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Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson on Friday asked for patience as he outlined steps the government is taking to reduce extremely long airport wait times amid a growing public backlash. (May 13)
AP

WASHINGTON –  Anticipating long lines at airport checkpoints this summer, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said Friday that Transportation Security Administration officials would take aggressive steps to stretch its workforce by hiring more security screeners and allowing more officers to work overtime.

Still, Johnson warned, travelers will see long wait times as the agency at time of high security coincides with the busy summer travel season. Travelers and airline officials have complains of waits as long as two hours in some airports.

Johnson said he hoped the plan he outlined Friday at a press conference at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport would avert the possibility of even longer waits.

“Obviously waiting three hours for a two-hour flight is not acceptable and it’s not a good thing and it taxes everyone’s patience,” he said. But he added, “We’re not going to compromise aviation security because of this.”

Johnson’s 10-point plan includes hiring more TSA officers, paying more overtime, deploying more canine teams and using airline workers to handle non-security functions at the checkpoints, such as moving bins. Congress agreed Wednesday to allow TSA to shift $34 million between its accounts to expedite the hiring of 768 new officers by June 15 and pay overtime for its 42,500 officers.

“We want to keep people moving, but we want to keep passengers safe,” he said. “There will be wait times as they move through aviation security checkpoints.”

Airport officials in the New York area and Atlanta have grown so frustrated with long lines that they have threatened to hire private security contractors to replace TSA screeners. Airlines for America, an industry group representing most of the largest carriers, created a website, www.ihatethewait.com, and hashtag #ihatethewait to encourage travelers to post pictures of long checkpoint lines.

Ross Feinstein, a spokesman for American Airlines, said in an interview that travelers waited up to an hour and 45 minutes at checkpoints at Chicago O’Hare airport on Thursday. During one spring-break week in mid-March, 6,800 American customers missed flights due to long waits at security lines, he said.

“Our customers have voiced their concerns with the length of TSA lines at airports nationwide,” Feinstein said. “The concern is that spring break repeats itself every week during the entire summer.”

Johnson’s 10-point plan comes too late to alleviate the anticipated summer surge and doesn’t account for deeper problems with training and management at TSA, Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., a longtime critic of TSA, said. He called Johnson’s plan “a little bit late at the gate.”

“They don’t know how to recruit, they don’t know how to train, they certainly can’t maintain and they certainly can’t manage,” Mica said.

TSA Administrator Peter Neffenger said in March that wait times had nearly doubled from last year. TSA also stepped up security following the terror attacks in Paris, Brussels and Egypt over the past year. Add to that an estimated 8% uptick in the number of travelers flying this summer, Neffenger said.

TSA is also plagued with high employee turnover. Nearly one-fourth of the part-time workforce and 9% of the full-time officers leave each year, Neffenger said.

Neffenger said on Friday that  the hiring and training at a new TSA academy would outpace the average loss of more than 100 workers, mostly part-timers, per week. TSA has taken some steps to alleviate the bottlenecks, including shifting 28 teams of bomb-sniffing dogs from smaller airports to those where lines have grown the worst.

Airport officials praised TSA’s efforts Friday, but said it won’t be enough to end agonizing waits. The American Association of Airport Executives and Airports Council International-North America have urged TSA to move behavior-detection officers to checkpoint positions, allow local security directors to make staffing decisions, such as overtime, without consulting headquarters and postponing local training for officers until after the summer travel  season.

“The problems at checkpoints across the country are complex and not easy to resolve,” said Todd Hauptli, CEO of the airport executives group.

Security officials have made  a public push for travelers to join Precheck, which allows pre-screened travelers to keep on shoes and belts and leave laptops and small containers of liquids in carry-on bags as they pass through the checkpoints. Precheck registered 2.36 million members by the end of March, but officials want to recruit millions more. To join, travelers pay $85 for five years and provide fingerprints and some biographical information.

American Airlines and others are encouraging travelers to join Precheck, Feinstein said. Johnson said 10,000 people applied for Precheck on Thursday, which nearly tripled the pace of 3,600 people per day in March 2015.

Johnson said he would send a letter to 100 top businesses to encourage them to reimburse employees who enroll in the program.