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Security wait times at airports across the nation are soaring, leading to criticism of the TSA, which claims that budget cuts have left it understaffed. Now, with the number of airline passengers expected to soon reach all-time highs, embattled TSA security chief Kelly Hoggan has been fired after a controversial three-year tenure. Hari Sreenivasan talks to Bart Jansen of USA Today for more.
If you have traveled on a plane recently, you have likely seen something different at the airport, extremely long lines. It's a problem roiling the government, airlines and the public.
One on the right, one on the left, please.
At airports across the country, frustration is boiling over as security wait times soar.
I have missed three flights because of, you know, standing in line.
Look at the chaos that goes on here, and every checkpoint is like this.
Now the Transportation Security Administration has sacked Kelly Hoggan, the man in charge of day-to-day security operations. He's had a checkered three-year tenure. In 2015, a Homeland Security report found TSA employees failed to find banned items in more than 95 percent of covert tests.
And there've been allegations that Hoggan played a role in punishing whistle-blowers. Then there's $90,000 in bonuses he received between 2013 and 2014. That issue riled the chair of the House Oversight Committee at a recent hearing with TSA head Peter Neffenger.
REP. JASON CHAFFETZ (R), Utah: Those bonuses were given to somebody who oversees a part of the operation that was in total failure.
Dissatisfaction with Hoggan came to a head last week, when hundreds of passengers missed flights at Chicago's O'Hare Airport after waiting for hours.
MAYOR RAHM EMANUEL (D), Chicago: We have a situation that is totally not tolerable for the flying public because the people responsible were not doing the jobs that they needed to do in funding, but also staffing positions.
The TSA's Neffenger says his agency has struggled with budget cuts at a time when more people are flying. Another concern? Relatively few people signed up for TSA's expedited pre-check procedure. Congress has voted an additional $34 million to hire nearly 800 more screeners, but Neffenger says that's not enough.
Today, the union for TSA one called for an additional 6,000 personnel. Meanwhile, with summer about to begin, the number of airline passengers is expected to reach all-time highs.
We break down the problem now with Bart Jansen, transportation reporter for USA Today.
I flew out of O'Hare last week, not once, but twice. What was going on? And these were lines that I have never seen anything this long.
BART JANSEN, USA Today:
They were having among the worst experience in the whole country last week. They had waits that stretched to two, three hours.
And that is why they started to throw these extra staffers and canine teams at that problem.
All right, so, what is at the core of the staffing issue? What happened and what is going to fix it?
Well, there is a confluence of three elements.
One is that overall staffing for screeners is down something like 5,800 screeners since a peak in 2011. So, they have about 42,500, but it's much fewer than they used to. That I.G. report that found that they weren't catching much last summer has prompted them to check bags more thoroughly, so they're taking a closer look at you as you go through the lines.
They're going to redo that undercover investigation this summer to see if they're catching more. Neffenger says they are catching more. And we are also seeing more travelers than ever before. The Airlines for America expects 231 million travelers this summer between June 1 and August 31.
But what's the ripple effect on the traveler? When we saw and heard those people say how many flights that they have missed, cumulatively, this has got to be a lot of business concerns for the airlines, too.
Yes, the concerns — it's a headache for the airlines, because anybody who misses a flight, trying to rebook them, the flights are going almost 90 percent full. It's difficult.
American Airlines said that during a single week in mid-March, they had 6,800 travelers miss their flights because of the security screening. So, that's why Airlines for Americas organized a hashtag and Web site called I Hate the Wait for people to register just to try to get more public acknowledgment of the problem.
Yes, speaking of registering, we were talking off camera about Global Entry. I signed up a few years ago. I was going through the TSA pre-check lines. How many other people are joining me in this, and how does that factor into it?
Overall, there are somewhere a little above 10 million people in expedited screening programs so far.
About 2.5 million of them are specifically pre-check, which is the TSA program. If you're in Global Entry through Customs and Border Protection, that gives you the added value of, when you're coming back from overseas, you get to go through the customs lines faster, skip the long lines from the airlines.
So, they're trying to recruit more people into these programs, but so far they're falling well below. At 10 million total members, they're falling far below their goal of 25 million in these expedited programs.
And have these pain points at the airports increased the amount of applications?
They were getting 2,000 to 3,000 applicants a day at this time last year. Now they are up to above 10,000 a day last week. Neffenger told us this morning that they got 15,000 people in one day.
Now, you met with Neffenger this morning before the news about Hoggan came out. What was the mood there?
Well, yes, we set up a — we had an editorial board arranged with him before this news broke.
He was very forthright, saying that — he didn't say that Hoggan had done something wrong. He just said he wanted a change of strategy. He wants to try to make the lines more efficient, rather than just going faster for people. They don't want to sacrifice security for moving the lines.
Nevertheless, they think they can move the lines more efficiently and get people through faster.
Almost every travel agent I speak with says it's going to get worse through the summer.
Yes, the secretary of homeland security, Jeh Johnson, has warned that, even as they add the screeners that was mentioned in your report, that lines are still expected to be long. You should plan ahead.
But they are going to try to avoid the two- and three-hour waits that you have seen in the last few weeks.
All right, Bart Jansen of USA Today, thanks so much.
Thanks for having me.
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