the top job at TSA last year, blamed harried security officers trying to keep wait times manageable. “People were pushed through the checkpoint,” he said.

And there you have crucial background to the agony at airports around the country, where getting through security can take 60 to 90 minutes, causing some travelers to miss flights. It doesn’t take much reading between the lines — forgive us — to figure that TSA’s potentially dangerous screw-ups, plus a new administrator who wants to keep his job, means more methodical screenings and longer security lines.

Of course we all want strong airport security. The country is counting on TSA to protect travelers from another terrorist assault. Security appeared to tighten after the bloodbath in Brussels. We get it. But that doesn’t mean travelers should have to put up with the frustrations of interminable, unpredictable lines. The airlines, which appear as infuriated as passengers, can’t keep asking passengers to turn up earlier and earlier at the airport. Arrive three or four hours before takeoff? No.

Back to basics: TSA has two primary jobs — keep transportation safe, and run an efficient, professional operation. Americans expect both to be done right. If Homeland Security’s undercover operations lit a fire under Neffenger to be diligent about security, we trust he’s also feeling the heat to fix management of the screening process. Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., told Neffenger he should get passenger lines going again at Chicago’s airports by Memorial Day or resign. We’re not inclined to set a deadline, but the holiday weekend represents the unofficial start to the summer travel season. So unless operations start to improve soon, lines are about to get even longer.

Start with the fact that, according to its union, TSA has about 42,000 officers, down from 47,000 in 2013. That might constitute responsible budgeting, except passenger traffic is up by about 15 percent. At least part of this mismatch was supposed to be covered by the introduction of the Trusted Traveler Programs. Fliers who sign up for TSA’s PreCheck are vetted ahead of time and then whisked through a separate, faster line. It’s a time-saver for frequent travelers, but the program is underused. The hassle of signing up, plus the $85 fee for five years, evidently has dissuaded people. Thus, the airport lines.

From where we sit (toward the back of the plane, bag stowed overhead), all parties can make contributions:

Airlines — If you’re assigning staff to help passengers traverse the long lines, please keep it up. But you’re also playing an unintended role by charging fees for checked baggage. That compels passengers to bring more carry-on stuff, which gums up the screening process. Consider relaxing your baggage fee rules to coax more fliers to check luggage and thus reduce carry-ons going through security. If only for summer. This kind deed will be remembered. (We wonder how much more quickly the inspections could move if airlines flipped their incentives, charging for carry-on baggage but letting checked bags fly free. Problem solved?)

Passengers — If you fly regularly, join PreCheck. You will get through security more quickly and with your sanity intact. Then the obvious advice: Pack light, don’t be late, and follow instructions to get through the checkpoints smoothly.

TSA — Make the right calls on staffing and ensure officers are thorough, efficient and professional. We hear your calls for patience and for arriving plenty early at the airport, but Mr. Neffenger, we expect you to lead the charge on this. If there are glitches in the system, fix them. Congress appropriated money for hiring and overtime this month. If you need additional funds, make the case. Americans have places to be. Do not leave us hanging.