As air travel volume approaches pre-pandemic levels, passengers at airports across the country are facing long lines at security checkpoints due to a staffing shortage plaguing the Transportation Security Administration.
The acting head of the TSA warned that 131 of the nation’s largest airports are short-staffed, according to an internal memo sent to employees and obtained by The Washington Post. Acting TSA Administrator Darby LaJoye also asked office workers to volunteer to help at airport checkpoints for up to 45 days to help fill the gap, the Post reports.
The warning comes as air travel continues to gain altitude. The TSA reported screening over 2 million travelers on June 11, marking the highest number of people since March 2020 and reaching 74% of the travel volume from the same day two years ago.
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At the same time, the agency has not been able to backfill many of the positions that were lost during the pandemic when the TSA was forced to furlough some of its workforce and cut hours for many more amid a dramatic decline in travelers.
The problem is exacerbated by the fact that security screeners have the highest attrition rate of any government employee, a consequence of low pay and a lack of workplace rights, according to the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), a union representing TSA employees. Starting annual pay for TSA screeners is $35,000-$39,000 and tops out at $43,000.
The AFGE has long advocated for better pay, more benefits and collective bargaining right for its members. The union did not respond to NBC's request for comment, but a spokesman for the AFGE told the Associated Press in an interview earlier this month that, “We are just asking to be put on the same scale as everyone else. We are not asking for something different.”
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The Biden administration announced on June 3 that it would increase pay and union rights for screening officers nationwide. Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro N. Mayorkas said in announcing the plan that the agency would provide "fair compensation” to improve retention rates. They will be granted new access to grievance procedures but their collective bargaining rights would only “closely mirror” those provided under law to other federal employees.
“TSA employees are outstanding public servants who work on the frontlines, including throughout the pandemic, to keep the traveling American public safe,” Mayorkas said in a press release. “They deserve the empowerment of collective bargaining and a compensation structure that recognizes and rewards them for their contributions to our safety and security.”
Meanwhile, states are reopening as vaccination levels rise. Both New York and California recently lifted pandemic-related restrictions as both states hit 70% vaccination rates. Though the country seems unlikely to reach that threshold by July 4, the White House is using Independence Day to unofficially kickoff a new phase in its pandemic response. The vaccine drive has also boosted consumer confidence in air travel, with those who've been inoculated feeling safer about returning to the skies and sparking a wave of "vaxication" bookings.
Sarah Rodriguez, a spokeswoman for the TSA, told NBC in an emailed statement that the agency is "well-positioned" for the rise in summer travel.
“As in years before, the agency began a concerted recruitment effort this past winter in anticipation of increasing volumes and is on pace with established benchmarks to meet hiring goals,” Rodriguez told NBC.
In March, the TSA announced efforts to recruit 6,000 security officers nationwide. It also has taken a number of measures in recent weeks to ramp up hiring ahead of summer travel, which according the TSA, it does each spring. Those initiatives include offering a $1,000 "recruitment incentive" for new employees, shifting part-time employees to full-time positions and increasing overtime, Rodriguez said.
The TSA has recruited over 3,000 new officers in recent months, Rodriguez said. However, about 2,090 workers have left since the beginning of the year, according to the Washington Post.
In the meantime, TSA recommends travelers arrive at the airport early to "allow adequate time for checking bags, completing security screening and getting to the departure gate."
Fewer officers mean slower checkpoints, and travelers have taken to social media to vent about the long wait times.
Raj Manoharan, who has been traveling weekly for work throughout the pandemic, told NBC lines have grown much longer recently as more Americans are traveling again.
Flying out of U.S. airports big and small, Manoharan said wait times depend on the size of the facility, with programs like TSA PreCheck expediting the process. While he attributes part of the problem to staff shortages, the self-described “frequent flyer” noted a compounding problem: flyers who have forgotten the protocol. Manoharan said more reminders from the TSA would help move lines along.
“They’re feeling overwhelmed, too, so I feel for the agents. But I think TSA needs to remind everyone whatever the rules are,” Manoharan said. “That should go a long way. Now the staff shortages, that’s out of passengers’ control. But if people do their individual part, then their flying experience can be less stressful."