It was a nightmare made real — over a three-day holiday weekend, no less. Long wait times at airports. Missed flights. And on the other end of the spectrum, security breaches galore.
Sometimes it seems as if the Transportation Security Administration fails to stop the people it should be stopping because screeners are too busy holding up run-of-the-mill travelers. It has some members of Congress rethinking the post-9/11 decision to federalize airport security.
“[TSA has] more money than they’ve ever had … They’re more interested in benefits for them than how it benefits the public.”
“Maybe it is time to get rid of the TSA and turn it back over to the private sector,” Rep. Marsha Blackburn told LifeZette.
Blackburn sponsored legislation in 2011 that would have taken away police-like badges and law enforcement uniforms from TSA employees not trained as federal law enforcement officers. Although the bill never made it out of committee, she said she continues to believe that the uniforms worn by TSA screeners give the false appearance that they are sworn law enforcement officers.
Blackburn recalled that during a recent airport visit, she talked to TSA officers about their backgrounds before coming to the agency. One woman had worked at a grocery store, the congresswoman said. Another had been a fast food worker.
“We continue to put the focus on the fact that they should come out of the law enforcement uniforms and into customer service uniforms,” she said. “They need to be customer service agents.”
Long lines at TSA checkpoints already have caused 70,000 travelers to miss flights this year, and helped lead to the ouster of Kelly Hoggan, the agency’s head security officer. A U.S. Travel Association survey this month of 2,500 Americans found that airport lines would prompt almost 22 percent to skip summer travel or use other modes of transportation. The advocacy group said that translates to a $4.3 billion hit to the industry.
“To put these figures in perspective, the problems at TSA security lines are costing our economy almost $1.5 billion in spending and more than 12,000 jobs every month,” U.S. Travel Association CEO Roger Dow said in a statement. “We’re looking at convincing data that says hundreds of thousands of people are potentially reconsidering whether to get on an airplane every single day. Given the importance of travel to both our economy and our way of life, it is not an overstatement to call that a national crisis in need of a national solution.”
The Department of Homeland Security has responded by transferring $34 million to the TSA, and the agency has beefed up staffing at busy airports. This month, the agency also released a statement affixing blame — on passengers.
“Travelers who arrive at checkpoints prepared for air travel can have an impact on lowering wait times at security checkpoints nationwide, just as individuals who come to the TSA checkpoint unprepared for a trip can have a negative impact on the time it takes to complete the screening process,” the TSA said in a statement.
J. David Cox, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, identified another culprit — insufficient funding. Last year, the TSA collected a record amount of money from passenger fees, but Cox told NPR that Congress diverted that money for other purposes.
“Each one of us — every time you and I or any person purchases an airline ticket — there’s a fee on that ticket,” he said. “That money goes to fund TSA.”
Rep. Blackburn said management, not funding, is the cause of delays.
“They’ve got more money than they’ve ever had,” she said. “They have plenty of money. They’re more interested in benefits for them than how it benefits the public.”
For what it’s worth, travelandleisure.com reports that the 22 airports that still use private security contractors have not experienced unusual wait times.
The TSA has a history of instability. The Department of Homeland Security reassigned the previous TSA director last year after the agency’s inspector general reported that undercover agents managed to smuggle prohibited items, such as mock explosives or weapons, through TSA checkpoints in 67 out of 70 attempts.
In addition, security breaches at U.S. airports remain routine. The Associated Press, which maintains an updated database of breaches, has counted 345 since 2004 — a rate of one every 13 days. Since 2009, the rate has been one every 9.5 days. Airports in San Francisco, Las Vegas, and Philadelphia have had the most.
AP counted a breach as any time someone got into an airport’s secure area. The incidents involved people jumping fences, tunneling under them — or even cutting through them. They included people were disoriented, drunk, or mentally unstable. They used bikes and skateboards to enter, and some took control of vehicles on the tarmac. One man even got into a helicopter cockpit, and five trespassers had loaded guns.
Abdirahmaan Muhumed, a Somali man who had a job cleaning planes for the airport in Minneapolis, left the country to fight with the Islamic State terrorist group and died in combat in 2014.
So far, the airport breaches do not appear to be connected to organized terrorist plots. That may be why the TSA has not taken a harder line.
“The straight-up honest answer as to why it’s not being vigorously addressed?” aviation security consultant Jeff Price told AP. “Nothing bad’s happened. Yet.”