Passengers at airport security checkpoints in Houston may be fed up with time-consuming screenings, but their maximum waits – 31 minutes or more at both Bush Intercontinental and Hobby – are not as long as some other major cities, according to an analysis of consumer reports to the Transportation Security Administration and others.
Weary travelers have reported waiting as long as 50 minutes at Phoenix Sky Harbor International and 49 minutes at San Francisco International.
Yet checkpoint lines threaten to grow longer for the nation’s 650 million air travelers, with the deficit-conscious White House and Congress reluctant to add equipment and staff, the TSA imposing budget cuts and the likelihood that more people will be flying as the economy improves.
The TSA faces a no-win dilemma: Spend more money to reduce the lines or suffer passengers’ criticism for doing too little.
Added to that, the Government Accountability Office, Congress’ watchdog, is raising questions about at least two of the most ambitious efforts to cut costs without eroding security. One is the use of full-body scanners; the other is the efficiency of some 3,000 behavior detection officers.
“If your wait times start to go up, it drives you toward opening more lanes earlier than you might normally,” explains David Nicholson, chief of finance and administration at the $7.6 billion-a-year aviation security agency. “But that will affect your costs.”
The TSA says an estimated 99.5 percent of the nation’s air travelers are clearing security checkpoints in 20 minutes or less, though it no longer provides detailed wait times by airport.
The majority of the 13 million passengers checking in each year at Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport and William P. Hobby Airport perceive their checkpoint processing time to be less than 10 minutes, on average, according to a Houston Airport System customer service survey cited by spokesman Darian Ward. That’s at least 20 minutes shorter than the maximums that passengers reported to the government’s MyTSA mobile app and a consumer advisory group called FlyOnTime.us.
Many travelers and members of Congress remain impatient with checkpoint lines.
“In my experience as I travel, the longer the line is to get to the actual checkpoint, the more aggravated (people become) with every little thing that happens to them once they make it to that checkpoint,” says U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond, a Louisiana Democrat.
TSA plans to spend 3 percent less next year overall. The latest budget request would cut so-called checkpoint support by 41 percent.
The aviation security agency is shouldering “an overall reduction in funding through targeted reductions and efficiencies,” says TSA administrator John Pistole. “We are keenly aware of the economic challenges facing the nation.”
TSA hopes to cut waiting times by expanding the skip-ahead program known as TSA Pre-Check that speeds qualified, pre-cleared passengers through separate lines. The program is being expanded from 10 to 33 airports this year, adding to the 640,000 frequent fliers already using expedited screening.
But congressional auditors have questions about other efficiencies as well, like having 3,000 “behavior detection” officers assigned to question passengers. The officers sidetracked 50,000 passengers in 2010, resulting in the arrests of 300 passengers, the GAO found. None turned out to be terrorists.
Yet in the same year, behavior detection teams apparently let at least 16 individuals allegedly involved in six subsequent terror plots slip through eight different airports. GAO said the individuals moved through protected airports on at least 23 different occasions.
“Questions related to the program’s validity will remain until TSA demonstrates that using behavior detection techniques can help secure the aviation system against terrorist threats,” says Stephen Lord, the GAO’s director of homeland security investigations.
Concerns continue as well about Advanced Imaging Technology devices that scan beneath passengers’ clothing for liquid or powder explosives.
The GAO is challenging the costs, effectiveness and speed of the 640 AIT devices already at 165 airports. And 1,800 are expected to be in place by the end of 2014.
Yet, investigators report the devices might not have detected, for example, the underwear bomb that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab managed to sneak onto his flight from Amsterdam to Detroit in 2009.
Added to that, the AIT system processes passengers more slowly because the technology requires passengers to remove shoes and metal objects in their pockets, as well as nonmetallic objects such as handkerchiefs or wallets.
Party-line funding split
Republicans and Democrats disagree on paying the price for security.
“Long lines should not result in so-called efficiencies such as cutting TSA officers or trying to privatize screening,” says U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Houston, the top Democrat on theHouse Homeland Security Committee. “You don’t go cheap on homeland security.”
According to U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers, the Alabama Republican who heads the House Homeland Security Committee’s panel with jurisdiction over aviation security, “We all need to learn to do more with less, and I believe TSA is capable of doing just that without compromising security.”