Airlines Spend Millions in Bid to Cut Lines in Record Summer

TSA Fail: Airports Weigh Privatized Screening
  • ‘We are concerned’ about Memorial Day weekend, American says
  • Low fares seen luring 4% more travelers than last summer

U.S. airlines and airports are spending millions on added workers to avoid a repeat of long security lines, as the coming Memorial Day weekend kicks off what’s expected to be a record year for summer travel.

“We are concerned for this weekend, where we’ll see higher than normal flight loads,” said Ross Feinstein, a spokesman for American Airlines Group Inc. “That will just continue into June and pretty much all the way to September.”

American, Delta and United airlines will spend as much as $4 million each for extra workers at their busiest airports to help manage lines and shuffle bins at checkpoints -- freeing up Transportation Security Administration officers to focus on screening. Carriers and airports also are diverting some of their own employees to take the load off TSA staff.

The efforts follow waits of as much as three hours in security lines starting last month that caused thousands of travelers to miss flights and led to hearings in Congress this week on the agency’s woes. Summer air travel is forecast to climb 4 percent this year to a record 231.1 million passengers, according to the Airlines for America trade group. 

“It’s going to help, but the fundamental problem is with the TSA staffing,” David Swierenga, president of aviation consultant Aeroecon, said in an interview. “When the traffic peaks, you have to have peak staffing to match it. And the TSA doesn’t have that.”

Passengers should expect to wait in lines, especially over the holiday weekend and at airports that serve as hubs for the biggest carriers. “I don’t see any way around it,” he said.

U.S. travelers are being lured to the skies by relatively low air fares. In addition, inexpensive gasoline makes driving more attractive. AAA, the auto club, predicts that more than 38 million Americans will travel by air and road this weekend, which would be the second-highest volume on record and the most since 2005.

Lost Spending

Yet 22 percent of 2,500 people surveyed said long airport lines would prompt them to avoid air travel or delay their trips, according to research conducted last week by the U.S. Travel Association. The lost travel spending would total $4.3 billion from June through August, the industry group said.

The TSA advises passengers to arrive two hours early for domestic flights and three hours in advance for international travel, and the busiest airports are the most vulnerable to delays. Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International, Los Angeles International, Chicago’s O’Hare International, Dallas-Fort Worth International and New York’s John F. Kennedy International are the five busiest U.S. airports, according to Airlines for America. 

For coverage of the House of Representatives’ hearing on the TSA, click here.

American, Delta Air Lines Inc. and United Continental Holdings Inc. each are spending about $4 million at their busiest hubs to assist TSA agents, in part by hiring contract workers. JetBlue Airways Corp. also is hiring third-party staff, while Southwest Airlines Co. and other carriers are assigning some of their own employees to help expedite security lines.

‘All Hands’

“At this point it’s all hands on deck, and we’re thinking about everything we can do to help our customers make their flights on time,” Southwest Chief Executive Officer Gary Kelly told reporters last week.

Airlines may hold flights to allow passengers time to clear security and prioritize travelers in lines according to scheduled departure times.

Seattle-Tacoma International Airport is spending $3.3 million to hire 90 contract workers to help manage security lines through September. Charlotte Douglas International Airport has contracted for more than 30 workers who will check carry-on bag sizes and boarding passes and direct travelers to shorter lines. The $1 million annual cost is being paid by carriers, according to an airport spokeswoman.

The TSA on Wednesday unveiled a new screening system at the Atlanta airport designed to speed the movement of bags and travelers through scanning machines. Delta invested almost $1 million in researching and installing the new checkpoint lanes, the carrier said in a statement.

Getting Through

Other airports also are adding workers to help move passenger lines, Kevin Burke, president of the Airports Council International-North America trade group, told reporters on Monday.

“It’s voluntary and it’s temporary,” he said. “It’s really not the role of airport workers to do the TSA’s job. We need to get through this.”

Security lapses by the agency last year sparked criticism from lawmakers and the TSA’s Inspector General. That prompted the agency to allow fewer people into streamlined security lanes and to search all passengers more carefully. Such moves and declining numbers of screeners combined to make lines longer.

On Monday, the TSA ousted its security chief, and a push is under way to persuade Congress to increase funding to hire 5,400 agents that the agency has said are needed to reach full staffing. TSA Administrator Peter Neffenger appeared before a House committee on Wednesday, where he was criticized by Representative Michael McCaul.

“This crisis didn’t just come out of nowhere,” the Texas Republican said. “Airports and airlines have been sounding the alarm for months.”

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