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Flying Home Today? Expect Short-Staffed TSA And Long Security Lines


If you're flying home today from the long weekend holiday, we hope you have a smooth airport experience. In the past month, long security lines have caused thousands of travelers to miss their flights. The Transportation Security Administration has come under fire for its shortage of screeners.

Jeh Johnson, director of Homeland Security, which runs the TSA, told MORNING EDITION last week that he is aggressively addressing the wait times. So to find out what the government has been doing, we called Scott Mayerowitz. He reports on airlines and the TSA for The Associated Press. Scott, thanks for joining us.

SCOTT MAYEROWITZ: Thanks for having me.

CHANG: Remind us whatever happened to that $5 TSA fee, the one that we pay each time we fly. The fee's known as the 9/11 fee. From what I understand, it's not going to the TSA anymore. So what happened to that money?

MAYEROWITZ: So we're still paying that every time we fly. Some of that money is going to the TSA. But a large chunk of it is also being diverted to cover the general federal deficit.

CHANG: Is there any talk of redirecting those funds back to the TSA?

MAYEROWITZ: There has been some talk in Congress about it. There have been a lot of bills in the past few weeks that have surfaced. But if they do give that money back to the TSA, someone has to make a decision to take that money away from someone else. And that's really tough to do in an election year.

CHANG: Now, if I understand correctly, one of the reasons that TSA cut staff is because they expected lots of people to sign up for the PreCheck program. That's where people are prescreened and go in a faster line. But not enough people signed up, right? What happened? Why didn't enough people sign up?

MAYEROWITZ: So you can screen about 300 people an hour in a PreCheck lane compared to about 150 in a normal security lane. Part of the problem is it costs about $85 and you have to go to an enrollment center. You've got to give up some personal information. You have to be fingerprinted. So what you've had is actually about 9 million people have become a member of PreCheck...

CHANG: Well below half of what they were targeting.

MAYEROWITZ: Well below half of what they were targeting. But because they had this expectation, Congress and the TSA agreed to cut their staff. And about 10 percent fewer front-line screeners are out at airports today than three years ago.

CHANG: So the government says it's hiring more screeners now. Are they actually hiring enough people, in your opinion?

MAYEROWITZ: So they are hiring about 760 more screeners, which was what they were supposed to hire later on in the year. Congress sped that up. The bigger issue is the retention. They're bringing on about 200 new screeners every week right now. But they're also losing 100 screeners each week.

CHANG: Why is that - why such a low retention rate?

MAYEROWITZ: It's not the best job in the world. The public hates the TSA. Flyers can be really mean people. At the same time, you're staring at a screen watching hundreds of bags come through. If you miss one piece of explosives or one weapon, that's it, you know. You have the terrorists winning. And this is a very high-pressure job. It doesn't pay well. And many of these employees are part-time with no hope of becoming full-time or even advancing on to a supervisory role.

CHANG: That's Scott Mayerowitz. He reports on airlines and the TSA for The Associated Press. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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