Over the years we’ve watched airline travel turn from a pampered luxury to a nightmare of claustrophobia and wait times. When you look at pictures of airliners back in the 1950s and 1960s, the entire cabin looks like first class. The seats were huge, the flight attendants attentive and meals were so generous that, in the early days, they even came with a little five-pack of cigarettes. You could literally walk through airports, right out to the gates and, in some cases, people managed to sneak aboard aircraft without a ticket.
Terrorism mandated the security screenings and corporate greed combined with deregulation soon turned airliners into sardine cans stuffed with humanity. Today the claustrophobic horror in the air has become matched by the security screening nightmare on the ground. The travel nightmare has many wondering what was so bad when airlines were regulated? Okay, it cost more to fly but what you got in return more than justified the expense.
Earlier this month TSA advised passengers to arrive two hours early for their flights, now it’s three hours. Three hours. Many passengers are spending more time in the security lines than they are in the air to get where they’re going. A few unlucky souls, who missed their flights because of the security lines, were stuck sleeping on cots in the airport overnight.
How Did We Get Here?
Low fuel costs combined with an improving economy explain why more people are flying, what’s less clear is why the TSA is trying to handle more passengers with fewer screeners. In 2013 the TSA employed more than 47,000 full-time screeners to handle 643 million travelers. In 2016, handling more than 740 million passengers, the TSA only employs 42.500 screeners. The math doesn’t lie. You’re waiting longer in airport security lines because the TSA has fewer screeners and more passengers. That’s a situation that even the most junior airline analyst could see coming.
Let The Finger Pointing Begin
In a public relations blunder equal to the insanity of the security lines, TSA suggested passengers bringing too many carry-on bags were responsible for the delays. While there may be some truth to security lines being flooded with amateur travelers, the shortage of screeners is the main cause of the lines and blaming your customers for your own poor planning is something only a government agency would think was a good idea. Congress gets its fair share of the blame by underestimating the budget for screeners, thinking more people would take advantage of the PreCheck program. This week Congress approved $34 million for additional screeners, a drop in the bucket that will barely keep pace with the number of screeners the TSA loses every month due to attrition.
An additional 700 screeners from Congress won’t make up for TSA’s poor planning and neither will the 58 additional security officers TSA is sending to O’Hare. Additionally, the TSA has authorized overtime at some of the nation’s busiest airports to try and help the congestion. The government is urging passengers to be patient, which is exactly what you’d expect when you have the problem dictating the solution. Some airports have threatened to replace the TSA with private screeners.
In the end it was a combination of poor planning and inadequate funding that led to three hour airport security lines this summer. At a minimum TSA administrator Peter Neffenger should step down but that seems unlikely. In the meantime you can pass time in line sending the TSA an email complaint. Then follow that up with a note to your representative in Congress and post pictures on Twitter. You have three hours to kill, might as well put the time to good use.