WASHINGTON – Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport officials have one message to Congress about a proposal to boost airport security nationwide: Give us the proper manpower to do it.
The U.S. Senate this week handily passed several measures to buttress security at the nation’s airports in wake of March’s suicide bombings in Brussels, Belgium. It was among the first congressional responses to Europe’s terrorist attacks this year, and the provisions still need to pass the House before going to President Obama’s desk for signature.
Minnesota’s Democratic Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken backed the provisions, which include boosting security at areas like baggage claim, increasing vetting for airport employees and providing new funding for law enforcement training.
MSP officials said Friday that protecting air travelers is everyone’s chief priority, but that they specifically need more staff if they are going to be required to boost security in other parts of the airport.
“Our primary concern would be that the TSA not move some of its current screening personnel into other security areas of the airport,” said MSP spokesman Patrick Hogan. “Our hope would be that we have additional forces, and not simply that we would have to rob Peter to pay Paul with them not authorizing more staff.”
Minnesota officials are still reeling from a rough patch through much of March when airport wait times stretched to more than an hour, causing hundreds of people to miss flights.
The delays were created by what airport officials called a “perfect storm” — a crush of travelers, fewer screeners because some were out on training, and a new configuration in the terminal.
Elected leaders, including both senators and Gov. Mark Dayton, sent letters to federal officials demanding better service, and TSA Administrator Peter Neffenger even paid a visit to the airport to hear concerns. He pledged more resources to improve wait times. He dispatched a new bomb-sniffing dog team to the state from Hawaii and said Minnesota was on the shortlist to get more freshly graduated TSA officers.
But in a recent visit to Capitol Hill, MSP officials said they still felt short-staffed and worried about more delays during the busy summer travel season.
“I’m scared for the summer,” Dan Boivin, chairman of the Metropolitan Airports Commission, said in an earlier interview. “It’s all depending on TSA, how much overtime they can allocate to us. … It’s not a pretty picture.”
This isn’t just a Minnesota problem. The Airports Council International, the lobbying group representing the nation’s airports, urged Neffenger in a letter this week to boost the number of canine units and eliminate training sessions during peak hours to minimize wait times at security checkpoints.
Additional TSA screeners actually are funded through a different pot of Department of Homeland Security money, but the Senate-passed measure does authorize more cash to as much as double special law enforcement teams — including explosives specialists — to nonsecure parts of the airports. Because the bill hasn’t passed, it’s unclear how many of those teams would go to Minnesota.
On the Senate floor this week, Klobuchar called attention to MSP’s security delays, calling it a “story of inefficiency.”
“There were simply not enough TSA agents on … but it was simply unacceptable when our taxpayers have been paying for TSA, and in fact this Congress authorized $90 million more than they asked for in this last budget year,” she said. “The attacks in Brussels last month were a reminder that we need to do everything we can to strengthen security and not just in our security lines … but also in places like baggage claim areas.”
Congress has allocated more money to additional TSA agents recently, but federal officials point out that TSA’s front-line budget declined every year from 2012 to 2015, causing a shortage in screeners.
Federal officials are trying to steer more people to the TSA PreCheck program, which allows passengers to skip some of the regular screening — like removing shoes and computers from bags — if they agree to a background check, a fee for five years and an interview with federal agents. There is additional marketing money built into the FAA bill to promote the program.
“Businesses and families in Minnesota and all across the country depend on air travel,” Franken said in a statement. “One of my priorities is to make sure that the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport is safe and efficient. I backed an amendment … that would improve security while taking a step in the right direction on cutting lines at our nation’s airports.”