WASHINGTON – Minnesota’s top politicians said Tuesday they’re dissatisfied with the federal response to solving extreme security screening delays at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.
Snaking lines at the airport’s newly reconfigured security checkpoints have sparked wait times of an hour or more, causing sharp criticism and missed flights at the height of one of the busiest travel seasons — spring break.
“They need to hire more people at our airports, and clearly we [Minnesota] were being short-shrifted here during this transition,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar said Tuesday, noting federal officials have not caught up with the hiring they are authorized to do. “It made me really mad because I stood by their budget.”
Transportation Security Administration (TSA) officials said this week they were going to dispatch bomb-sniffing canine teams to MSP to help screen bags and passengers, but it was not clear how quickly that would solve the problem.
Minnesotans have pressured DFL Gov. Mark Dayton and Sens. Klobuchar and Al Franken, both Democrats, to do something about the delays — particularly as a growing state economy requires more people to travel in and out of the Twin Cities and officials stare down a bustling summer travel season.
“MSP serves as a hub for major carriers and has long had one of the best-designed and most efficient security checkpoints in the nation,” Dayton wrote recently in a scathing letter to TSA Administrator Peter Neffenger, who has committed to visiting MSP soon. “However, the TSA has ruined this efficiency by changing the configuration of the checkpoints. Some passengers are reporting waits in security lines that are ten or more times longer than under the previous system.”
Franken called the problems unacceptable.
“We need immediate action to address long lines at our airport and to ensure that Minnesota travelers are screened in a timely manner — and this means we need enough open checkpoints and enough agents at those checkpoints,” Franken said in a statement.
A confluence of factors is causing longer wait times at the nation’s 20 largest airports, including in the Twin Cities. The federal agency says there are fewer screeners than in 2011 because of budget cuts, a shortage that has been exacerbated by a strong economy that has resulted in more people traveling. Additionally, a tough external review last year by the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general found screeners often missing objects that are banned on airplanes, which sparked additional training for all of the 40,000 screeners nationwide. This meant that at any given time there were fewer screeners on hand working the lines, checking IDs and surveying carry-on bags.
In the past three years, MSP has lost 60 screeners. Meanwhile, airport traffic is up nearly 15 percent since 2011. The airport served more than 35 million travelers in 2015.
The federal politicians tend to be skeptical of the budget-strain argument because in the past year, Congress gave the TSA nearly $1 billion more — a total of $4.6 billion — than the agency requested for screening operations. For 2017, the TSA has requested $4 billion. There are 41,000 screeners nationwide, and there is money for 42,500. Officials say they’re training 192 screeners a week to build up staffing to reach 42,500 by this summer.
Next year, federal officials want 300 more.
“We recognize that longer than normal wait times are a concern. The recent increases are caused by the rapid growth in travel volume combined with a renewed emphasis on rigorous screening, following testing that showed unacceptable results,” said Mike England, a TSA spokesman, in a written statement. “Our security is now improved, and that is our most important obligation to the public. But we are mindful of the impact this has on travelers, who are now waiting longer on average than they used to.”
TSA officials encourage more travelers to pay a fee and enroll in the PreCheck program to alleviate some of the lines.
MSP officials will travel to Washington next week for a conference and to talk to Minnesota lawmakers. Airport spokesman Patrick Hogan said they hope to talk about increasing the passenger facility charge — a $4.50 fee that travelers who leave MSP have to pay to support the airport — to help with infrastructure. But he figures the security delays will come up more prominently in conversations.
“To the extent we can, we will update them on where we’re at,” Hogan said. “It has mostly been a funding problem.”