Airport Security: What’s Behind the Backups


Travelers lined up for screening by the Transportation Security Administration at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago on Monday.

Scott Olson/Getty Images

WASHINGTON — Long security lines have at times prompted hours of delays at the nation’s airports, generated heated responses from frustrated travelers and led to calls for Congress and the Obama administration to fix the problem. Here are the answers to five questions to help passengers understand why waits are longer at airport security checkpoints.

1. What is causing the long lines?

The Transportation Security Administration says the number of passengers has increased nearly 12 percent since 2011, while the number of screeners has declined by 12 percent, to 41,928 this year from 47,630 in 2011. The agency attributes the decline to budget cuts, though some Republicans in Congress blame the T.S.A. for cutting the number of screeners in recent years.

The T.S.A. tightened security procedures after federal auditors managed to get fake bombs and weapons past screeners, which has also contributed to the long lines. The agency also stopped a program that allowed people who have not signed up for background checks to use expedited security lines.

The result: waits of an hour or more at some airports.

2. What is the T.S.A. doing about it?

Last week, Jeh Johnson, the secretary of Homeland Security, announced that the T.S.A. would pay more overtime for screeners, speed up hiring and increase the use of bomb-sniffing dogs. Congress has shifted $34 million in the T.S.A.’s budget to help the agency pay for 768 additional screeners. The agency is also moving bomb-sniffing dogs that screen passengers from smaller airports to larger ones.

Mr. Johnson urged travelers to sign up for T.S.A. Pre✓, or Precheck, an expedited screening process that allows passengers to keep their shoes on and keep their computers in their bags. Enrollment in the program has fallen short of expectations, exacerbating the longer lines.

3. Can airports hire private security contractors?

Yes. Under the T.S.A.’s Screening Partnership Program, 22 of the approximately 450 commercial airports in the country, including San Francisco International Airport, now use private screeners.

Some airport executives and Republicans in Congress have proposed hiring private screeners to replace T.S.A. workers.

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates Kennedy International Airport, La Guardia Airport and Newark Liberty International Airport, as well as officials at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta and Douglas International Airport in Charlotte, N.C., say they are considering private security contractors.

But some transportation experts point out that airports with private screeners, which must follow T.S.A. procedures, are also experiencing longer waiting times as passenger volume increases.

And even if larger airports like the ones in New York and Atlanta moved to switch to private screeners, they could not do so in time to handle the increased summer travel.

4. What is Congress doing to alleviate the long lines?

Senators Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, both Democrats, have called on airlines to help reduce waiting times by waiving fees for checked baggage.

“Without charges for checking their bags, passengers will be far less likely to carry them on, which snarls screening checkpoints and slows the inspection process,” they said in a letter to a dozen major airlines.

Representative Bennie Thompson, Democrat of Mississippi, has suggested that the agency reassign its behavior detection officers to screening duties. Those officers, many of them former screeners, are trained to look for and identify possible terrorists by studying their behavior. Reports by the Government Accountability Office have questioned the value of the program.

Several Republicans have already called the increasing security lines an example of the government’s inability to operate airport security effectively.

They say that mismanagement, rather than a shortage of resources, is the real problem.

Jason Chaffetz, Republican of Utah and chairman of the House Oversight Committee, said the T.S.A. was unable to retain its screening work force and that spending extra money at the agency would not fix the problem.

5. Do passengers have any recourse?

Signing up for T.S.A. Pre, the expedited screening program, could help.

Otherwise, there is not much passengers can do to end the longer waits. A social media campaign, “I Hate the Wait,” has been started by the airline industry, giving travelers a chance to air their grievances.

Passengers have complained to their congressional representatives, who have put pressure on federal officials to act.

The T.S.A. has said that in the short term, though, the long lines will probably continue.

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