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The surprising reason airport delays are suddenly so bad

Rick Newman
Senior Columnist

The number of air travelers hit a record during the summer of 2015, yet there were no major problems with delays at security checkpoints. A year later, hundreds of infuriated passengers are missing flights every week as they wait hours to navigate security.

What changed? A lot more than most travelers are aware of. Nearly a year ago, teams working for the Department of Homeland Security ran a series of covert tests to see if they could sneak banned and potentially dangerous items past security screeners. It turns out, they could. “We found layers of security simply missing,” DHS Inspector General John Roth testified before Congress last November. The details of the DHS security audit are secret, but such tests are meant to mimic what terrorists and criminals might try to bring onto a flight.

The security breaches, in turn, triggered a rollback in loosened screening procedures meant to speed travelers through checkpoints faster. Meanwhile, the number of air travelers is up more than 15% since 2013, while the headcount at the Transportation Security Administration, which manages airport security, is down 10%. “At TSA, there’s a longtime tension between the primary mission of security and the secondary mission of supporting the free flow of commerce,” says Jennifer Grover, director of homeland security and justice at the Government Accountability Office. “The pendulum may have slipped away from security. They’re tightening up on security.”

The TSA is one of the agencies Americans love to hate, but it has actually put considerable effort into reducing wait times and making screening less invasive. In 2011, it began developing new procedures to move more passengers through expedited screening that eliminates the need to remove shoes and belts, take laptops out of cases and comply with other tedious rules. The core of that effort was the PreCheck program, which lets passengers undergo expedited screening if they pay an $85 fee to enroll for five years and agree to a background check verifying they’re low-risk travelers. That program is still in effect and hasn’t changed.

But another measure called “managed inclusion,” begun in 2012, extended Precheck privileges to nonenrollees randomly selected at roughly 120 large airports with dedicated PreCheck screening lanes. The idea was to funnel more people through  expedited lanes when they’re underutilized, to ease pressure on the regular lines and streamline wait times for everybody. As part of the program, TSA deployed canine teams, officers trained to recognize suspicious behavior and other tactics to assure managed inclusion wouldn’t compromise security. Here’s one intriguing diagram showing how TSA revamped the logistics of security lines:

Sources: Goverment Accounting Office, Transportation Security Administration

By early 2014, the number of passengers breezing through expedited screening had jumped roughly sevenfold from the number a year before, according to a GAO report published last year. TSA continued funneling more people through expedited screening until the DHS inspector general’s office sent “red teams” to airports in 2015 to try to sneak banned substances past the screeners. Most  details remain secret, but Roth, the DHS inspector general, said in last year’s testimony that “additional layers of security … which were meant to compensate for the lack of risk assessment, were often simply not present.” And in an unrelated case, a convicted felon believed to have ties to domestic terrorist groups gained access to expedited screening.

PreCheck not popular enough

At some point last year, TSA stopped using most of its managed inclusion procedures, shunting a significant portion of passengers back into the regular security lines, which are now bulging at airports such as Chicago’s O’Hare, Atlanta’s Hartfield-Jackson, New York’s LaGuardia and Dallas-Fort Worth. No quick fix seems likely. TSA and the airlines want more people to sign up for PreCheck, but passengers have been more reluctant than anticipated. TSA’s goal is to have 25 million fliers enrolled by 2019, but so far only 2.7 million have signed up. At the current pace of about 1.5 million new enrollees per year, PreCheck enrollment is way short of TSA’s goals. It’s possible, of course, this summer’s delays will trigger a wave of new signups.

TSA’s staffing levels are based partly on the estimated need for screeners, given predicted air travel and other factors. And it appears TSA underestimated additional staff that might be needed with the cutbacks in expedited screening. “TSA stopped managed inclusion and didn’t put anything else in its place,” says Jean Medina of Airlines for America, the industry’s trade group. A modest management shakeup at TSA has been one response to the problem.

TSA, for its part, points out that its budget and staffing have been cut by Congress, even though Congress hiked the TSA fee every passenger pays by 124% in 2014, from $2.50 per flight segment to $5.60. About $1.3 billion of the money collected through TSA passenger fees doesn't go to the TSA, but to deficit reduction. The airline industry is lobbying Congress anew to redirect that money back to TSA, and might get its wish. "There is momentum right now to take a look at the portion of the security fees going to the general fund," says a Senate aide. "This is a good time to make sure everything we're doing with this money makes sense."

Meanwhile, officials in Washington are dickering over whose fault the maddening delays are, while trying to find solutions. TSA and others say steep fees for checked bags on most airlines have compelled passengers to bring more carry-ons aboard, increasing the load of baggage that has to be screened at checkpoints. Some legislators have asked airline CEOs to waive baggage fees during the summer, to help unsnarl the lines. The airlines have basically said no, while pointing out that checked bags have to be screened as well, and arguing that baggage isn’t the problem.

What the airlines have done is assign some of their own employees to checkpoints to help with nonsecurity duties and fill manpower gaps. A new airline web site, I Hate the Wait, is meant for passengers to share information (and frustrations) about long lines and help others plan accordingly. Concerned passengers, meanwhile, might want to book flights at off-peak times or find less-crowded, alternate airports if possible. And this summer, you probably can’t arrive too early for your flight.

Rick Newman’s latest book is Liberty for All: A Manifesto for Reclaiming Financial and Political Freedom. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.