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The TSA will ruin your summer vacation and no one can agree on a fix

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As Long Lines In Airports Rise, TSA Struggles To Cut Waiting Times Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

Security lines at airports around the US are growing longer and longer. And that’s infuriating airlines, airports, passengers, and our elected officials alike. The long lines at the TSA-staffed security checkpoints are delaying fights and causing people to miss their planes. But ironically, passengers and airlines — the two groups most affected — are the ones who can do the least about it.

"Logistically, we don't have the opportunity to hold flights for hours," Ross Feinstein, a spokesperson for American Airlines, said in an interview with The Verge. Passengers "get to the gate too late and they can't get rebooked for days or a week. That's our concern, the impact it's having on our customers." Naturally, frustrated customers take their anger out on airline employees or, increasingly, airline Twitter accounts. "We see it every day on social media. They're very upset, and our employees are very concerned."

But the airlines can't fix the problem. Security lines are handled by the TSA and individual airports. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which is in charge of JFK, LaGuardia, and Newark airports — three of the busiest in the country — recently sent a letter to the TSA urging it to fix the problems and threatening to use private security contractors to handle security screening.

hiring private contractors to handle screening isn't a crazy idea

Hiring private security isn't some crazy idea. Though most airport security checkpoints are manned by TSA agents, there are a handful of airports enrolled in the Screening Partnership Program (SPP), a TSA effort that allows private security contractors to screen passengers under federal supervision. It's a program championed by Congressman John Mica (R-FL), a longtime TSA foe. There are nearly two dozen airports enrolled in SPP, including SFO in San Francisco, and Mica says it's the way of the future.

"The TSA is destined to fail in its current structure," Mica told The Verge. "It's a huge bureaucracy." The TSA is currently funded for 45,000 screeners, up from 16,000 when the Administration was formed in 2002. "We have 13,000 more administrative personnel, of which 4,000 are located within a few miles of the US Capital making an average of $104,000 per year. Incompetence highly paid, screeners not well paid."

Mica says that TSA is staffed with government bureaucrats who have no incentive to execute well and are focused on "hassling innocent passengers." He says the agency knows how many passengers will be passing through an airport checkpoint weeks in advance and that it still fails to "staff to traffic" — scheduling enough screeners to properly handle the number of passengers.

His solution is to have TSA set protocols, requirements, and guidelines, and have private contractors handle the day-to-day passenger screenings. Both the Department of Defense and the Department of Energy use private security contractors at military bases and nuclear installations. If it's good enough for nuclear plants, Mica asks, why isn't it good enough for our airports?

getty tsa Photo by John Moore/Getty Images

Unsurprisingly, not everyone in Congress agrees. One of them is Rep. Donald M. Payne, Jr. (D-NJ), who is on the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Transportation Security and whose district includes Newark airport. "I think TSA is more than capable, if it has the manpower to do the job," Payne told The Verge. "TSA, when given the manpower and proper utilization, has done an outstanding job and there has not been another attack on an American airport since TSA has been on the job."

And that's true. But luck may be playing a role. A leaked report showed that TSA failed to detect weapons and explosives 95 percent of the time in an internal Homeland Security test. A Homeland Security Inspector General's report called an $878 million screening program, meant to detect suspicious behaviors at checkpoints, "expensive and ineffective." That program reportedly failed to detect a single terrorist.

morale is a big problem at the TSA

It's not easy to be on the front lines for the TSA agents either. "Morale is a big problem with the TSA. It's a thankless job," says Payne. "All you're dealing with are people who arrive at the airport late, that want to move through the line expeditiously, and weren't necessarily there when they should have been. But now they want the whole process to be expedited for their benefit. Sometimes it just doesn't work that way."

TSA, for its part, puts most of the blame on the increased number of passengers and on the fact that travelers use more carry-ons because of airline baggage fees. The airlines disagree. "There has not been a huge surge," says Feinstein. "There are more people traveling, yes, but it's around a 4 percent increase [over last year]. I don't think anyone saw two-and-a-half hour wait times last summer. It's not proportional. It doesn't equate to a 500 percent increase in wait times."

"Encouraging passengers to check more bags will not help and would actually exacerbate current checked baggage screening issues that are resulting in passengers missing their connections and having their bags delayed," said Melanie Hinton, a spokesperson for Airlines for America, an industry trade group. "Even at Midway [Airport in Chicago], served predominantly by an airline that doesn’t charge bag fees, wait times are in excess of 90 minutes, further demonstrating that this problem is not a result of bag fees," she said. (Southwest Airlines, the largest carrier at Midway, doesn’t charge fees for checked baggage.)

TSA refused our requests for an interview.

the entire industry is frustrated

Some airlines are trying to ease the dire situation by deploying their own forces. American Airlines, for example, has assigned employees to help manage non-screening functions at security checkpoints in an attempt to free up more TSA employees for screening. They're handling things like telling flyers to remove their shoes or throw out water bottles, as well as moving plastic trays from one end of the security line to the other. But that's only a short-term solution, and something of a last-ditch attempt at that.

"The entire industry is frustrated," says Feinstein. "We have issues at DFW, LAX, Denver, Newark. It's not isolated to a hub, it's across the board."

The situation isn’t likely to improve any time soon. Peak travel season begins around Memorial Day and really gets going in mid-June. "This isn't even peak summer and we can't rebook passengers on these flights," Feinstein says. What we're seeing with the long lines "really does concern us."