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What’s really behind the security delays at MSP?

And can they be fixed?

MSP is part of a large group of airports nationwide that have been experiencing long waits for security screening in recent months.
REUTERS/Kevork Djansezian

Few enjoy air travel these days, particularly standing in a long line at security. But in the past month and a half, the long wait times at Transportation Security Administration checkpoints at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport have become more than a routine annoyance for air travelers — they’ve become something of a statewide emergency.

In February, a reconfigured security area opened at MSP’s Terminal 1. Instead of six smaller checkpoints throughout the terminal, travelers would be funneled into two mega-checkpoints at each end of the building.

Almost immediately, travelers were beset with almost unbelievable lines — 50-, 60-, sometimes 70-minute waits to get through security. Flights were missed and anger smoldered — at the TSA, naturally, but also at the new layout for the terminal. It got so bad that the TSA’s top administrator appeared at MSP alongside Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Gov. Mark Dayton to assuage concerns.

It might be simple to blame the long lines to the new layout, but the real problem may lie not in where the checkpoints are located but with the federal agency charged with staffing them: the TSA.

The best laid plans of MACs and men

It wasn’t supposed to happen like this. In the weeks and months before the checkpoints’ opening on February 16, officials were saying the new, $17 million security area would be a major improvement to the travel experience at MSP.

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Construction of the new area was expedited to ease spring and summer travel congestion after two especially busy seasons in 2014 and 2015.

The opening was slated to be “the biggest thing for TSA here, ever,” according to Cliff Van Leuven, director of TSA operations at the airport. Van Leuven, and officials from the Metropolitan Airports Commission, the agency that operates MSP and that pushed for the changes to the security-line configuration, said that wait times would be noticeably shorter thanks to the new layout.

But on February 19, the first day that all 16 checkpoint lanes were operational, eager travelers were met with wait times of up to 70 minutes. Officials assured passengers that staff simply needed time to adjust to the new system and “work out the kinks.”

A week later, the kinks remained, with hour-long wait times the norm at the peak morning and afternoon travel times. Spurred on by increasingly outraged passengers, MAC officials began pressing TSA to authorize overtime pay to keep more screening officers around.

At the end of February — the beginning of the spring break rush that the new system was supposed to ease — TSA was warning passengers to get to the airport at least two hours early, while fending off criticism from MAC and Minnesota elected officials.

By March 3, the situation had deteriorated so much that MAC’s CEO, Jeffrey Hamiel, wrote a letter to TSA’s administrator, Peter Neffenger, claiming “unacceptable customer service” due to the “diverging trend lines” of more passengers and fewer screening officers.

Three days later, Klobuchar visited MSP — on a day when waits topped over an hour — to demand relief for weary passengers, calling it an “outrageous situation.” She joined Hamiel in calling for Neffenger to visit the airport.

On March 11, Neffenger visited the airport, joined by Klobuchar and Dayton. By this point, TSA could point to some tangible actions to improve the situation: it referred some new screeners to the airport, and sent in a canine team to expedite some aspects of the security process.

Yet as of March 22 — the day of the deadly terrorist attacks at the Brussels airport — travelers were still experiencing hour-long waits at peak times. Several outlets reported MAC was looking into hiring private security.

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While the spring break rush has died down, lines are still longer than many would like them to be. On April 1, wait times hovered around 45 minutes, despite many officials’ insistence that the situation is improving.

Tellingly, one move the MAC has made since then to improve the situation at MSP: using therapy dogs to soothe frustrated travelers.

More travelers, fewer screeners, long lines

Given the timeline of events, it’s tempting to conclude that MSP’s security line reconfiguration has been a failure. But that’s not the whole story. While adjusting to a new layout may not have helped wait times, the real issue behind the delays may lie with the  TSA itself.

For one thing, staffing levels at the agency are down. Nationally, the ranks of TSA screeners are smaller than they have been in five years: the agency says it employs 42,500 officers total, down 12 percent from 2011. 42,500 is the staffing cap that has been mandated by congressional budgets this year and last year. At MSP, that has translated to a loss of 60 full-time screeners over the past three years. TSA would not state how many officers are currently working at MSP.

What’s more, TSA has been the target of widespread national criticism after systemic, nationwide security lapses were revealed over the past year, ranging from failure to identify some 95 percent of prohibited items, as well as a failure to properly screen dozens of airport employees.

On top of all that, more people are flying. According to TSA, this spring break season was the busiest ever at MSP. Between February 28 and March 24, 950,000 travelers passed through the airport’s checkpoints — a five percent increase from a year ago, says TSA spokesperson Lorie Dankers. On some days, according to Dankers, TSA processed over 40,000 travelers, over 30 percent more than usual.

So between a smaller staff, more stringent screening procedures and more travelers to process than ever, the TSA found itself in the position so many American workers have in recent years: it has to do more with less.

How did the agency plan to make that work?

Taking the security lapses first, TSA is making a renewed effort to focus on efficacy over efficiency, and is in the process of training and retraining its personnel.

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At MSP, that retraining was ongoing — meaning some officers were in training sessions and not available to screen passengers — when the delays began in February. After lawmakers got involved, TSA appeared to re-think this plan; In a March press release citing measures taken to relieve lines, Sen. Klobuchar said that TSA had “halted” training at the airport.

Another consequence of TSA’s increased focus on security rigor was the elimination of the practice of randomly selecting passengers for quick screening that didn’t require them to take off shoes or belts, or remove laptops from bags.

That treatment is still available to those who enroll in a program called TSA Pre-Check, which clears vetted passengers for expedited screening for five years, and costs $85. TSA officials expected more people to sign up for Pre-Check status once it was no longer randomly assigned.

But that didn’t happen. Last year, thanks in part to the random selection, up to half of MSP passengers moved through checkpoints with Pre-Check screening. Now, only a quarter do. That’s putting additional strain on TSA staff at MSP, because more officers are required for regular screening than for Pre-Check.

In recent weeks, TSA has also turned to a more low-tech solution: canine teams. The dogs have have helped, according to Klobuchar, who explained that they can go down a line and screen a large group of people for explosives, allowing cleared passengers to go through screening without taking off shoes or taking laptops out of their bags. That can shave valuable minutes off the process for hurried travelers.

But the canine teams can only do so much.

What about the obvious solution

So why doesn’t TSA just hire more screeners?

More than once, TSA brass has pointed the finger at Congress, claiming federal lawmakers have not provided the agency with adequate funding. “TSA’s current budget, which is appropriated by Congress, caps the uniformed screening workforce staffing at the same level nationwide as in FY 2015,” wrote Neffenger in a letter.

“This is the lowest staffing level in five years. The TSA administrator requested from Congress that further planned cuts to our screening force be put on hold,” Neffenger said.

Minnesotans in Congress take issue with TSA’s description of the situation. Klobuchar expressed frustration with the agency, telling MinnPost that D.C. appropriators have exceeded expectations.

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“The TSA was under-hired across the board at the beginning of the year,” Klobuchar said, adding that the agency admitted to that miscalculation. “They got $100 million more than they asked for from Congress.  You can blame Congress on a lot of things, this isn’t one of them. We gave them their funding and more.”

TSA’s budget for this fiscal year is about $7.4 billion — $211 million more than it had last year — though the amount appropriated for staffing remains the same.

In a letter to the top lawmakers on the Senate Appropriations panel for Homeland Security, Franken called for “strong” funding for TSA in next year’s budget to improve the situation at MSP and other airports. For the next fiscal year, TSA is requesting $7.6 billion and 300 additional screeners.

Franken wrote there are around 41,000 screeners working across the country, 1,500 below the cap Congress sets. TSA says it employs the full 42,500 officers it can pay for; Franken’s office said its TSA staffing numbers come from the in-house Congressional Research Service.

Complicating things is a Fox 9 report indicating that, despite official confirmation that TSA staffing levels at MSP are lower than in years past, the airport was “overstaffed,” with 654 screeners at work, 29 more than the reported 625 the airport is allotted. TSA and MAC could not corroborate that figure, provided by unnamed TSA sources.

Regardless of specific numbers, Klobuchar and Franken have called on TSA to recalibrate how it makes staffing decisions at MSP, arguing that the status quo is far from adequate.

Back at MSP, officials are hoping TSA and Congress can work together to implement an appropriate staffing level, MAC spokesman Pat Hogan said. “If staffing remains what it is today, MSP and airports across the country are going to see long lines. TSA is going to need to take a close look at their staffing model… and Congress will need to appropriate a budget, and it’s shown a willingness to do it in the past.”

Indeed, MSP isn’t the only airport giving travelers more than their fair share of headaches: Chicago O’Hare, Seattle-Tacoma, and Atlanta airports have all experienced unusually severe security congestion in the same time period as MSP has.

Summer travel: MSP’s next big test

Though wait times remain high during busy points in the day, observers agree the trend line is going in the right direction at MSP — at least for now.

“We have seen some improvement here over the last couple of weeks,” Hogan says, attributing that to TSA’s decision to expand overtime pay and the arrival of the new canine team.

While everyone welcomes the relief, there’s still widespread concern that these measures aren’t enough to stop security at MSP from being such an ordeal — particularly as June through August, the busiest stretch of the year at the airport, looms.

There isn’t a long-term solution in place for the upcoming travel rush, explains Hogan, and the snaking lines of frustrated passengers could easily materialize again in June. “We continue to have concerns that unless the staffing model is addressed, we will continue to see problems.”

Still, he says that people at MSP are heartened at the attention and effort that elected officials and administrators have given them.

“I don’t know of any other airport where we had a U.S. senator, the governor, and the head of the TSA standing around and saying, we’re going to address this issue,” Hogan says.

“I think we have everybody’s attention.”