After years of increasingly frustrating airport security experiences, the introduction of Pre Check seemed like the first step in reversing the trend. For those who signed up for it, Pre Check did create dramatic improvements. Since that time, however, plans have changed, and the original idea of having nearly everyone speed through security has started to fade. This year, a variety of issues have come to a head, and security lines have, as American puts it, “grown exponentially.” It would be nice to say there’s a quick fix here, but there isn’t. Here’s how we got into this mess and why it’s not likely to get any better soon.
Though I’m certainly not an expert in airport security, I’ve long believed that it’s all theater. When the US finds bad guys, it’s through intelligence work that happens long before someone gets to the airport. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) loves to crow about all the contraband items it seizes every week, but let’s be honest. None of those were going to be used to bring down an airplane. More often than not, it’s some gun-lover who left his piece in a bag. Or someone who thought she could sneak through a knife that was never going to be used for nefarious purposes. The real security work is done before the airport experience entirely.
That being said, theater is something that serves a purpose. And for the government, there is no better way to convey the feeling of safety than by having a million hoops for everyone to jump through before boarding an airplane. Though I don’t believe security should be dismantled at the airport entirely, I continue to think the way it was done in the 1990s was probably good enough, keeping some of the rule changes (like banning boxcutters) that were put in place since then. Remember, the 9/11 hijackers didn’t sneak anything through the checkpoint. They brought boxcutters onboard which were perfectly legal at the time. When Pre Check launched, it seemed like a step in the right direction.
With Pre Check, if you were willing to give more information to the government, you could get cleared for lighter security treatment at the airport, something that resembled the dying days of the last millennium where your shoes stayed on and your laptops remained in their bags. (That pesky liquid rule, however….) Once I went through the laborious process to sign up, I fell in love with the program. It made traveling so much more pleasant.
But there was a problem. While the TSA saw Pre Check as the future, it couldn’t get there right away. Eventually, the hope was that nearly everyone would be Pre Check (US citizens at least) and most of the lines would be set up that way. The standard, slow body-scanning line would be the exception rather than the rule. In the beginning, however, there wasn’t enough demand to justify having enough Pre Check lines open long enough hours. That’s especially important because budgets are tight.
See, you’d think that TSA could just hire more people to staff appropriately, but it can’t. Congress sets the budget for TSA, and that determines how many screeners can be employed. Requests for increases don’t usually sail through.
With that background, TSA decided there was opportunity in trying to opt people into Pre Check lines even if they hadn’t applied. There were three programs that came out of this. The first was Secureflight-based. That’s the data you have to give to the government every time you fly: your full name, your birthdate, and your gender. Based on that information, some people could just be opted in without knowing it. They’d end up with Pre Check on their boarding passes and they’d sail right through. That continues today, though TSA did say last March that it was cutting back.
The other two programs were called Managed Inclusion and dealt with people at the airport. The first iteration of Managed Inclusion (artfully-named Managed Inclusion I) involved dogs that sniffed out bad things. If they approved, then you could be moved into the Pre Check line. The second iteration (you guessed it, Managed Inclusion II) used behavior detection officers to look for any suspicious micro-behaviors. If they found none, then people could be moved into Pre Check at the checkpoint.
This combination of programs allowed TSA to keep Pre Check lines open and filled with travelers. It helped them to justify dedicating people to staff those lines. In the meantime, TSA had big plans to ramp up enrollment in Pre Check. TSA knew that the process was so cumbersome to apply, and it wanted to lower those barriers. So it started looking for private sector companies that could help TSA mine public data to help verify identities. In theory, if this worked, then it could lead to the end of the in-person interview process and make it far easier to ramp up the program. But about a year ago, privacy concerns crushed that plan. That was a big blow.
Then last September, pressure ramped up on TSA to cut back on its inclusion of non-Pre Check members in Pre Check lanes. TSA announced that it would end the Managed Inclusion II program. Though it wants more dogs for Managed Inclusion I, the combination of fewer people being opted in and the pace of sign-ups slowing meant that the Pre Check lanes weren’t being utilized as fully as before.
This was good news for Pre Check members who hated having longer lines at Pre Check, but those lines had much greater capacity, moving about twice as fast as a regular line. With more people shifted to regular lines, TSA was forced to reallocate its workforce. And then meant Pre Check lines started closing at times when they used to be open. As if that wasn’t bad enough, I’m told that the security process itself has been slowed. Searches are now more thorough and that’s taking longer to process.
The cherry on top of all this? TSA continues to be hamstrung in hiring. Air travel has grown significantly over the last few years. TSA screened 7 percent more passengers last year without being able to add screeners. It gets even worse than that. For 2016, the budget remained the same as 2015, but that followed three years of actual declines in screeners. Of it’s 42,000+ strong workforce, TSA is trying to get 300 more screeners in the 2017 budget. That’s barely going to make a dent as capacity continues to grow.
The end result is that lines continue to get longer. American says it has seen some customers forced to wait over an hour. That has either pushed the airline to delay flights or caused passengers to miss them. The problem extends beyond the checkpoint. TSA isn’t processing checked bags fast enough either, and that means bags aren’t getting on their flights. It’s only going to get worse as the number of passengers flowing through airports increases this summer.
So what’s the solution? Well, clearly TSA needs to hire more people. Congress without question needs to allocate more budget so TSA can start hiring. How to do that? Well, the White House’s budget plan from last year stole money that passengers were paying for security and used it for deficit reduction. That money needs to come back.
Is that realistic? Probably not. But as capacity ramps up further this summer, lines are just about guaranteed to get longer. It’s only going to get worse if the government doesn’t act.