TSA Chief Says Wait Times Are Improving

     WASHINGTON (CN) – Transportation Security Administration chief Peter Neffenger said Tuesday the agency is making significant progress on shortening the screening lines that have frustrated airline passengers.
     Neffenger attributed the improvements to the deployment of new technologies and funding from Congress.
     Despite growing anger over bogged-down security lines at airports across the country, Neffenger told the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs that 99 percent of passengers who flew over the Memorial Day weekend waited less than 30 minutes in security lines.
     If a 30 minute wait in line for security sounds daunting, Neffenger further explained that 93 percent of passengers who flew over the long weekend waited less than 15 minutes.
     Neffenger credited Congress for pouring money into the TSA, allowing the agency to reverse staffing cuts and invest in new technology.
     By focusing these new resources, including more than 700 new screeners, on the country’s busiest airports, Neffenger said it is possible to cure the delays that have been so prominent in the news in recent months.
     “The positive side is that if you can work on those 20 airports, you can really, for the most part, solve the problems in the whole system,” Neffenger said.
     He pointed to new automated lines in Atlanta, the product of a partnership with Delta, as a way forward for an agency that is still trying to right itself after a scathing inspector general report found its screeners routinely missed weapons and other unauthorized items last year. The ultimate goal is to move from a “static” security system to one that goes from “curb to gate,” Neffenger said.
     “Just these first two lines alone have shown tremendous promise in terms of improving efficiency, around a 30 percent improvement by their own count when we go through,” Neffenger said. “So I think that’s certainly a critical element of transforming the system.”
     The automated lines prevent slowdowns by using tracking technology to guide bins and funnel those that need closer inspection into a separate part of the checkpoint. This means people with easy to clear bags don’t have to wait as an agent picks through the luggage of a more troublesome passenger, Neffenger said.
     He also credited the reduction in wait times to a retraining of TSA employees, including management, as well as funding that now allows the agency to hire more full-time employees and be more generous with overtime.
     Dogs might also be part of the solution for the agency going forward, as Neffenger called for 500 additional canine units to sniff out security threats at airports. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., seemed excited by this possibility, saying dogs can screen luggage at rates current systems can’t.
     “The nose of a dog, there’s not a technology that can beat it,” Johnson said.
     Lawmakers seemed open to the new technologies Neffenger lauded, but repeatedly emphasized the need for the agency to focus on security over speed and to continue its efforts to correct the systemic problems that contributed to its troubled history of scandals and mismanagement.
     “Given the long wait times we have recently witnessed at security checkpoints at a number of airports across America, we know that it can be difficult to strike the right balance between security and convenience,” Tom Carper, D-Del, said in his opening statements. “Some might even be tempted to say that we can’t have both, that effective security measures invariably bring with them inconvenience, lines and even some missed flights. I disagree.”
     John Roth, inspector general for the Department of Homeland Security, told the committee while the TSA has made progress in the past year, it is still feeling the effects ill-advised staffing cuts from 2014 had on the system.
     Still, Roth praised the TSA for a “night and day” improvement in its willingness to respond to criticisms like the ones his office handed down just a year ago.
     “We went from a cultural situation where we were fought at every turn to one in which they now embrace oversight in a way that I think is a very, sort of, positive message,” Roth said.
     Neffenger’s optimism was obvious at the hearing Tuesday morning, but he promised the committee he was not done working to improve the TSA and cut wait times at airports during the busy summer travel season.”We’re not celebrating and we’re not letting up,” Neffenger said.

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