The long lines at security checkpoints at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport’s main terminal over spring break have many Minnesotans feeling a sense of hopeful queasiness over the prospect of flying this summer.
Hopeful that it will turn out all right — queasy because it may not.
Given the expected influx of passengers, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) at MSP has promised to pay more overtime for employees, add more bomb-sniffing dogs and rely on help from the airport and the airlines to herd the roller-bag masses.
More than 231 million passengers are expected to take to the skies on U.S. airlines this summer, an increase of about 4 percent over last year, according to Airlines for America, a Washington, D.C., trade group.
Last week, anti-TSA zeitgeist reached a fever pitch as security lines at Chicago’s O’Hare and Midway airports dragged on for hours, garnering national headlines and prompting travelers to vent on social media (often with the Twitter hashtag #IHateTheWait).
“I’m very worried,” said Daniel Boivin, chairman of the Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC), which operates MSP. “The airlines are looking at a record summer, so you know it’s going to be crazy. I’m confidently apprehensive, actually more apprehensive than confident.”
The MAC is adding more employees this summer to direct travelers to ticketing kiosks and security lines in Terminal 1 (Lindbergh). And two “bin runners” will be deployed to transport empty screening bins from the end of the security line to the front line, where travelers peel off their belts, coats, shoes, liquids and laptops.
‘All hands on deck’
“We’re collaborating and taking an all-hands-on-deck approach,” said MAC spokesman Patrick Hogan. “The goal is to enable the TSA to maximize use of its own employees for screening purposes.”
Just before spring break, TSA and the MAC consolidated six checkpoints in Terminal 1 into two in a $17 million overhaul, although the actual number of checkpoint lanes remained at 16.
Spokeswoman Lorie Dankers said TSA did not have enough time to adjust employee levels with the new system before the crush of passengers arrived.
The average number of passengers screened during spring break was about 40,000, compared with a daily average of 34,000. Last summer, 978,349 passengers were screened at MSP in June, and about 1 million in both July and August. TSA anticipates a 6 percent increase in traffic this summer.
TSA employs 628 screeners now at MSP, but has lost 115 employees over the past three years, according to Cliff Van Leuven, TSA’s federal security director at MSP, during an April presentation to the airports commission. TSA says it will “do its best” this summer to adjust staffing to peak periods and as airlines modify operations.
Congress recently appropriated an additional $34 million to hire 768 more screeners in the next month, and MSP expects to get cash for overtime from the allocation. The American Federation of Government Employees, the union representing TSA employees, called on Congress earlier this month to pass emergency legislation funding the hiring of 6,000 additional screeners to alleviate the long lines.
While noting that TSA has been “very frugal” with overtime pay — needed during peak periods when lines are more likely to linger — Dankers said the agency will pay overtime “as needed” this summer at MSP.
TSA has also increased the number of bomb-sniffing dog teams at MSP to six — if travelers pass a pup’s muster while waiting in line, they are directed to the more-expedient TSA PreCheck lanes.
But even this can cause delays. “One cringe-worthy thing I’ve noticed is that some of these people who get in TSA PreCheck lines are clearly not experienced travelers,” said Josh Arnold, a frequent Twin Cities-based flier who paid the $85 fee for PreCheck. As a result, some may still shed their shoes and belts when they needn’t bother.
The length of the summer season also may help alleviate long lines. Hogan, the MAC spokesman, notes that of the 3.6 million people who boarded planes at MSP last July and August, about 50 percent of them began their trip in the Twin Cities. So the remaining half were people making connections who did not need to be screened. “We expect that will hold true this year, as well,” he said.
Best advice: Be early
Still, some fret. Lucas Nesse of Mendota Heights is traveling with his wife, Emily, to Washington, D.C., in late June to visit his grandparents. He says TSA’s woes are “constantly in the news so we are aware,” but he plans to arrive really early to make sure he boards his flight.
Which is just as well, because MSP advises travelers to get to the airport at least two hours before their flight.
Mary Schmidt of south Minneapolis, who is taking a trip to Texas in June with her sister and mother, purchased their plane tickets right after the spring break debacle at MSP. “We thought, ‘Oh, TSA will figure it out by June, no problem.’ If not, it will be quite the travel adventure.”
But the Schmidt entourage is flying on Sun Country Airlines, which operates out of Terminal 2 (Humphrey), the site of far fewer complaints regarding security lines. But, as she noted, “We’re coming back from Dallas. There could be lines there, too.”