With hours-long delays and no end in sight, security lines at the nation's airports have spiraled out of control.
Nowhere is that clearer than at Newark Liberty International Airport, where months of long lines and passenger horror stories have led lawmakers -- like Sens. Cory Booker and Robert Menendez as well as Congressmen Albio Sires and Donald Payne Jr. -- to call for action. With summer around the corner, interminable waits will become even longer.
So severe is the problem that airlines are urging passengers to arrive three hours ahead for international departures and two for domestic flights.
But we have no way of knowing how long these waits actually are. Remarkably, TSA neither tracks nor publishes actual airport security line wait times. It's past time for the federal government to address the problem and to provide the flying public with transparent information.
Until 2008, TSA regularly posted wait-time data to its website. Passengers could see historical wait times by hour at each terminal. But the agency has replaced this practice with an app to show estimated wait times, using crowd-sourced information.
Needless to say, this is problematic for a number of reasons - none more so than the simple fact that not many fliers have the TSA app. Information is updated infrequently and sporadically on a terminal-by-terminal basis. On April 26, for example, Terminal A received five updates; Terminal C was updated all of three times, and Terminal B was not updated at all.
Without this information, it's hard to find out what needs to change. For example, TSA staffing has shrunk, with Newark down by 70 staff since 2014. And yet air traffic has risen by 7.3 percent over this same period. Without data, it's hard to know the precise relationship between staffing levels and increased wait times.
Moreover, TSA designed an expedited screening program for "trusted travelers" known as PreCheck, but poor implementation has cost it its efficacy. The agency does little to market the program and enrollment centers are in out-of-the-way, hard to find places. GGA conducted a study showing there are only five enrollment centers in all of New Jersey, none of which are open more than 8 hours a day or on weekends, and many of which are closed for lunch. The closest center to Newark airport is nine miles away, with no public transport access.
Even if you sign up and go through the enrollment process, the PreCheck lanes are often not open, leaving trusted travelers to use the same long lines as all other passengers. Newark is no exception: neither Terminals A nor B at Newark have dedicated PreCheck lanes.
The good news is that there are some relatively simple and low-cost solutions to the wait time problem:
- Monitor and publish real-wait time data: The data would allow TSA and travelers to make informed decisions. TSA should bring back its website tracking real and historical wait time information to create a widely representative sample of the true time it takes for passengers to move through airport security and what action is needed as a result.
- Boost airport staffing: Passenger traffic rises at every year at Newark, and the removal of slot caps means that rate is expected to jump. So, it is essential that Congress step up too, and allocate the funding necessary to boost TSA staffing. Safety has to be TSA's No. 1 priority and understaffing our airports flies in the wrong direction.
- Better marketing for PreCheck: Only one in four fliers has ever heard of PreCheck, so while it's a smart program, passengers need to know about it in order to use it. TSA should also open enrollment centers in airports and other accessible public places. The longer TSA waits to spread the word and provide convenient enrollment, the longer security lines will become.
TSA needs to recognize that fixing the problem means doing more than advising passengers to arrive early and making them aware of pre-check after they are already at the airport. Their job is too important to get it wrong, for the sake of security and keeping passengers and commerce moving.