The head of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) came to Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport on Friday with a promise to provide the resources necessary to reduce security checkpoint wait times that have stretched to an hour or more.
TSA Administrator Peter Neffenger came to the airport after Gov. Mark Dayton, Minnesota’s congressional leaders and airport officials fired off letters to the chief demanding that he fix the long lines that have crowded the airport since it consolidated six security checkpoints into two last month.
Neffenger said that a new bomb-sniffing canine team has started on the job and that another will be transferred from Hawaii by the end of the month. He said MSP is on a shortlist of airports to get some of the 200 officers who graduate weekly from the TSA’s training academy now that the agency is beefing up staffing across the country. The TSA also has approved overtime for current screeners to get through the spring-break crunch.
“My promise to you is that we will keep the lines moving,” Neffenger said as Dayton, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar and airport officials stood at his side during an afternoon news conference. “With the [additional] canine teams, I think you’ll see some real improvements in the very coming days. We are hitting this hard. It is my biggest concern.”
Approving overtime allowed MSP to have all 16 lanes at the two checkpoints in Terminal 1 operating for the first time since Feb. 16 when checkpoints were merged. A 17th checkpoint on the skyway level also was open Friday for half a day.
Friday morning’s relatively fast-moving lines came as a pleasant surprise for many spring-break travelers who arrived extra early over fears of encountering long ones.
Seth Amadio, of Duluth, was not taking any chances. He came to the airport three hours early and was in line at 5:40 a.m. for his 8:30 a.m. flight. “I think I’ll make it,” he said.
By Friday evening, the lines were longer and slower, but still moving steadily, with some passengers reporting that they spent about 45 minutes in the security line.
The better situation stood in stark contrast to a week ago, when only nine lanes were open. Metropolitan Airports Commission officials called the situation last Friday afternoon “chaotic” and unacceptable, and they have leaned hard on the TSA to do something.
Neffenger said his agency would begin looking at staffing levels to be sure that MSP has an adequate number of officers and that they are on duty during the busiest times.
“We do have to have our staffing right and allocated right and deployed as they should be,” Neffenger said. “We can improve the passenger experience in the near future.”
That came as good news for Theresa Kiel, of Loyal, Wis., who was flying to Arizona. “Any improvements they can do, we will take,” she said.
‘Seen some improvements’
The longest wait time since the airport went to two main checkpoints was 70 minutes at 10 a.m. on Feb. 19 at the south checkpoint, according to TSA officials. This week, the longest wait came at 8 a.m. Sunday at 48 minutes, also at the south checkpoint. Time in line had dropped to under 30 minutes the rest of the week. On Friday, the longest wait was 28 minutes at the south checkpoint, the TSA said. That was despite the fact that the number of passengers going through screening each day approached 40,000, or about 25 percent more than during other times of the year.
The airport has responded to the long lines by putting up more signs to better direct passengers unfamiliar with the airport’s new layout. Volunteer ambassadors and airport employees also have been dispatched to help passengers find their way. Bomb-sniffing dog teams can be used to screen passengers, with those determined to be low risk sent to special lanes for expedited screening.
Neffenger said the TSA also would collaborate with Delta Air Lines, the dominant carrier at MSP. Delta said it would make personnel available to help with nonsecurity tasks, such as running bins at the checkpoint. That would free up TSA staff to be on the lines.
Still, the recent improvement has not allayed concerns that long lines could materialize again if staffing levels go down.
“I don’t think we can ever feel satisfied until things get back to a place where people feel really good about coming to the airport,” Klobuchar said. “We know we are going to have good days and bad days. Compared to what we were dealing with two weeks ago, we’ve seen some improvements this week.”
TSA was given a $7.4 billion budget for this fiscal year, which was $211 million more than it had in 2015 and $93 million more than requested. Klobuchar, who on Sunday had invited Neffenger to visit Minnesota, said the money needs to be spent to hire more screeners.
“The fact that he committed in six days to be here and that he’s taking responsibility, that is action,” Klobuchar said. “I feel more optimistic than I did on Sunday.”