I was catching a flight a few years ago at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport during summer travel season. The American Airlines non-stop to Tampa was going to be overstuffed with crying babies, stressed parents, restless 6-year-olds and travelers trying to fill an overhead bin with more stuff than would fit into a Winnebago.
I must have looked extra forlorn because the exhausted ticket agent surveyed the gate area and told me apologetically, “We have taken a premium service and turned it into a bus route.”
Travelers these days might look on that experience with a certain wistful longing. That bus route has turned into a horror show, with waits of three hours or more at some airport security check-ins. It soon could get worse.
Even though officials have hired extra screeners to address that problem, Memorial Day weekend is upon us. That’s the starting gun for The Great Summer Getaway. Forecasts are for continued long lines and short tempers at the nation’s airports. Given that Florida is a top tourist destination, that should be a cautionary tale for would-be air travelers.
It has already led to a shakeup in the Transportation Security Administration, where the agency’s security chief was replaced because of his handling of this situation – although mishandling is a better a better word.
It is worse this year than normal because the number of travelers has far out-stripped the supply of screeners. Cutting back on security isn’t an option either, especially given the fears of possible terrorism in the recent crash of an EgyptAir flight.
The TSA blames the problems on a combination of budget cuts by Congress and a high turnover rate among employees. The American Federation of Government Employees took out a full-page ad in earlier this week in The Hill newspaper, calling on the government to hire 6,000 new screeners.
The union says that while the number of passengers increased 15 percent since 2013, there are now 5,000 fewer screeners. Estimates are that more than 100 TSA employees quit each week.
Can you blame them?
Some airports have begun using private security companies to alleviate the problem, and last week American Airlines said it will spend $4 million to hire additional security help. It’s a start.
But what’s happening with the TSA is also a lesson in basic governance. Think about that the next time you hear some politician preach against bloated government spending and waste, and how everyone just needs to tighten their belts.
No one is saying there isn’t waste or that government couldn’t be more efficient, but ask the people stuck in security lines this summer if paying for extra screeners would be worth the cost.
The good news is they will be in those lines for so long there will be plenty of time to talk.