Don’t Believe the Hype About Security Lines
This week, the Internet tubes have been full of news about how travelers should prepare for longer lines at airport security checkpoints next year. You see, President Obama’s proposed Transportation Security Administration budget for the 2013 financial year includes a 41% decrease in funding for “checkpoint support.”
There’s just one problem: That budget cut, drastic as it sounds, won’t have any effect on the number of TSA workers checking bags or scanning bodies at the airport. In fact, the TSA expects that wait times for passengers will continue to decrease next year as it expands its PreCheck program, part of an overall effort to make its screening process more focused, smarter and risk-based.
The warnings about security lines seem to have originated with an article that the Houston Chronicle posted on Sunday titled “TSA budget cuts likely mean even longer airport waits.” The budget cuts are actually just part of the story, which is an overview of several challenges facing the agency, but they are prominently highlighted early on:
Yet checkpoint lines threaten to grow longer for the nation’s 650 million air travelers, with the deficit-conscious White House and Congress reluctant to add equipment and staff, the TSA imposing budget cuts and the likelihood that more people will be flying as the economy improves.
The story goes on to cite a 3% reduction in the TSA’s overall budget, which includes that 41% cut to checkpoint support. It quotes TSA officials acknowledging that keeping lines moving requires more workers, which drives up expenses.
That is exactly the sort of attention-grabbing stuff I look for when I’m posting headlines to Smart Meetings’ news page, and I’m not alone. Publications including Huffington Post, Houston Business Journal and examiner.com, followed by blogs and forums, picked up on the most alarming details in the Chronicle’s story and repeated them. I was about to join the party, but in the process of doing my due diligence to make sure I actually understood what I was writing about, I came across a two-month-old USA Today story on proposed TSA budget cuts that seemed to contradict everything I was reading:
The budget includes $57.8 million more to support 446 more luggage screeners, 145 officers who scrutinize passenger behavior and 20 canine teams. Overall, the agency will grow to 57,208 workers.
What gives? I wondered. So I decided to do some reporting and contacted the TSA to see if I could get it straightened out. TSA spokeswoman Ann Davis got back to me with an explanation. See, the reason that checkpoint support is seeing such a big decrease next year is that it got a big boost in this year’s budget for the one-time expense of buying a bunch of those fancy Advanced Imaging Technology body scanners that everybody is always complaining about. “The FY13 Request includes full funding and staffing for this equipment. TSA does not anticipate wait times to change based on the FY13 Request,” Davis wrote.
The agency also points out that 99.1% passengers wait less than 20 minutes in security lines, compared to 95.9% in 2007.
The part of the TSA budget cuts that is raising concerns, among everyone from pilot unions to conservative journalists, is a proposal to cut funding from $25 million to $12.5 million for a program that trains airline pilots to carry guns. In March, Transportation Security Administrator John Pistole told Bloomberg News: “In an ideal world, one without budget constraints, we would fully fund the program. We’re not in that environment, so we are taking reductions.”
There’s no reason to worry, however, about being inconvenienced before you get on the plane—at least not any more than you are now.
For more on the TSA’s PreCheck program and other efforts to expedite screening for frequent fliers, read “No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problem” from the April issue of Smart Meetings.