WASHINGTON – Transportation Security Administration officials are confident while preparing for what could be a record summer travel season, but lawmakers and industry groups voiced concerns Thursday about streamlining checkpoint lines.
TSA expects to screen 243 million travelers from Memorial Day to Labor Day, with the busiest days approaching the record-setting 2.7 million in one day on the Sunday after Thanksgiving 2004.
At a House Homeland Security subcommittee on transportation hearing, travel and security officials sought to avoid three-hour checkpoint lines that resulted in spring 2016 from a confluence of reduced staffing and tighter security.
But Darby LaJoye, TSA’s assistant administrator for security operations, said by July the agency will have 1,600 more officers at airport checkpoints and 50 more dog teams than a year earlier. TSA also plans to test 35 3D scanners at airport checkpoints, which allow officers to digitally rotate images of bags, reducing the need for hand searches.
“TSA is now preparing for what promises to be one of the agency’s busiest summer seasons on record,” he said.
Questions at the hearing focused on balancing security against efficiency, to keep travelers moving safely.
Lawmakers and travel groups criticized TSA for allowing people from regular checkpoint lines into Precheck lanes if a bomb-sniffing dog has screened them, in an effort to shorten lines. But the concern is that if that policy ended, lines could grow hours long again.
Precheck allows travelers who provide fingerprints and go through background checks in order to leave laptops and small containers of liquids in their carry-on bags, and keep wearing shoes and belts.
The program begun in 2011 has 6.4 million participants and millions more that participate from other programs such as the international Global Entry. But TSA would like to at least double its numbers, an effort endorsed by lawmakers and travel groups.
The panel chairman, Rep. John Katko, R-N.Y., said he plans to introduce legislation soon, to prevent TSA’s “frivolous practice” of using dogs to shift travelers into Precheck lanes.
“I have repeatedly expressed to TSA that PreCheck should not be used to manage traffic, especially under the guise of risk-based security,” Katko said.
Michael McCormick, executive director of the Global Business and Travel Association, said bringing unenrolled passengers into Precheck lanes discourages people from joining for $85 for five years. Longer lines discourage business travel, he said.
“We need to put an end to this practice,” he said.
Sharon Pinkerton, senior vice president for legislative policy at Airlines for America, a trade group representing most of the largest carriers, supported Katko’s proposal as long it’s coupled with enrolling more people in Precheck or another expedited program.
“The question that’s still on the table is: how do we get those Precheck numbers up?” she said.
But Wendy Reiter, director of aviation security at Seattle/Tacoma International Airport, where lines stretched longer than an hour Thursday morning, warned lawmakers about “significant concerns” about preventing moves to Precheck lanes without having another way to shorten regular lines.
“We believe that these dogs are the best possible investment that the TSA can make,” said Reiter, who represented the American Association of Airport Executives. “They provide the best efficiency gains.”
Katko said hour-long lines are unacceptable, so lawmakers would look for a remedy.
“We’re going to have to address that in a meaningful manner,” he said.