Passengers flying out of Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport are not the only ones fuming over long lines at security checkpoints. The Metropolitan Airports Commission is mad, too.
The MAC's executive director and CEO, Jeff Hamiel, sent a letter Thursday to Peter Neffenger, administrator of the Transportation Security Administration, saying the situation at MSP has become untenable and implored the TSA to find ways to increase the number of screeners working the checkpoints.
"We are experiencing unacceptably long security wait times during peak periods," Hamiel wrote. "Creating the best checkpoint facilities in the nation won't solve wait time issues if there aren't enough screeners to staff available lanes."
The airport opened a new $17 million checkpoint with 10 lanes on the main terminal's north end in mid-February and closed four other checkpoints. That left the main terminal with just two checkpoints, but still with 16 lanes as it had previously. But not all of them have been used. The result is that at times passengers have been stuck in lines stretching across the terminal with waits that exceeded 40 minutes during peak periods.
The idea of consolidating checkpoints came from the TSA, which didn't want to continue staffing six entrances to the secured part of the terminal, said MAC Chairman Dan Boivin. The MAC paid for the remodeling, believing that it would make things more efficient for passengers and the airlines, he said.
But it's been the opposite. Even airlines have expressed concerns, said airport spokesman Patrick Hogan. Calls to Delta and Spirit airlines seeking comment had not been returned by Friday afternoon.
The goal is to have wait times of 12 minutes or less, Hogan said.
"This has been the biggest blow up in the community," Boivin said. "This is a problem. If they can't fix it, get the TSA out of here, and we will do our own security. This is about customer service."
While passenger load at MSP has increased — it's up 10.5 percent since 2011 — the number of screeners has dropped, airport officials confirm. It's not clear how many fewer screeners staff the lines here, but nationally TSA staff has shrunk by 15 percent since 2011, Hogan said.
"Those diverging trend lines are a recipe for unacceptable customer service. We have reached that point at MSP," Hamiel wrote. "We cannot allow air travel to become an onerous experience that reduces business activity and discourages tourism."
Boivin said that the organization that owns the airport is so frustrated with the long lines that it would use its own money to hire additional screeners if it could. But it is prohibited from doing so by TSA rules. Money for screeners has to come from federal funds, he said.
Hiring a private firm would not be unprecendeted, and is allowed under federal law, said TSA spokeswomen Lorie Dankers. A handful of airports, including San Francisco, Kansas City, Orlando and Sioux Falls, have used the Screening Partnership Program to privatize security.
Under the program, airports can hire companies to handle screening services. The companies operate under federal oversight and must comply with all TSA security screening procedures. Airports have to apply to the TSA. The process could take up to 120 days
Fliers, workers frustrated
Kerry Pearson got to the airport 90 minutes ahead of his flight to Phoenix last week, which in the past allowed plenty of time. But he spent an hour going through security before making it to his gate to find the plane had left without 10 of its passengers, including him, he said.
"When you have that many people missing their flight, you have an issue," said Pearson, 46, of south Minneapolis. Pearson said TSA agents were unhelpful and had a "too bad for you" attitude.
The experience made him ponder signing up for the PreCheck program, which costs $85 for five years, he said, but he also wondered if the money for that just goes directly into the TSA.
Employees also are feeling the strain, too, said Zachary Benson, who works at the airport.
"The new newly reconfigured security lines at MSP are a joke," he said.
"There are 15,000 people that work at MSP who can't get to work on time to serve the customers of the airport. The TSA should be ashamed, they are costing our passengers and businesses significant amounts of money daily."
In his letter, Hamiel recognized that funding is a root cause of the understaffed lanes and said that Congress and the president need to address an issue that will grow worse over time. He said the MAC will be reaching out to Minnesota's congressional delegation, urging them to support appropriate funding levels for screening operations.
The topic will be hotly debated at Monday's MAC meeting, Boivin predicted.
Wait times have not been as much of a problem at Terminal 2 where Southwest, Sun Country and a handful of other airlines conduct operations. "But that could change in a couple weeks" as spring break kicks into high gear, Hogan said.