Spring break might not make fliers snap this year

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - CHRISTO­PHER EL­LIOTT

If you’re al­ready brac­ing for a long air­port se­cu­rity line dur­ing the spring break travel sea­son, then you must re­mem­ber last year.

You do, don’t you? That’s when Trans­porta­tion Se­cu­rity Ad­min­is­tra­tion screen­ing wait times dou­bled un­der the weight of tighter se­cu­rity and swelling crowds. On just one day in mid-March, 6,800 Amer­i­can Air­lines cus­tomers re­port­edly missed their flights, thanks to the lengthy TSA lines.

The agency as­signed to pro­tect Amer­ica’s trans­porta­tion sys­tems re­sponded with a 10point plan to speed up air­port lines, and the lines abated by the end of the sum­mer. Dur­ing the win­ter hol­i­days, the agency es­ti­mates that 99 per­cent of air trav­el­ers waited in se­cu­rity lines for less than half an hour and that 95 per­cent waited less than 15 min­utes.

But with spring break 2017 in our sights, air trav­el­ers are won­der­ing if his­tory will re­peat it­self. And if there’s any­thing they can do to avoid get­ting stuck in line.

They’re air trav­el­ers like Bev­erly Byrum, a nurse from Louisville, who got a lit­tle pre­view of a worst-case sce­nario when she re­turned from a trip to Mex­ico through At­lanta in Jan­uary.

“The im­mi­gra­tion lines were 500 trav­el­ers deep, then an­other long line for TSA,” she says. “The anger in the crowd was grow­ing. Many peo­ple missed con­nec­tions.”

Al­though Byrum doesn’t en­tirely blame the TSA for the slow­down, she says it was a con­tribut­ing fac­tor. The TSA hasn’t an­nounced any new ef­forts aimed di­rectly at eas­ing lines dur­ing the busy spring travel weeks. Then again, this is a dif­fer­ent spring and there’s a new ad­min­is­tra­tion in Wash­ing­ton.

Change is def­i­nitely in the air. One of the so­lu­tions that could be quickly put into place if new lines crop up: pri­vate se­cu­rity screen­ers. “That has long been a GOP-backed so­lu­tion for in­ef­fi­ciency in the se­cu­rity process,” says An­thony DeMaio, a lob­by­ist with O’Neill and As­so­ciates in Wash­ing­ton. He ex­pects to see a re­newed push for in­creased pri­va­ti­za­tion of TSA screen­ers. Al­ready, more than 20 air­ports par­tic­i­pate in the TSA’s Screen­ing Part­ner­ship Pro­gram, which al­lows pri­vate com­pa­nies to con­duct air­port se­cu­rity screen­ing.

Agency ob­servers also ex­pect a re­newed push to pro­mote TSA PreCheck, the agency’s ex­pe­dited screen­ing pro­gram. And while hyp­ing the pricey pro­gram dur­ing a busy travel sea­son may seem op­por­tunis­tic, PreCheck’s ad­van­tages are un­de­ni­able.

Bryan Cun­ning­ham, who owns an avi­a­tion ser­vices com­pany in Fort Laud­erdale, Fla., and is a fre­quent air trav­eler, says PreCheck mem­ber­ship, which costs $85 for five years, is “ab­so­lutely, def­i­nitely” worth the money. TSA’s in­ter­nal met­rics in­di­cate that 97 per­cent of pas­sen­gers with PreCheck clear­ance waited less than five min­utes in line dur­ing the last hol­i­day pe­riod.

“When you’re check­ing in, it cuts the wait time down by 80 per­cent, com­pared to a con­ven­tional line,” Cun­ning­ham says. “Plus, you don’t have to take off your shoes or re­move your com­puter most of the time.”

The ben­e­fits are es­pe­cially clear to in­bound in­ter­na­tional trav­el­ers, who can use a kiosk and by­pass the lengthy lines after im­mi­gra­tion — the same lines Byrum had to con­tend with in At­lanta.

The TSA says it is tak­ing the threat of longer lines se­ri­ously. Al­though its plan to ease con­ges­tion, put in place al­most a year ago, has worked so far, “we con­tinue to ex­pand on some of the ini­tia­tives,” says Bruce An­der­son, a TSA spokesman. For ex­am­ple, the agency plans to uti­lize over­time and ex­pe­dite the hir­ing of screen­ers this spring. It also plans to de­ploy more K-9 teams and, over the long term, to in­vest in re­search and de­vel­op­ment in tech­nolo­gies that will speed up screen­ing.

Will it be enough? Kevin Mitchell, who runs the Busi­ness Travel Coali­tion, an ad­vo­cacy group in Rad­nor, Pa., that rep­re­sents cor­po­rate travel man­agers, thinks we may be headed for a re­play of spring break 2016 un­less more is done quickly. In fact, he wants the Na­tional Guard de­ployed dur­ing the busy air travel weeks to help move things along.

The only thing that would per­ma­nently re­duce the lines is to re­move the clut­ter — specif­i­cally, the carry-on bags pas­sen­gers try to drag through the screen­ing area in an ef­fort to avoid checked-bag­gage fees.

“To en­cour­age trav­el­ers to check bags and re­duce the num­ber of items TSA agents need to in­spect, Congress should pass leg­is­la­tion that would re­quire air­lines to tem­po­rar­ily re­duce bag­gage fees by 50 per­cent,” Mitchell says.

That’s a long shot, but Congress has an op­por­tu­nity to do just that in the up­com­ing Fed­eral Avi­a­tion Ad­min­is­tra­tion Reau­tho­riza­tion Bill. While it may be too late for this year, there’s al­ways spring break 2018.

Un­til then, pas­sen­gers fly­ing in March and early April should con­sider ar­riv­ing at the air­port at least a half-hour ear­lier than they nor­mally would. “If you can, fly dur­ing non­peak hours, and check your bags,” ad­vises Paul Hud­son, the ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Fly­er­srights.org, a non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tion that ad­vo­cates for air trav­el­ers.

Un­like last spring break, the TSA, air­lines and their pas­sen­gers are fly­ing into this busy travel pe­riod fully aware of what could hap­pen. And if all goes as planned, the screen­ing ex­pe­ri­ence will be the least mem­o­rable part of your va­ca­tion.

El­liott is a con­sumer ad­vo­cate, jour­nal­ist and co-founder of the ad­vo­cacy group Trav­el­ers United. Email him at chris@el­liott.org.

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