Like a lot of people in his generation, my dad is a creature of habit.
To this day, at 75, he still wakes up at 5 a.m. every day – without an alarm clock. That’s what 20 years in the U.S. Air Force will do for you.
He also insists on being at the airport at least two hours ahead of his flight time. And if you’re flying with him, you’d better be ready to leave, get left behind or just book another flight on your own.
Not surprisingly, he can’t remember the last time he was sweating it out in a lengthy Transportation Security Administration line. (Even before he signed up for TSA PreCheck.)
Granted the Jensen Beach, Florida, resident flies out of Palm Beach International Airport, which appears to be avoiding the long waits being felt by other larger airports. But even PBIA, ranked 52nd nationally in passenger traffic with just under 3 million people boarding planes, admittedly has its days.
So what’s Lorenza Christie’s take on the current mess with thousands of airline passengers sweating it out in long security lines at some of the nation’s busiest airports? “We’re spoiled,” he says matter-of-factly. “Folks show up 30 minutes before a flight, running, and then get pissed when they have to wait in a TSA line.”
Yeah, what he said.
I know this isn’t the most popular stand to take these days; especially Memorial Day weekend, the official beginning of the summer travel season. An estimated 2 million-plus of those same passengers are testing their patience in TSA lines at airports from Miami to Washington, D.C., to Los Angeles.
But let’s face it: We are a bit spoiled. We’re used to having things how we want them, when we want them. I mean, have you seen a Starbucks coffee menu lately?
Try arriving at the airport 30 to 45 minutes before your flight out of London, Mexico City, Paris, Tel Aviv or Havana. You would never make it onto the plane because of the security checks that you have to go through. When I flew out of Moscow years ago, I had to be at the airport at least three hours ahead of my flight.
That’s because those countries and their citizens put security ahead of everything else, even if it inconveniences them. And as we saw in Brussels and Cairo, that still may not be enough. The Brussels attack happened in the airport terminal, while the EgyptAir flight may have involved an employee who didn’t have to submit to regular security checks.
This is not meant to dismiss the fierce criticism that TSA has come under in recent weeks. It’s understandable that travelers would have been nervous and concerned ahead of last weekend.
Atlanta. Chicago. Denver. Horror story after horror story was confirmed by passenger smartphone video of lines wrapped around terminal corners, and giving rise to the hastag: IHateTheWait.
The airlines, being the team players they are, basically blamed TSA for the delays that caused passengers to miss flights.
So last week, an embattled and noticeably addled Peter V. Neffenger, the TSA administrator, was warning anyone who was still listening to him that passengers would most likely continue to experience longer-than-normal wait times because of an expected increase in summer travel.
You can probably guess that didn’t go over well when he, who has been on the job all of a year, testified before the House Homeland Security Committee on Wednesday.
“This is not a new rodeo,” said Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, chairman of the committee. “Why didn’t we see this coming?”
They should have. A mixture of increased passengers flying, decreased TSA workers at airport security checkpoints and increased carry-on luggage due to airline baggage fees had resulted in long lines at many of the nation’s major airports. And all of this came after TSA tightened security procedures after federal auditors managed to get fake bombs and weapons past screeners 95 percent of the time in 70 covert tests.
To fix things, Neffenger said TSA was promoting screeners from part-time to full-time, reassigning hundreds of behavioral detection officers to help on security lines and shifting bomb-detection dog teams to larger airports.
He even replaced the agency’s top security official, Kelly Hoggan, who had come under criticism for receiving $90,000 in bonuses over a 13-month period. You can see where that was kind of hard to justify.
Congress – as forward-thinking as ever – has authorized the agency to hire 768 additional screeners to handle the expected increase in passengers. But the number of TSA screeners has declined to 44,942 this year from 47,147 in 2013, according to the agency. And the union that represents TSA workers, the American Federation of Government Employees, says the agency needs more like 6,000 additional screeners – now.
TSA has two primary jobs – keep transportation safe, and run an efficient, professional operation. We expect both to be done right.
Before sacrificing Neffenger on the altar of public opinion, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson asked fliers “to be patient” as the government took steps to get them onto planes more quickly.
“Our job is to keep the American people safe,” he said. “We’re not going to compromise aviation security in the face of this.”
Fine. But a little balance of those two primary jobs would help, Mr. Secretary.
This shouldn’t be just TSA’s responsibility, however. Shouldn’t we also expect the airlines to help with this problem? By charging fees for checked baggage, passengers are compelled to bring more carry-on stuff, which gums up the screening process. The more fliers, the more carry-ons, the longer the lines.
Can’t the airlines, which expect to pocket $3.8 billion in fees this year, relax them – at least for the summer?
As for you spoiled passengers, think about paying the $85 fee (good for five years) to join TSA PreCheck to move through security more quickly – and maybe with your sanity intact. It’s a hassle, but it’s worth it if you’re a frequent flier.
Even better, make my dad proud: Don’t wait until 30 minutes before your flight to show up at the airport.