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Summer Fliers May Simmer on Long Airport Security Lines

Until recently, it’s been mainly passengers complaining about long lines at the security checkpoints.
Image: Travelers wait in line for security screening at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport
Travelers wait in line for security screening at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in Seattle. Fliers will likely face massive security lines at airports across the country this summer, with airlines already warning passengers to arrive at least two hours early or risk missing their flight.Ted S. Warren / AP, file

Until recently, it’s been mainly passengers complaining about long lines at the security checkpoints.

But now airlines, airports and industry groups are getting fed up as well.

Last week, American Airlines lashed out with a statement, calling long lines at Transportation Security Administration checkpoints “unacceptable” and blaming an understaffed TSA for the delayed departure of hundreds of flights due to customers stuck in checkpoint lines.

“Lines grew exponentially in January, February and March, a low-season for air travel,” said American Airlines spokesman Ross Feinstein. He added that during one Spring Break week (March 14-20) nearly 6,800 of the carrier’s passengers missed their flights due to checkpoint delays.

Read More: Huge Increase in Passengers Causing Air Travel Nightmares

Brent Cagle, interim aviation director at Charlotte Douglas International Airport, also expressed his displeasure with the TSA last week in a letter complaining about the TSA’s budget, staffing and service cutbacks at CLT, and citing a day in March when security wait times at that airport exceeded 3 hours.

“The actions of the TSA have had and will continue to have a detrimental effect on customer wait times and a negative economic impact to the airport and the airlines,” Cagle said in his April 13 letter to TSA Administrator Peter Neffenger.

Last month, Seattle-based Alaska Airlines tweeted an alert about long checkpoint wait times to customers traveling from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, following it up with an email urging passengers to get to the airport extra early if they want to be sure to make their flights.

“Wait times of more than an hour at Sea-Tac are not acceptable,” said Alaska Airlines spokeswoman Ann Zaninovich.

The airline continues to warn passengers about long wait times, but Zaninovich said the Seattle-based carrier is pleased Sea-Tac airport is being proactive and addressing the wait time issue by hiring temporary private contractors (and absorbing the associated costs) to help move lines along during the busy summer travel season.

The contracted staff, expected to be in place by May 1, “will allow the TSA staff to focus solely on security and open more checkpoint lanes in order to gain higher passenger through put,” the airport said in a statement, noting that while Sea-Tac currently has 32 screening lanes, the TSA only has staffing for between 17 and 19 lanes at any one time.

Read More: Long Lines at JFK? Airport Now Tracks Phones to Find Out

Airports elsewhere may have follow Sea-Tac's lead and absorb the costs, or rely on TSA to make promised changes.

At a press conference at Sea-Tac airport on April 15, TSA administrator Neffenger said that to address understaffing the agency is increasing its training classes and accelerating hiring, adding overtime, dispatching K9 teams to the airports with the highest traffic and asking Congress to return and increase funding for additional TSA staffing.

Airline, airport and travel trade groups have been watching and weighing in on the wait-time issues as well.

“We believe that, with a $5.6 billion budget and nearly 50,000 staff, TSA has the resources to ensure that passengers are not subject to unreasonable wait times,” said Vaughn Jennings, managing director for government and regulatory communications for Airlines for America, the trade group that represents most domestic airlines.

Last week, the presidents of Airports Council International-NA and the American Association of Airport Executives sent TSA Administrator Neffenger a joint letter with seven suggestions to alleviate long checkpoint wait times.

Read More: American Airlines Hits Out at 'Unacceptable' TSA Lines

Included on that list was a suggested “marketing blitz” highlighting the TSA’s PreCheck program that offers travelers an expedited experience at security checkpoints.

Concerns go beyond the airports themselves. Some local tourism organizations have incorporated alerts on airport wait times into their social media efforts.

“We are fortunate to have an airport just a mile from the beach and conveniently located near most hotels,” said Brad Dean, the president & CEO of the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce. “Many visitors like to soak-up their vacation and arrive at the airport closer to their flight times, so we work closely with our airport officials and do our best to make our visitors aware of any excessive security delay through our social channels, our call center and our visitor centers.”