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Long TSA Lines Are Gone, But for Good?

It was only a handful of months ago that we were posting headline after headline bemoaning the seemingly sudden onslaught of schedule-and soul-crushing lines at TSA security checkpoints. Back in May it seemed as if travelers might be in for a prolonged  quagmire of unknown duration at the country’s airports.

Well, 12 weeks and a few million dollars later, everything seems…fine?

USA Today’s Ben Mutzabaugh writes that wait times at the country’s major airports have dropped substantially from their springtime peak. In Chicago, where delays occasionally topped two hours in May, wait times are down to 10 minutes. A similar story has played out in Seattle, where wait times are down to 20 minutes.

“At the beginning of summer, we set a goal of 20 minutes or less for peak wait times in TSA security lines,” Sea-Tac Managing Director Lance Little said in a statement. “With a few exceptions, we worked with our airline partners and the TSA to achieve this goal.”

This turnaround is the result of several factors. For starters, Congress OK’ed funding that allowed the TSA to expand staffing. This enabled the agency to convert 2,784 part-time officers to full-time and hire over an additional 700 new employees. Delta, American, and United have pitched in as well: American hired staff to assist TSA screeners and all three carriers participated in various pilot programs testing new checkpoint methods—Delta even designed its own.

Perhaps what’s most impressive (and surprising) is that these improvements came during a particularly busy travel season, a point that TSA Administrator Peter Neffenger drove home in a Chicago press conference this week. “This is the busiest travel season on record,” he said. “In fact, some of the days this summer are bigger than what we used to consider the big days of Thanksgiving. So we’ve had some of our largest travel days ever, and I think it was just a matter of getting resources back in, and working with Congress to do so.”

The TSA deserves a lot of credit for addressing this problem and doing it so quickly. After finding itself caught in a perfect storm of inadequate staff and surging air traffic, the agency pulled out all the stops to get its operations in order. But one big, obvious, and quite frankly scary question remains: Is this a reprieve, or a new normal?

The significant staff expansion should prevent the kind of catastrophic checkpoint delays we saw this past spring, though it’s probably reasonable to expect wait times to creep upward during peak travel periods this fall and winter. But while adding staff is great and a big part of fixing what caused this spring’s meltdown, we should hope the TSA continues pursuing new technologies that will streamline the process further.

Readers, have you noticed shorter lines at TSA checkpoints over the past few weeks? Share your experiences in the comments below.

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