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How to fix airport security lines mess

You can have fast lines or good security, but you can't have both, at least not with the skeleton crew with which the Transportation Security Administration is currently operating.

Airports all across the country are reporting massive lines, with hours-long waits for passengers becoming the norm. It's unpleasant, but also entirely avoidable.

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.

Transportation Security Officers have asked for more staffing resources for years, but our call has fallen on deaf ears in an austerity-obsessed Congress. After years of neglect, it's no wonder the situation has gotten as dire as it is today. And if something isn't done soon, the waits will only get longer and longer.

The TSA Officer workforce has declined to 42,000 from 47,000 in 2013 while passenger volume at U.S. airports has jumped 15 percent to 740 million a year. So long as Congress sits on its hands, that gap is only expected to widen.

The good news is that this is not a complicated problem. It's common sense that more airline passengers require more screeners to process them safely and quickly. The bad news is that Congress funded just a few hundred new screeners in its most recent budget, which won't even make a dent as the summer travel season heats up.

That's why we're calling on Congress to end the waits once and for all by hiring a minimum of 6,000 new screeners to staff security checkpoints. This will bring staffing back up to 2011 levels and restore sanity and security to screening lines across the country. With thousands of passengers missing flights due to long waits, Congress would be wise to move quickly.

But the problem goes beyond just underfunding. For a year now, Congress has been raiding funds from TSA ticket fees that are supposed to offset the cost of passenger screening. In 2014, Congress decided to divert billions in fee revenues away from security toward what they called "paying down the deficit." This change has led to $12.6 billion in ticket fees being diverted away from security screening over the next ten years – all at a time when TSA needs those resources the most.

TSA officers show up to work every day and do their job to keep the flying public safe. Last year, they discovered a record 2,653 firearms at security checkpoints across the country, on top of countless other weapons and dangerous items. The haul was a 20 percent increase from 2014, despite the lower staffing levels.

There hasn't been another 9/11 thanks in part to their often thankless work. They've been doing more with less for years, and the long lines are proof positive that we can't wait any longer to act.

Robbing ticket fees and shortchanging security budgets is not leadership – it's an unacceptable security risk. It's time for Congress to do their job and take immediate action to end the waits by staffing the TSA.

Commentary by J. David Cox Sr., national president of the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents more than 670,000 federal and D.C. government employees nationwide, including TSA officers. Follow him on Twitter @JDavidCoxSr.

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