The Travel Detective

Travel Detective Blog: The Problem with TSA Staffing Shortages

airportIt’s one thing to receive warnings of long delays at TSA security lines for this coming summer. It’s another thing to experience it, and to watch the total disorganization by this federal agency. To make matters worse, it’s not even summer yet.

Consider this news bulletin: airline schedules are published. It’s no secret as to when airplanes are departing. There are well known peak times. Yet, the TSA seems to staff its checkpoints based on a work schedule leftover from before the jet age.

Such is the case at LAX and the Tom Bradley terminal. If you go there any night of the week, the passenger surge starts around 8 p.m. and lasts well through midnight, so many international flights leave at night. We’re not talking about five or six departures, but more like two dozen. These are not 737s but wide-body, long haul mega jets.

However, each night, the line of frustrated passengers moves at glacier-like speed toward the TSA checkpoints. To make matters worse, there’s no such thing as a trusted international passenger—meaning no TSA PreCheck lanes. If you’re on an international flight, you’re all in the same line—and that assumes that all the security lanes are open and manned, which they are not.

The TSA is understaffed and poorly managed. Combine that with an increase in passengers, and it’s a recipe for chaos and anger. With a few thousand passengers—all trying to squeeze through too few security lanes with too few TSA officers.

What’s the result? People either miss their flights or the flights are delayed. The problem is compounded because none of the TSA officers have a backup officer. So if your bag needs to be inspected, the officer has to stop the line to inspect your bag, and the rest of the passengers just stand next to a stopped conveyor belt.

There is no one at TSA management—at least at LAX—who has the authority, the interest, or even the manpower, to make it better. On my international flight to Australia, I stood in line for an hour as I heard three different boarding announcements for my flight.

I wasn’t alone. There were hundreds of people in line behind me in the same predicament.

When I finally got to the front of the line, where I had to wait another six minutes because there were no bins to hold my belongings, I complained to a TSA agent. She merely shrugged and said “there’s nothing I can do.” I then asked to talk to a supervisor. In fact, I spoke with two—and they each could not have cared less.

It was then a race to the gate. But when I got there, the lead agent told me to slow down. “You’ve got time,” he said, “because this happens every single night. We complain and the TSA does nothing. Not a single plane will push back from the gate on time tonight,” he said.

Then it got worse. Our departure time came and went, and we didn’t push back. Then the pilot announced that we were trying to leave, but two passengers who had checked in hadn’t boarded, but their luggage was on the plane. So there was an additional delay to remove their bags (they were still in the TSA security line and missed the flight, even with our delay).

So what is the answer? Privatizing the TSA? What would that solve? An improvement in customer service without compromising security protocols? I doubt it.

What about adding more officers? That’s a start, but it doesn’t solve the problem if you don’t staff ALL the checkpoints during peak times with one officer to monitor the conveyor belt, one to monitor the body scan machine, and one to inspect any alarmed bags. Without a minimum of three TSA officers per checkpoint (and in reality, you really need five), the system collapses. That’s a staff minimum of three officers at ALL checkpoints. Nothing infuriates passengers more than arriving at the checkpoints at peak periods to see only two of five being used.

Some airlines are advising customers to get to the airport this summer three hours ahead of their flights. That’s cruel and unusual punishment and only serves to acknowledge the continuing failures of the TSA.

The answer is one of staffing numbers, training, and basic common sense—long, slow lines at TSA checkpoints is not a new problem. It’s terrorism and the mismanagement of security in the name of security.

Perhaps the most concerning thing about my experience is that this all happened this week…BEFORE the summer crush.

Click here to read Peter Greenberg’s update to this story.

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