TSA pulls desk workers to security checkpoints to alleviate long lines

Jun 11, 2021

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Travelers are once again taking to the skies, airlines are adding new routes and summer is on its way to be the busiest season for travel since the coronavirus pandemic began.

But many airports haven’t been able to keep up with the return of passengers in recent weeks. Staffing shortages have meant long lines and a hectic airport experience.

The Transportation Security Administration is following in the footsteps of some U.S. airlines, including Delta and American Airlines, to ask office workers to volunteer to take frontline shifts at the airport.

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This isn’t necessarily unusual behavior for the TSA — an agency official told CNN that this request is standard during busy travel periods such as holidays. But unlike typical holidays, this surge in travelers likely won’t slow down after a few days or a week as the summer travel season heats up and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) continues to update guidelines on where it’s safe to travel.

In a memo obtained by The Washington Post, interim agency administrator Darby LaJoye reached out to TSA employees to volunteer for up to 45-day stints to help manage security queues and handle administrative tasks.

LaJoye wrote that “with this increase in volume, TSA must maintain operational readiness and ensure that the screening workforce is available to perform screening functions.”

More than 130 airports in the U.S. will reportedly face staffing shortages during the month of June, which has seen more than 1.5 passengers pass through TSA security checkpoints each day so far (with the highest reported day topping out at more than 1.9 million). TSA was short 2,500 officers at the start of June, and some airports are down more than 100 officers.

What does a staffing shortage mean for travelers?

It’s possible you’ll see longer lines at security. At Charlotte Douglas International Airport (CLT) over the June 6 weekend, hundreds of passengers missed flights. Lines at TSA checkpoints reportedly took hours. And since then, American Airlines has suggested passengers get to the airport up to three hours in advance — just in case.

Related: How to avoid long lines at the airport

I arrived at the CLT airport at around 8:30 a.m. on June 11, and I was able to get through security in under 20 minutes. There were definitely more personnel directing passengers through security lines, and TSA agents were incredibly efficient in getting people through the lines quickly despite a large crowd ready to board flights heading into the weekend.

It seems that the measures being taken are working — at least for the time being.

The TSA has reportedly recruited 3,100 new employees over the past few months, but that’s only half of the agency’s goal for the end of September. Retention has long been an issue for TSA, and the pandemic only heightened concerns with agents working on the front lines despite low pay.

To help combat this, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas announced steps to improve collective bargaining rights for the officers’ union and provide officers a new system to appeal personnel decisions — on top of the potential for better pay.

In the short term, the agency is promising $500 monthly bonuses for screening officers at airports where staffing shortages are significant, some part-time workers are moving to full-time and shifts are being adjusted to help cover shortages where possible. However, these short-term solutions can mean additional overtime requests and officers being required to work on their days off, union leaders told The Washington Post.

If you have a flight planned in the next few weeks, keep in mind that you may experience longer lines. Get to the airport earlier than usual, and be patient with airport workers and TSA screening officers. We’re all ready for a full return to travel this year, but don’t forget that these are the workers making it possible (despite staffing shortages) for us to travel safely.

Featured image of JFK Terminal 4 lines in late May 2021 by Chris Dong/The Points Guy. 

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