Early in the summer, airlines were sending passengers emails warning them to arrive at airports at least two hours before their flights due to long security lines.
Those were not idle warnings as in some cases it did take that long to get through security. Some airlines, including JetBlue (NASDAQ:JBLU) and Southwest Airlines (NYSE:LUV), sold access to faster check-in lines, and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) offered its line-cutting PreCheck program, but for regular people, the lines were problematic.
The interminable wait to get through security caused people to miss flights and raised tensions in an already tense environment. It was an issue that threatened to hurt both leisure travel and business fliers because at some point the hassle of getting through airports might force people to simply not fly.
Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson, whose agency supervises the TSA, held a press conference on Sept. 7, where he addressed how the problem was dealt with. And if you believe the numbers he shared, the federal agency has done a good job of solving the problem.
It was a multipronged solution
Johnson noted in his press conference, where he was joined by TSA Administrator Peter Neffenger, that the improvements were a joint effort among airports, airlines, and the TSA. He said that 98% of fliers waited 30 minutes or less in screening lines this summer, while 92% waited less than 15 minutes, Consumerist reported. The seven busiest airports in the country had wait times of less than 10 minutes, largely due to increased enrollment in PreCheck.
Enrollment in the line-cutting program more than doubled to 3.5 million. Almost 97% of those members wait five minutes or less in security lines, Johnson said.
"We reduced wait times this summer without compromising security," Johnson said. "We expedited the hiring of 1,368 new TSOs (transportation safety officers) and we converted 1,865 TSOs from part-time to full time."
The secretary also noted that the TSA received great assistance from airline and airport personnel. That included programs like JetBlue's and Southwest's, which were funded by those airlines. In addition, airlines including Delta (NYSE:DAL) and United (NASDAQ:UAL), partnered directly with the TSA to provide personnel and technology to help the lines move faster. "The airlines stepped up and helped us out," said Johnson.
On top of those efforts from Southwest, JetBlue, Delta, United, and other airlines, some non-PreCheck customers -- generally frequent fliers -- were routed through PreCheck lines. The secretary also made a point of noting that while people were pushed through security faster, that was done without lowering security standards. "This fiscal year will likely be a record year in terms of guns seized in carry-on luggage by TSA during TSA screening," he said.
Why is this important?
Keeping wait times for airport security reasonable keeps people flying. Consumers will rethink casual travel, vacations, and business travel if they think that the already stressful experience of getting through an airport will also involve standing in line for hours.
It's easy to make jokes about the TSA and to blame them when things go wrong. In this case, though, the agency deserves credit for quickly reversing a huge problem. Wait times were a major issue heading into the summer and airlines, airports, and the TSA made a significant effort to solve the problem.
Johnson, while patting himself and the TSA on the back, also noted that much work remains to be done. "This is hardly mission accomplished," he admitted. "There is still much more to do."