Let’s be honest here, the TSA has never been much appreciated. Nor has it ever really given travelers a reason to have any warm feelings towards them. Long lines, mild-to-extensive groping, draconian 3.7 oz liquid rules, and a general feeling of disdain towards travelers has not endeared them to the traveling public. Recent reports about their inefficacy have only added to this. Some have even posited that the TSA is nothing more than a $7 billion anxiety therapist.
Whether or not this is true, TSA lines are worse than ever. Chicago O’Hare, Dulles, and Atlanta Hartsfield have all moved their recommended arrival times to north of three hours. Missed flights and customer dissatisfaction must have gotten so egregious that the legacy airlines felt they had to step in in order to shore up the screening system. This most likely came more from pure self interest than any kind of compassion. Ticket prices have been knocked down by terrorism fears from the lost Egyptair flight in addition to the downed Metro jet flight originating in Egypt. Massive additional hassles could be the tipping point for many in their decisions whether to travel or not this summer. Airlines can’t let fares or passenger levels sink much lower even with current fuel prices. They need to help the TSA make security lines less terrible or they risk losing even more revenue.
The TSA Precheck lanes have also been raised as a solution to the line problems. The problem is, though, that too few people are utilizing it. The TSA is wont to blame the passengers for not signing up for the program. This seems a bit inaccurate. The fees are high for many who don’t play often. $85 per person? That only really makes sense to frequent flyers or people on the higher end of the income spectrum. People who fly once a year can’t justify it. To make that even worse, it takes an inordinate amount of time to get Precheck. The appointments often are often fully booked for months. This is a huge deterrent to all but the most determined to get Precheck. Additionally, the TSA is not fully utilizing the existing infrastructure for Precheck. Oftentimes, the dedicated lanes are closed for unknown reasons, or dedicated lanes don’t exist, even at the largest airports in the country. For example, in the security screening area after customs at Atlanta Hartsfield, there is not a dedicated lane at all. Instead, they just give Global Entry members a piece of paper that is sometimes completely ignored by the agents working there. It’s not even consistently enforced in the same lane. I was reprimanded for not taking my shoes off by one agent, and for taking my shoes off by the next. Perhaps the TSA should look inwards before throwing stones at the traveling public.
Another trusted traveler program that is heavily underutilized is Global Entry. It allows one to go through passport control only using a dedicated kiosk, and then proceed through customs without the hindrance of the main line. Precheck is included in the $100 dollar application fee. Wider use of it could greatly reduce the time and trouble required to travel abroad. The problem is though, the waitIng times for interviews are also greatly limited. I had to wait almost five months for my interview. The barrier to entry is also marginally higher. I must say, though, my experience was greatly improved through it. Customs and Border Patrol need to expand the interviewing pool to make it more attainable to wider range of people beyond the most frequent and motivated of travelers.
A solution certainly exists for the current problems we face flying today. Private contractors may or may not be the right answer. But there are a few things that must certainly be included in the next iteration of airport security screening. The screening must serve a demonstrable purpose beyond mere reassurance. A $7 billion expenditure must show results and efficacy. Efficiency must be greatly improved. A three hour line is simply unreasonable. It is a drain on the economy in lost working hours. Trusted traveler programs must be expanded to the point where it is not only feasible, but easy to receive the benefits of the program. Once admittance has been expanded, lanes must actually be open and exist for its use. That alone could greatly streamline the arduous process of airport screening. Finally, the agency as a whole must take a more human centered view in its execution of its mandate. I’m not sure how it does anyone any good to treat the public badly, make them feel violated on a regular basis, and continue to enforce rules that are no longer relevant. (Congress is to blame for the banned item list) Travelers aren’t merely customers in this exchange, they are taxpayers, the effective employers of every TSA agent in the country. We as a citizenry, should not have to accept the state of affairs as it exists today. The calls for widespread change are correct. But now, we just have to wait and see if the waiting time chaos that has occurred so far this year will be the straw the breaks the camel’s back.