TSA Hopes To Speed Up Screening Lines This Summer, Administrator Tells Congress

May 25, 2016
Originally published on May 25, 2016 11:09 pm

The head of the beleaguered Transportation Security Administration told lawmakers on Capitol Hill Wednesday the long passenger lines at screening checkpoints at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport this month should have been avoided. He also said it was a "failure" on the part of the agency to get some things done.

"Chicago was a preventable incident in my opinion," TSA Administrator Peter Neffenger said at a House Homeland Security Committee hearing.

"When you look at what happened, this was a surge that was anticipated, it was known, it was a failure to get some things done in advance of that," Neffenger said.

Neffenger, the lone witness at the hearing, added that the O'Hare incident was fixed "pretty quickly" through a combination of accelerating the deployment of additional K-9 units, sending more transportation security officers to Chicago, converting 100 part-time officers to full time and approving more overtime hours for workers there.

"The total of that has resulted in a significant change in the Chicago picture," Neffenger said.

He also cited the Chicago Tribune, which reported wait times are now 15 minutes at that airport, down from waits that exceeded two hours earlier this month and led to hundreds of people missing their flights or spending the night at the airport. The shorter wait times, he said, are the result of a new TSA management team at O'Hare and converting dozens of part-time screeners to full time.

Neffenger's testimony comes at a critical time for the TSA as the agency is receiving increased congressional scrutiny over its management and accountability. It also comes just days before Memorial Day weekend, the start of the summer travel season.

Earlier this week, the head of security for TSA, Kelly Hoggan, was replaced after the House Oversight Committee found he received more than $90,000 in bonuses over a 13-month period.

Neffenger told lawmakers at Wednesday's hearing, which lasted about two hours and resulted in few fireworks, of his plans to expedite screening times as the summer travel season gets underway. That includes adding 768 screeners to its workforce by mid-June.

He also noted that there will be a "lag time" in how quickly problems will be resolved. Neffenger said the TSA projects that checkpoints across the country will screen 100 million more people in 2016 than it did in 2013, while the agency's workforce has been reduced by 12 percent over that same time period.

Committee Chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas, described issues with the agency as a "crisis" and not just limited to Chicago. He added that the bureaucracy at the TSA "has gotten weaker."

"This crisis didn't just come out of nowhere. Airports and airlines have been sounding the alarm for months," McCaul said. "The agency has struggled to keep up with the high demand and has been unable to put the right people at the right place at the right time. Change is not happening fast enough."

The issue of travelers bringing more carry-on items through security checkpoints to avoid additional bag fees was raised at the hearing.

Neffenger acknowledged it is a problem, saying there are four times as many carry-ons coming through security compared with what gets checked.

Louisiana Democratic Rep. Cedric Richmond urged Neffenger to look into waiving checked-bag fees if passengers enroll in the TSA's Pre-Check program. He called the additional bag fees many airlines impose "just another way to dig in the American people's pocket."

But he did offer a solution.

"Why don't we say anyone who has Pre-Check, the airlines can't charge you baggage fees. And that would drive people to go enroll in Pre-Check and we get to, not stick it to the airlines, but we'd get to help the American people," Richmond said.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Long lines at airports across the country have caused passengers to miss their flights. That was front and center on Capitol Hill today as the head of the TSA testified before a House panel. Peter Neffenger says some of the problems were preventable and that the agency is fixing them at key airports. NPR's Brian Naylor reports.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: The headlines and horror stories have become familiar - travelers stranded at airports overnight because they missed their flights stuck waiting in endless security lines. House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul opened today's hearing, saying Americans are angry and frustrated and calling current conditions unacceptable.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MICHAEL MCCAUL: This crisis didn't just come out of nowhere. Airports and airlines have been sounding the alarm for months. There is no doubt that part of the challenge we face is a high-terror-threat environment. But wait times are not soaring simply because security is much tighter. It's because the TSA bureaucracy has gotten weaker.

NAYLOR: TSA administrator Peter Neffenger told lawmakers he knew coming onto the job last July that his agency faced a shortage of screeners. He also had to deal with an embarrassing inspector general's report that found screeners failed to detect fake explosives in the vast majority of tests.

Neffenger told the screeners to focus on expecting bags and not to worry about long lines, but the resulting lines have gotten embarrassingly and frustratingly long, culminating in an incident at Chicago's O'Hare Airport where 450 travelers were stranded overnight due to missed flights caused by security. Neffenger said today, that shouldn't have happened.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PETER NEFFENGER: Chicago was a preventable incident in my opinion. When you look at what happened, this was a surge that was anticipated. It was known. It was a failure to get some things done in advance of that. And we've proved that by fixing it pretty quickly.

NAYLOR: Neffenger says a new TSA management team is in place at O'Hare. Dozens of part-time screeners are now working full-time, and more canine teams have been sent to the airport. And he says it's working. Wait times at O'Hare yesterday were down to about 15 minutes.

Mississippi Democrat Bennie Thompson pointed to another culprit - the airlines and their baggage fees, which he suggested have led many passengers to try to cram their belongings into carry-ons, slowing down the screening process.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BENNIE THOMPSON: The airlines are making several billion dollars annually off those fees. And if that has contributed to the wait times, I think we ought to look and see if they can make a contribution toward this effort.

NAYLOR: Neffenger agreed. More carry-ons mean longer lines.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NEFFENGER: We see about four times the number of bags coming to the checkpoint than get checked, and volume of carry-on bags is - puts a lot of pressure on checkpoint operations.

NAYLOR: The airlines loath to lose the revenue stream from checked bags have been pitching in. Delta says it's spending $4 million on additional staffing at 32 airports to help direct passengers to the proper security lines and help move bins.

The TSA is in the process of adding 768 screeners to its workforce by mid-June, and Neffenger says the agency may come back to Congress for more help in the coming weeks as the summer travel season gets underway. Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.