Busy summer? TSA says it needs 6,000 new officers to meet skyrocketing travel demand

May 19, 2021

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More than 1,850,000 people passed through TSA checkpoints in the United States on Sunday, May 16. That figure represents more than seven times the number of flyers on the same Sunday in 2020.

While passenger numbers are still far off their 2019 highs — when nearly 3 million would pass through TSA checkpoints on busier days — flyer figures are approaching the numbers we were used to seeing on quieter days before the pandemic hit.

With even more Americans expected to take to the skies this summer, paired with the possibility of a jump in international visitors, TSA screeners could be entering unfamiliar territory — pre-pandemic passenger numbers paired with COVID-era safety measures and restrictions, plus a workforce that’s thousands shy of the Transportation Security Administration’s goal.

Related: Vaccinated Americans are booking up summer vacations

As of now, the TSA suggests that it’s ready to meet the challenge. According to a spokesperson:

“We are confident that we are prepared for the summer travel volume of passengers and we will continue to hire after summer and into the fall. We have set an annual hiring goal of 6,000 TSA officers, which we expect will position us to meet the increasing travel demand as the country continues to recover from the pandemic into the busy November and December holiday seasons. With that in mind, TSA is looking to hire as many new officers as we can, as soon as we can, which enables us to plan ahead.”

Still, a rapid jump in demand could put pressure on the agency and its employees, many of whom may be looking to take time off for vacations of their own — or possibly lured away by higher-paying jobs as private companies continue to expand to meet their own pandemic-recovery demand.

If the TSA isn’t able to staff up quickly enough, an officer shortage could lead to longer checkpoint lines — a sight we haven’t encountered since the federal government shutdown in 2019.

The nation’s biggest airlines have all recently scaled up their operations significantly as a travel recovery takes hold.

TPG also reached out to Airlines for America (A4A), the U.S. trade that represents most big U.S. carriers. While A4A stopped short of expressing concern regarding summer staffing levels, a spokesperson shared a familiar message, suggesting that flyers bake in extra time before their flight:

“With air travel on the rise, U.S. airlines are working with our federal partners to ensure that travelers have as smooth a journey as possible this summer. We are in constant communication with TSA regarding our flight schedules and expected passenger volumes so that it can appropriately staff airports. With new procedures in place at the airport and with many people traveling for the first time since before the pandemic, we urge travelers to arrive early and allow additional time to clear security.”

Delta added its own comments to TPG, reiterating that recommendation to arrive with plenty of time to complete check-in and security formalities:

“As more and more customers reclaim the joy of travel this summer, Delta continues to work closely with the TSA as they manage volumes at security checkpoints. This includes sharing of our expected customer load data at specific times for planning purposes, and where possible, assigning Delta people to assist with queuing and way-finding at peak times. We also encourage our customers to consider enrolling in TSA PreCheck and Clear to expedite their security screening. Arrival at the airport at least two hours prior to a domestic departure and three hours prior to an international departure continues to be what we recommend for customers.”

Both TSA PreCheck and Clear can help get you through security much more quickly, especially during peak periods. Personally, I have both, an often use them together to jump to the front of the PreCheck line.

Related: Clear expedited airport security program — Is it worth it?

A Clear membership has long been an easy sell for Delta and United elites — access is completely free for top-tier Diamond members, just as it is for Premier 1Ks at United. The American Express® Green Card can also net you a significant discount — you’ll earn an up to $100 statement credit per calendar year when you use the card to purchase a Clear membership. The information for the Amex Green card has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.

If you’re planning to travel this summer or beyond, it could be worth signing up for both TSA PreCheck and Clear now — in most cases, you’ll be able to speed through security, even if checkpoints end up being short-staffed this summer, leading to long queues.

Meanwhile, if you’re interested in work as a TSA officer, the agency would love to have you apply. As a TSA spokesperson explained, “TSA officers are federal employees and receive full federal benefits, which include paid annual leave, paid sick leave, educational benefits, membership into TSA PreCheck and retirement benefits.” You can begin the process right here.

Featured graphic courtesy of the TSA

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