More people are flying than ever, and here’s how the TSA is dealing with surges at airports

For anyone who flies regularly, long security lines at airports are a norm. But with more of us traveling by air — especially with the 2018 summer season, which the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) expects to be the busiest yet — we can expect longer than usual lines. According to Michael Bilello, Assistant Administrator for Public Affairs at the TSA, checkpoint volume growth is anticipated to be up 4 percent, compared to 2017. And, more than 243 million passengers and crew will go through TSA screening during the period between Memorial Day and Labor Day

In the past, the TSA had grappled with a shortage of agents to deal with the influx of passengers, which resulted in incredibly long lines that have forced passengers to endure hours-long waits or even miss their flights. Passengers confused about TSA checkpoint rules added to those wait times. In 2016, in Chicago, 450 American Airlines passengers couldn’t make their flights due to security wait times.

It’s not an easy job: On average, the TSA screens 2.1 million passengers and crew, per day; on busier days, it could be another 400,000. But since then, the TSA has been working on improving operations. Bilello told Digital Trends that the agency has “conducted hiring events at hard-to-hire airports, increased advertising to help recruit new hires, and improved the timeliness of the hiring and new hire training process.”

“Despite attrition, TSA increased its frontline headcount by 620 officers since the beginning of the year,” Bilello added. “We expect to increase by another 1,000 officers before the peak summer travel season.”

At the peak in July, the TSA expects to have 1,800 more frontline officers than in 2017. The agency is increasing overtime for officers to deal with peak travel seasons, and adding more Passenger Screening Canine Teams to assist the TSA officers. Ahead of the summer, the TSA will be briefing airports and the airline community “to maintain security effectiveness and efficient operations,” Bilello said.

But even before summer arrives, the TSA has already started dealing with higher volume of passengers. During spring break (March 15 to April 15), the TSA screened more than 72 million passengers and almost 45 million checked bags. Compared to the same period in 2017, it marks a 5 percent increase. But 95 percent of passengers waited fewer than 20 minutes to clear the checkpoint, while 93 percent of passengers in the TSA Pre program waited less than 5 minutes.

But the security checkpoint isn’t entirely responsible for long lines. Aging infrastructure of existing airports aren’t able to handle the increasing number of passengers. And then there are situations that are completely out of anybody’s hands, such as weather and computer glitches, which severely impact airport operations. (If you are affected by cancelations, we have tips on what to do.)

Tamur Goudarzi Pour, Lufthansa Group’s vice president for the Americas, told Digital Trends that there isn’t one airport that’s not going through some kind of construction, to improve the passenger experience. For its operation, the company is looking into ways technology could help alleviate some of these pain points. It recently tested biometric technology at its gate at Los Angeles International, where 350 passengers successfully boarded an Airbus A380 in less than 30 minutes, using just facial recognition — from gate to seat. Working with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the technology could one day extend all the way to security, not just at the gate. But that’s still far off in the future.

Until then, some experts recommend you just stay calm and carry on, but it doesn’t help when you’re still stuck in line and you have to board a plane in the next half-hour. The key, experts agree, is to prepare beforehand, including knowing the rules (if you aren’t sure, ask a question via the TSA’s Ask TSA Twitter account.. By following a few basic tips, you can easily beat your fellow passengers to the finish line.

This article was updated on May 8, 2018 to reflect new information from the Transportation Security Administration.

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