With Memorial Day coming up, the summer travel season is nearly upon us. More than 38 million Americans are expected to get out of town this weekend alone, most of them driving, not flying.
That’s a good thing, because the Transportation Security Administration is far from ready for extra work.
Since January, lines at TSA security checkpoints have been growing, snaking through airport concourses and into parking lots. Passengers in cities bigger than Sacramento are now being told to show up at the airport three hours early – and sometimes even that hasn’t been enough time to get scanned and probed.
It got so bad in March that 6,800 American Airlines passengers missed their flights in one week. In Chicago, 450 people missed their flights in one day.
Passengers shouldn’t have to wait hours just to board a terrorist-free plane, and airlines shouldn’t have to constantly cancel and delay flights just to accommodate TSA. Fixing this mess must be a priority.
The TSA blames budget cuts, pointing to the nearly 6,000 screeners it has lost in the past four years. The agency says it simply lacks the employees to staff security checkpoints. Meanwhile, air travel is at record levels, with the number of fliers expected to exceed 220 million between July and August of this year.
In response, Congress this month approved $34 million to hire 768 new TSA employees. At least one airline also vowed to hire contractors to help manage lines at the nation’s busiest airports.
It’s a start – just as ousting TSA security chief Kelly Hoggan this week is a start. He received tens of thousands of dollars in bonuses as TSA was failing.
But manpower alone won’t fix TSA. The agency has long been the black sheep of government agencies, roiled by one self-inflicted crisis after another. Last year, an internal investigation found that screeners missed weapons and explosives smuggled through checkpoints about 95 percent of the time.
Even after a change in leadership, whistleblowers testifying at a House oversight hearing this month described an agency so dysfunctional that supervisors who ignored security issues were getting bonuses and workers who reported the issues were getting punished.
TSA Administrator Peter Neffenger says he has since capped bonuses at $10,000 a year. With all the problems the agency is having and the financial corners it has had to cut, we question whether supervisors should be getting bonuses at all.
When staff turnover is as high and morale is as low as both are at TSA now, change won’t work unless managers address the culture. TSA should get the money from Congress that it needs to operate. But that will only be money well spent if the TSA also fixes itself.