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TSA's airport wait times grow shorter, with some help from airlines

Passengers at O'Hare International Airport wait in line to be screened at a Transportation Security Administration (TSA) checkpoint in Chicago.
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Passengers at O'Hare International Airport wait in line to be screened at a Transportation Security Administration (TSA) checkpoint in Chicago.

This year, Independence Day included something most passengers haven't seen in a long time—freedom from interminably long lines at airport security checkpoints. And that informal holiday could be coming soon to an airport near you.

The Transportation Security Administration screened 10.7 million travelers from Wednesday, June 30 through Monday, July 4, the agency said in a statement last week. "The average wait time nationwide in standard security lines was less than ten minutes, while those in TSA Pre-check lines waited less than five minutes," the TSA added, despite the fact that June 30 and July 1 were "the highest volume travel days we have seen since 2007."

The good news comes courtesy of a variety of systemic fixes that include the expedited hiring of more than 750 new Transportation Security Officers (TSOs), and helping hands from airports and airlines. Those entities have hired extra personnel to perform non-security duties at checkpoints, but the battle is far from won.

"We are not declaring victory," said Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson in a statement. "We plan to do more."

Passengers at O'Hare International Airport wait in line to be screened at a Transportation Security Administration (TSA) checkpoint on May 16, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois.
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Passengers at O'Hare International Airport wait in line to be screened at a Transportation Security Administration (TSA) checkpoint on May 16, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois.

That "more" included last week's announcement that American Airlines is spending $5 million to help TSA install new screening technology and modified screening stations at Chicago O'Hare, Dallas/Fort Worth, Los Angeles and Miami International Airports in the fall. More upgrades are expected later this year at the Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport.

"This is in addition to the $21 million we are already spending on non-security functions at our largest airports—like bin running and queue management—which enable TSA officers to focus solely on the screening aspects of their jobs," said Robert Isom, American Airlines' COO, in a letter to employees.

The new "innovation lanes" increase security effectiveness and, best of all, decrease the time travelers must spend in security lines by about 30 percent, the TSA says. They are also being used at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, with funding from Delta Air Lines.

While checkpoint technology is getting better, TSA continues its campaign to get travelers to enroll in the TSA PreCheck program, which offers expedited screening privileges for 5 years in exchange for $85, some shared personal information and an in-person interview.

Travelers can complete their applications at permanent enrollment station located at airports and other locations around the country. To expedite things, TSA is setting up easy-to-access "pop-up" enrollment centers near airports around the country.

The TSA PreCheck Enrollment Tour kicks off in New York, with pop-up PreCheck centers at Penn Station from July 11 to 29, as well as other places in the Metro NY region during July 12-16. The tour will then move on to locations in Dallas, Miami and Chicago, among other spots.

In addition to some of the credit cards that offer TSA PreCheck vouchers or reimbursements as part of their benefits, JetBlue offers TSA Precheck enrollment vouchers to some Mosaic frequent flier members. On Southwest Airlines, Rapid Rewards members can exchange 9,000 points for a Precheck enrollment voucher. Delta offers its SkyMiles members special pricing on the PreCheck-like CLEAR program.

Club Carlson, the rewards program for the Carlson Rezidor Hotel Group, also allows program members to swap 65,000 points for an authorization code that can be used towards the $85 PreCheck application fee. And travelers can also get a PreChech enrollment voucher in exchange for 4,250 Thanks Again Points, which are awarded for purchases made at airports.

"We wanted to give consumers a reward option that saves them more than just money," said Marc Ellis, Thanks Again CEO. "Expedited screening for Thanks Again members will cut-down the time spent in standard security lines and give travelers an enjoyable travel experience from the very beginning of their journey, making it a win for TSA and security overall."

—Harriet Baskas is the author of seven books, including "Hidden Treasures: What Museums Can't or Won't Show You," and the Stuck at the Airport blog. Follow her on Twitter at @hbaskas . Follow Road Warrior at @CNBCtravel.