TSA chief walks line between promising safe flights, seeking more screeners

  • TSA Administrator Peter Neffenger addresses concerns Friday about long lines at checkpoints and security issues at O'Hare International Airport. He was asked to come by Sen. Dick Durbin, far left. and held a roundtable with airline executives and elected officials, including U.S. Reps. Jan Schakowsky, left, and Robin Kelly and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

      TSA Administrator Peter Neffenger addresses concerns Friday about long lines at checkpoints and security issues at O'Hare International Airport. He was asked to come by Sen. Dick Durbin, far left. and held a roundtable with airline executives and elected officials, including U.S. Reps. Jan Schakowsky, left, and Robin Kelly and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Marni Pyke | Staff Photographer

 
 

You're safe to fly, we're sorry for the excruciating delays. and transportation security is underfunded was the message TSA Administrator Peter Neffenger delivered Friday at O'Hare International Airport.

One more thing: Lines will "continue to be a challenge" this summer, despite promised improvements, Neffenger added at a news conference. He was flanked by Sen. Dick Durbin and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who have had an earful from passengers.

Transportation Security Administration staffing reductions of about 10 percent are hitting home. with 795 people missing American Airlines flights from O'Hare International Airport alone last week because of security checkpoint waits in excess of two hours.

"We need to increase the staffing size of the TSA to meet the demands of the traveling public" as well as threats to fliers, such as the downing of EgyptAir Flight 804, Neffenger said.

Egyptian authorities have asserted that terrorism is more likely to have brought down Flight 804 than a mechanical or technical failure.

But the agency is working smarter to keep the public safe, Neffenger said. In his 10 months as administrator, the TSA has doubled down on finding explosives and "dramatically improved our ability to focus on those types of devices," he said.

Behind Neffenger were charts showing that TSA employees at O'Hare had decreased from more than 2,000 in 2012 to 1,932 in 2015. At Midway, the tally was 471 TSA staff members in 2015 compared to nearly 600 in 2005.

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Fifty-eight more TSA officers will be deployed to Chicago airports in the next three weeks and 100 part-timers will shift to full-time. Nearly 250 more screeners are promised in August as well as more bomb-sniffing dogs.

The huge delays at both airports were "knowable and it was avoidable," Emanuel said, adding "the situation is not tolerable for the flying public because the people responsible were not doing the job they needed to do on funding and staffing operations."

"We've got to have more staff; we've got to have more canines," Aviation Commissioner Ginger Evans said.

One reason for shrinking the number of TSA officers was the expectation passengers would sign up for PreCheck, a program that expedites security steps for preapproved travelers. But fliers aren't rushing to enroll and the agency is also losing about 100 employees a week through attrition.

Exacerbating the mess is an uptick in Americans flying.

Business traveler Christopher Lyon of Warrenville said he'd been trying to get an appointment since February for a PreCheck screening.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"There's no appointments in the next 45 days," he said. "This is just as bad as TSA lines."

Asked about the problems, Durbin acknowledged the wait. The TSA "has got to make it much more approachable," he said.

Some Chicago aldermen are pushing to privatize TSA staffing at Midway and O'Hare. Evans said the administration wouldn't "close the door" on the idea.

But noting that the TSA would still have to supervise outside employees, she said "the benefits are marginal."

"There is a huge cost of time associated with a transition," she said. "It will be evaluated with other things but there are a lot more technical improvements that deserve more focus."

Fear of losing their jobs would also be detrimental to TSA employees' morale, Evans noted.

Sen. Mark Kirk has asked for Neffenger to resign if the delays don't improve. Durbin, who asked the administrator to come to O'Hare for a roundtable with elected leaders and airline executives, said that "Congress needs to be part of the solution."

"My goal is to keep you moving," Neffenger said.

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