Transportation Security Administration lines were more than two hours long Sunday, causing 450 people to miss their flights, according to American Airlines.
CHICAGO — Marathon security lines over the weekend stranded dozens of people overnight at O’Hare International Airport because of missed flights, as a TSA staffing shortage continues to plague travelers nationwide, airline officials said.
Transportation Security Administration lines were more than two hours long Sunday, causing 450 people to miss their flights, according to American Airlines spokeswoman Leslie Scott. Stranded passengers who couldn’t get on a later flight slept on cots at the American terminal.
The lines are being blamed on insufficient TSA staffing due to strengthened security measures, a higher-than-anticipated increase in air traffic and incorrect guesses about how many people would sign up for expedited screening. The situation has been accelerating for months — and is expected to get worse heading into the busy summer travel season.
“Obviously it’s a frustrating situation for our passengers and we know that,” said Scott, who said 4,500 American Airlines passengers at O’Hare have missed flights since February due to the line problem. “But it’s also a frustrating situation for our employees, who are trying to do everything they can to get people on their planes and get flights out on time.”
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The problem is afflicting both Chicago airports. When Erin Walton, of Rockford, Ill., left Midway International Airport on Thursday, she and her family stood in line for more than two hours and barely made their flight to Dallas.
Walton and her family arrived early at the airport in Dallas on Monday so they could make their flight back to Chicago. They encountered long lines there too.
“The lines move, but they are so long,” she said. “It appears they don’t have a lot of staff. We manage it because we know security checks are necessary. We just try to endure.”
The wait problem also hurts airline operations, as airlines risk flying out with half-empty planes if lines are too long. Airlines sometimes pull people to the front of the line if their flight is leaving soon, or face the tough choice of delaying a flight and causing a cascade of late arrivals around the country.
The Chicago Department of Aviation and airlines are encouraging passengers to get to the airport at least two hours early for domestic flights and three hours early for international flights.
The TSA admits it has an issue — it had hoped for an increased use of a 4-year-old expedited screening program called PreCheck, with a goal of getting 25 million fliers into the program by 2019. Fliers who pass the $85 background check do not have to remove shoes, belts and light jackets, allowing for a faster line.
But only about 7.25 million people have enrolled in prescreening programs such as PreCheck or Global Entry, administered through U.S. Customs and Border Protection, said Michael McCarthy, a TSA spokesman.
Airlines for America, an airline trade group, created the Twitter handle #iHatetheWait for people to register complaints about security lines. The group is encouraging passengers to sign up for expedited screening, and some airlines allow customers to use frequent flier points to pay for PreCheck enrollment, said spokeswoman Jean Medina.
She said even PreCheck lines can be long, but not nearly as long as regular lines.
The trade group wants TSA to look at their staffing model, to see what can be done better. “With a $5.6 billion budget, we think they have the resources,” Medina said.
She noted that U.S. Customs and Border Protection was having trouble with oversized lines two years ago but was able to make staff changes to address the problem.
In a statement, TSA said that its focus is security, and the U.S. transportation system remains a “high value target for terrorists.”
“Traveler security is TSA’s first priority, and we remain intensely focused on our important mission,” the statement said.
The TSA has asked Congress for authority to shift $34 million in funding in the 2016 budget to allow it to increase the number of TSA officers. The funds would be shifted from other TSA program accounts.
TSA also continues to push its PreCheck option and plans to open an enrollment center at Midway next week, McCarthy said.