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Travel boom squeezes airport screeners

Agency working to step up hiring by IAN DUNCAN THE WASHINGTON POST | June 10, 2021 at 1:53 a.m.
Travelers line up to go through a Transportation Security Administration checkpoint at Orlando International Airport on May 28. (AP/John Raoux)

WASHINGTON -- The acting head of the Transportation Security Administration has issued a memo warning that 131 of the nation's largest airports will face staffing shortages this month and asking office workers to volunteer to assist with airport checkpoints.

Darby LaJoye, who is filling in as the agency's administrator, wrote that help is needed as travel numbers are forecast to spike through the summer. The volunteers, who were told to expect to serve for up to 45 days, would not be able to screen passengers but could help manage lines and aid with administrative tasks.

"With this increase in volume, [the Transportation Security Administration] must maintain operational readiness and ensure that the screening workforce is available to perform screening functions," LaJoye wrote in the May 30 memo obtained by The Washington Post.

The request is one measure the agency has taken in recent weeks to manage staffing shortages as U.S. air carriers record their highest passenger counts of the pandemic. The agency also has promised recurring $500 monthly bonuses to screening officers at airports that are significantly short-staffed, allowed part-time workers to become full time, adjusted shifts and increased the use of overtime -- including requiring officers to work on their days off, according to union leaders.

[CORONAVIRUS: Click here for our complete coverage » arkansasonline.com/coronavirus]

The agency says it has recruited 3,100 new employees in recent months and wants another 3,000 by the end of summer, but the latest steps to stretch its existing workforce show the scale of the challenge it faces as air travel rebounds from historic lows.

In a statement, the agency said it is confident that it has the resources to get travelers through checkpoints and onto planes.

"The Transportation Security Administration is well-positioned to meet rising traveler volumes this summer," the agency said in a statement. "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."

In announcing a hiring drive earlier this year, the agency said that it was seeking to recruit 6,000 officers "by summer" but later said the figure represented its goal for the budget year that ends in September. The push was hampered by a rocky transition to a new information technology system that left officials relying on manual workarounds to process recruitments.

Hydrick Thomas, president of American Federation of Government Employees Council 100, the officers union, said the agency is staring down the peak summer travel period and "realized they couldn't hire the 6,000 like they promised to do."

"People are going to be traveling, they're going to come to the airport and see these long lines and wonder what's happening," he said.

That was Fareeda Ali Bullert's experience Friday when she arrived at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport for a flight to New York. Bullert said as soon as she entered the terminal, it was clear something was wrong, with large crowds and no direction from security screeners.

"It was very much passengers helping passengers, sharing how long they were on the wait for," she said. "The lines were wrapping around and almost crisscrossing."

After about an hour of waiting -- followed by a lot of running -- Bullert said she made it to her flight with about five minutes to spare.

"It felt like a game show," she said. "You had to beat someone to make it your flight."

In Charlotte, hundreds of people recently missed flights after being stuck in long lines.

The agency was short at least 2,500 officers heading into June, according to an agency assessment obtained by the Post, with some of the largest airports down more than 100 officers compared with projected staffing needs.

Five of the nation's largest airports were short at least one-tenth of their projected necessary staff: Detroit Metropolitan, Denver International, Dulles International outside Washington, St. Louis Lambert International and Boston Logan International.

In all, the analysis identified 235 airports that were short-staffed by at least 5% and where officers would be eligible for $500 bonuses each month. An agency memo about the three-month program indicates, "we are trying to offer as many incentive options as possible for airports to successfully perform their operations."

Thomas, the union leader, said the prospect of bonuses is welcome but mandatory overtime shifts will not be as popular with officers.

"It's kind of stressful," he said. "It works better when you ask for volunteers rather than try to mandate somebody."

While the Transportation Security Administration has recruited 3,100 new officers, agency spokeswoman Alexa Lopez said about 2,090 workers have left since the start of the year. Lopez said many of those leaving worked part time, while a greater proportion of the new hires are full-time employees.

Agency data shows an uptick in traveler numbers in recent weeks. On Memorial Day weekend, more than 1.9 million people passed through security checkpoints on Friday and Monday, the highest figures since demand for air travel plummeted in March 2020 as the coronavirus began to spread widely in the United States. This past weekend saw another day with more than 1.9 million passengers.

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