The Latest on TSA Lines and How You Can Cut the Wait

Line Up

••• A TSA security line at Chicago O'Hare International Airport. Photo courtesy of Brett Ryden

Peter Neffenger has probably one of the worst jobs in government: head of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). The agency has been taking a beating over growing lines at checkpoints across the country. In this piece I wrotel, the agency has blamed Congress for not increasing its operating budget in five years, which hasn’t allowed it to hire the officers it needs to staff checkpoints.

We’ve all read the stories about record long lines and passengers missing their flights. At Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, an automation glitch caused a pile of 3,000 pieces of luggage to be left behind. The bags were put in an airport parking lot for screening and sorting, then flown to their final destinations, much to the consternation of their owners.

I attended the American Association of Airport Executives meeting in Houston, and was regaled with tales of folks trapped in long lines. Also attending that meeting was Neffenger. He threw out his prepared remarks, instead asking airports to work with his agency to make lines smaller for summer travel.

Neffenger noted that the agency has opened a dedicated training facility in Brunswick, Georgia, which is training 200 officers a week. Congress agreed to give the agency $34 million to fund more overtime and hire nearly 800 more workers.

It’s also working to be more flexible in bringing on more officers during peak summer travel times.

Before 9/11, airport security checkpoints were handled by the airlines, which hired private contractors to perform those duties. And 21 airports -- including San Francisco International, Kansas City International and Florida’s Sarasota-Bradenton International -- use private screeners for their security checkpoints under the TSA’s Screening Partnership Program.

Under the program, these airports can be flexible in adjusting the number of screeners needed during peak times. And more may be joining the TSA’s SSP because of growing lines. Airports in New York City, Chicago and Phoenix are threatening to join the program if lines don’t improve.

And there’s always TSA PreCheck, which allows travelers to leave on their shoes, light outerwear and belt, keep their laptop in its case and their 3-1-1 compliant liquids/gels bag in a carry-on, using special screening lanes. But despite paying an $85 fee for five years of access, passengers are complaining about lines not being open at peak times, screeners bringing non-PreCheck travelers to the lines creating longer ones or lines being shut down arbitrarily to relieve crowding.

But will it be enough this summer? The airlines don’t think so, so they are spending money to help keep lines moving. In order to help passengers at its Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport hub, American Airlineswill pay $4 million to hire a company that will move travelers more quickly through security, by helping with tasks like taking laptops and liquids out of customers’ bags to moving checkpoint bins. Delta Air Lines will spend a similar amount on helping passengers in its top 32 domestic airports between June and August.

Even Airlines for America, the trade group for the major U.S. carriers, is getting into the TSA-bashing act. The group has asked inconvenienced passengers to show their displeasure over the long lines via its “I Hate The Wait” website and campaign. The website urges travelers trapped in line to post pictures on Instagram at @TSA and tweet @AskTSA, both using the hashtag #IHateTheWait.

So what are the options for travelers to avoid the stress of long lines? Below are my top seven tips.

  1. Download the MyTSA app. No only does the app let you check approximate wait times at TSA security checkpoints at the airport of your choice, but find airports with PreCheck and how to sign up, check on airport delays, see what you can take past checkpoints and give TSA feedback on your checkpoint experience.

  2. Catch early-morning flights. The earlier the flight, the shorter the lines tend to be

  1. Get to the airport early. This is obvious, but you never know how long the lines will be, so you need to plan accordingly.  Some airlines are recommending arriving at least two hours ahead of your flight.

  2. Buy PreCheck or Global Entry. When it works, TSA PreCheck can save plenty of times in lines. And those who enroll in Global Entry get PreCheck for free.

  3. Consider alternative airports. Some cities have more than one airport, and smaller ones can have shorter lines.

  4. Fly on slower travel days. The best days for travel are Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Saturdays. If you fly on other days, prepare for longer waits.

  5. Use social media. Use the hashtag #IHateTheWait to see what’s going on in key airports across the country. And check the Twitter account of your local airport to see what they’re posting about line wait times.