TSA warns of longer airport wait times as travel ramps up

WASHINGTON — With a growing number of people returning to the skies, Transportation Security Administration officials are preparing for a busy summer, boosting efforts to hire more officers and using new technology to improve the screening process, the agency’s acting administrator told lawmakers Wednesday.

“Like all of us, TSA faced tremendous challenges over the past year with the ongoing global pandemic,” acting TSA administrator Darby LaJoye said during a subcommittee hearing on the agency’s budget and operations. “Air travel came to a near-standstill, and operational agility and the resilience of our workforce and the strength of our partnerships was tested like never before.”

Throughout the pandemic, the TSA has adjusted as guidance from federal health officials has evolved, he said. In addition to ensuring that front-line workers are taking proper virus-related precautions, the TSA has used technology to reduce interactions between employees and the public, LaJoye said. Even so, 16 employees have died of COVID-19, the disease that can be caused by the coronavirus.

LaJoye said that about 60% of TSA employees have received their first shot and that 40% are fully vaccinated.

“It really has been a game-changer from where we were just a few months ago,” he told the panel.

The growing number of vaccinated Americans has meant more people are traveling, in some cases leading to wait times similar to those experienced before the pandemic.

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Since early March, the number of people moving through airport checkpoints per day routinely has topped 1 million. On Sunday, the agency set a 2021 record for passenger screenings, with more than 1.6 million people moving through checkpoints. Internal bulletins reviewed by The Washington Post indicate that wait times were as long as 45 minutes at some airports because of passenger volumes and staffing.

Increasing travel is part of what’s behind the agency’s stepped-up hiring efforts. LaJoye said the TSA has hired 2,500 officers since January and plans to hire 1,600 more in the next eight weeks. That number is below the 6,000 it said in February it hoped to have by summer.

The slower travel period during the pandemic allowed the agency to more quickly put new technology into place, including machines that verify travelers’ identities by comparing an image taken at the checkpoint to their photo identification. More than 1,000 credential-authentication machines are being tested at 121 locations, LaJoye told lawmakers, with plans for at least 1,000 more in the coming months.

The TSA also has installed about 300 machines at airports that could eliminate the need for travelers to remove electronics, liquids and other items from bags, he said.

The agency has taken on additional enforcement responsibilities as the Biden administration has put new rules in place for masks.

Last week, the agency announced that it was extending a transportation mask mandate through Sept. 13. Since the requirement went into effect that people wear masks in transportation settings — including at airports, aboard airplanes, and when riding trains and buses — officials have recorded about 2,000 incidents in which people have refused to comply. Most take place on airplanes, LaJoye said.

The Federal Aviation Administration reported this week that since February it has received more than 1,300 complaints of unruly passenger behavior on flights and has identified possible violations in about 260 of those cases. The agency, which in January announced a zero-tolerance policy for passengers who refuse to follow crew members’ orders when traveling, is seeing a significant rise in such reports by airlines.

Passengers traveling with firearms have been a particular concern, LaJoye said. Despite the slowdown in travel last year, TSA officers found double the number of guns that they did in 2019 — the most in the agency’s 19-year history. TSA officers caught 120 guns during the last week in April, including 32 in a single day.

About 80% of the firearms are loaded and often are found in the bottom of a traveler’s bag, LaJoye said. He said that when asked, many passengers tell officers that they forgot they had the firearm.

While travelers caught with firearms can face significant fines, LaJoye said the agency is planning educational campaigns to remind people that firearms are not allowed through checkpoints. The TSA is working with state and local officials, as well as local gun clubs to reduce the number of incidents.