Posted May 30, 2016 at 3:40pm
In his 1944 play “No Exit ,” John-Paul Sartre has a character declare, “Hell is other people.” These days an innovative theatrical director could shift the locale of “No Exit” from an anteroom in hell to a hellish airport security line.
In fact, you may be reading these words on an actual TSA line snaking through a barbed-wire airport as you struggle still to return home from Memorial Day … someday. Or, if you’re a plan-ahead type, you may already be queuing up at the airport in preparation for a Fourth of July vacation.
Think I’m exaggerating?
We have reached the point where a helpful TSA supervisor at Baltimore-Washington airport told The Washington Post that prudent travelers should arrive three hours before takeoff time. In the old days, Americans ridiculed the Soviet Union for forcing people to line up for three hours in hopes of getting an egg. Now we do the same thing for a middle seat.
The shocking TSA wait times represent the sort of breakdown that isn’t supposed to happen in a functioning democracy. The people who are missing planes or missing sleep to get through airport security are mostly middle-class Americans who vote. Rather than being clustered in a few states or cities, the victims of TSA’s incompetence reside in all 435 congressional districts, since small airports can face screening delays comparable to those at O’Hare or BWI.
Why have voters in both parties turned into pitchfork populists railing against Washington? The TSA scandal is an apt place to begin since the blame is shared among hapless bureaucrats in a backwater federal agency, the ideologues in the Republican Congress and the shakedown artists of the airline industry.
Two numbers shape the story: Nearly 100 million more airline passengers in four years and 5,800 fewer screeners working for the Transportation Security Administration. As Peter Neffenger, a retired Coast Guard vice admiral who heads the TSA, told a House hearing earlier this month, “We do not have enough people to staff our lanes.”
Ever since it was created in the panicked aftermath of 9/11, the TSA has been a troubled agency buried in the ungainly Department of Homeland Security. A recent study of morale throughout the federal government ranked TSA 313th out of 320 agencies surveyed. Nearly 40 percent of the agency’s personnel budget goes to administrators (often making more than $100,000) while the harassed screeners have to get by on as little as $30,000 for a full-time job.
The TSA badly misjudged the demand for screeners. Neffenger explained to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that the agency had relied on faulty federal estimates of airline passenger growth.
Even worse, the agency had blithely assumed that frequent travelers would flock to TSA PreCheck, a program that charges $85 for a background check that allows passengers to use shorter and less invasive security lines. Instead of enrolling the expected 25 million passengers, TSA PreCheck and analogous federal programs have signed up only 9.5 million.
The ineptitude here is stunning. TSA did little to publicize PreCheck and offered the service through a single outside contractor. Illinois Sen. Richard Durbin wrote to Neffenger last week to point out, “There are currently no TSA PreCheck appointments available in the Chicago metro area with a wait time less than 45 days or on weekends.” (I found a similar pattern in New York City).
So the only way to avoid waiting at the airport is to spend weeks waiting for a PreCheck appointment. There is also something disconcerting about paying $85 (the program is required to be self-financing) and having your fingerprints taken in order to queue-jump ahead of your fellow citizens on a security line.
Congress shares the blame with bumbling bureaucrats. The lack of any rational judgment in Republican budget-cutting strategies has left TSA parched for resources. Few travelers know that 60 cents out of the mandatory $5.60 security fee on every airline segment now goes to pay down the national debt. That means that $1.25 billion in 2016 that should have gone to hire extra screeners is instead earmarked for a symbolic payment that will make no tangible fiscal difference.
Greedy airlines have compounded the problem with outrageous baggage fees that force hard-pressed travelers to cram overloaded rolling bags into the overhead bins. The result: Four times more baggage is now carried on the planes than is checked. As Neffenger put it, “It is the carry-on baggage that is one of the major slow points in a checkpoint.”
The dysfunction in Washington has reached such a level that it was major news when the government miraculously came up with $34 million to hire 768 extra screeners and pay more TSA overtime. To lessen the inconvenience on everyone who travels (business executives, grandparents, backpackers and summer beachcombers), the world’s only superpower ponied up a shiny dime for every citizen.
It makes you proud to be an American where TSA makes you wait.
As you slowly shuffle through the airport shoeless this summer, it would be nice if someone from the federal government, Congress or the airline industry would be there to apologize for your inconvenience. Instead, there are only puzzled murmurs from Washington as insiders in both parties wonder aloud why the voters are so angry.
Roll Call columnist Walter Shapiro is a veteran of Politics Daily, USA Today, Time, Newsweek and The Washington Post. His book on his con-man great-uncle will be published in June: “Hustling Hitler: The Jewish Vaudevillian Who Fooled the Fuhrer.” Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.