MINNEAPOLIS – Long waits at security checkpoints have become the new normal at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, where the number of screeners has fallen while the number of travelers is rising. And officials said Friday there's no relief in sight as the busy spring break and summer travel seasons approach.
The situation has become so frustrating that Jeffrey Hamiel, executive director and CEO of the Metropolitan Airports Commission, which runs the airport, took travelers' complaints to the head of the Transportation Security Administration this week. He pointed out that passenger volume at the airport has increased 10.5 percent since 2011, while the number of screeners nationally has fallen around 15 percent over that period.
"Those diverging trend lines — increasing passenger levels and declining numbers of federal screeners — are a recipe for unacceptable customer service. We have reached that point at MSP," Hamiel wrote in a letter Thursday to TSA Administrator Peter Neffenger.
Waits of more than 40 minutes are common since the main terminal switched from six smaller checkpoints to two bigger stations with the same total number of lanes last month. But the problem isn't unique to the Twin Cities airport, a major hub for Delta Air Lines. Similarly long waits have cropped up in Seattle, Chicago-O'Hare and Atlanta, the TSA acknowledges.
The local situation has improved somewhat thanks to airport workers who've been helping travelers navigate the new system, officials say.
"We are doing the best we can with the resources that we have," TSA spokeswoman Lorie Dankers said.
Congress has capped the number of uniformed screeners for budgetary reasons: About 42,800 screeners nationwide now, compared with a peak of about 50,000 a few years ago, she said.
At the same time, the TSA has been conducting closer inspections of people and carry-on luggage since last summer's revelation of startling security gaps at U.S. airports. Auditors for the Homeland Security Department's inspector general were repeatedly able to sneak mock explosives and weapons through checkpoints.
In congressional testimony Tuesday, Neffenger said the TSA suffered from "a disproportionate focus on efficiency over effectiveness" before it refocused on its primary mission of protecting passengers from terrorists. But the $7.6 billion budget proposal he presented calls for only a modest increase in screeners.
"Eventually, we will reach capacity, and in some places we already exceed capacity during peak travel periods," he acknowledged.
The Twin Cities' airport spokesman, Patrick Hogan, said airport officials have asked the state's congressional delegation to push for a solution.
"If you just look at the math, with the increasing passengers and the decreasing number of screeners, I don't see how it doesn't become the new normal unless additional money is appropriated for more screeners," he said.
Passengers should arrive at least two hours early to ensure they catch their flights, Hogan and Dankers urged.
Travelers can cut their waits by enrolling in TSA PreCheck expedited screening program, which lets you keep your shoes on and computers in the bag, among other things, Dankers said. There's an $85 processing fee, but Trusted Traveler status is good for five years.
TSA PreCheck: https://www.tsa.gov/tsa-precheck
Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport: https://www.mspairport.com