TSA lines grow to 3 hours, snake outside the terminals, with no end in sight

The TSA gambled on millions of wealthy Americans opting out of its pornoscanner-and-shoe-removal process and signing up for its Precheck policy, which allows travellers to pay for the "privilege" of walking through a metal-detector with their shoes on, while their laptops stay in their bags.

It was a gamble that they lost. Americans have stayed away from the process in droves, but the TSA had already committed to cutting staff in anticipation of much lighter queues at their checkpoints. Instead of lightening, the queues have got longer, as the US economy has recovered and low fuel prices have kept the price of plane tickets down.

The TSA is now warning travelers to expect very long security lines this summer (Denver Airport warns that its TSA queues can take three hours to clear), as it scrambles to train more staff. In the meantime, whole airports' worth of people are missing their flights, sending the airport managers and airlines into rare public displays of temper against the agency, calling the lines "unacceptable" (American Airlines), a "fiasco" (Brent D. Cagle, interim director of aviation for Charlotte Douglas International Airport) and accusing the agency of lying when it cites crowds as the reason for lines (Denver Airport).

The agency still hopes that more people will sign up for Precheck, which turns travel into a profit center for the agency, rather than a cost center. A cynic might say that this summer's "fiascos" are an attempt to squeeze user fees out of American travellers, but whether or not the lines are a deliberate strategy is largely irrelevant, as it will certainly have the effect of pushing more fliers into the Precheck program.

However, even Precheck fliers aren't immune: as the TSA diverts its staff to handle the three-hour-long queues, the Precheck lines have slowed down. The Precheck lines in Newark can take more than an hour to clear.

David Graeber remarked on the bizarre phenomenon of lengthening official lines in his brilliant essay The Utopia of Rules: for decades during the Cold War, long official lines were the symbol of the Soviet Union's oppressive, incompetent bureaucracy. With the fall of the USSR, the lines have moved west, getting longer and longer, being joined by official forms and systems that disproportionately target the poor and vulnerable, while elites are exempt or exempt themselves by paying professionals.

At Charlotte Douglas International Airport in North Carolina, about 600 passengers missed their flights on March 25 because an inadequate number of screeners led to waits exceeding three hours, airport officials said. Brent D. Cagle, the airport's interim director of aviation, complained to the T.S.A., calling the episode a "fiasco."

"This situation could have been avoided, had the T.S.A. had the proper staffing (or overtime budget necessary) to meet customer demand," Mr. Cagle wrote in a letter to the security agency.

Catching a Flight? Budget Hours, Not Minutes, for Security
[Jad Mouawad/NYT]

(via Super Punch)

(Image: O'Hare Airport, Stephanie Pratt)