Why are TSA Lines So Long? And What You Can Do About It

Let’s play good news/bad news, air travel edition. Good: According to the latest scorecard from the U.S. Department of Transportation, complaints about domestic airline service are down. Bad: TSA lines are long. They’ve been long for months and will continue to be long throughout the summer because there simply aren’t enough screeners. And now the complaints are rolling in again.

LISTEN: Travel expert Rick Seaney reports from the trenches.

Why are TSA Lines So Long

Air travel expert and FareCompare CEO Rick Seaney says much of the blame falls squarely on the TSA. “The alarms went off in March,” said Seaney, “but nearly two months later, the long lines remain thanks to poor planning by management.” The TSA says it will hire another 768 screeners but staff cuts have gone way beyond that thanks to miscalculations over the TSA’s PreCheck program.

The Problem with PreCheck

PreCheck was supposed to solve problems; the faster screening experience allows travelers to keep shoes on and toiletries in carry-ons while speeding through a designated quick security line and this in turn meant fewer screeners would be needed. Unfortunately, screeners departed but not enough people signed up for PreCheck; the goal was an enrollment of 25 million but so far only 9.3 million have signed up. As a result, lines are long and some are missing flights (see #HateTheWait on Twitter). But there are some things fliers can do to help themselves.

4 Ways to Get Through Security Faster

Four tips to help speed things along.

  1. Sign up for PreCheck. It’s easy to sign up for PreCheck and generally fast, too (the in-person interview usually take all of five minutes). It costs $85 to join but that’s good for 5 years.
  2. Get lucky. Some boarding passes will be marked with the word PreCheck (or an abbreviation) in the upper corner; it means you’ve been randomly selected for faster screening. It’s kind of like winning the lottery; do not overlook this gift!
  3. Get to the airport early. Every airline is telling passengers to get to the airport early – now and in the foreseeable future – and by ‘early’ they mean one to two hours earlier than normal. This is worth repeating – go early! – because if you do get stuck in a long security line, you could miss your flight.
  4. Get ready: While you wait in your non-PreCheck line, get yourself ready for screening: locate your license and boarding pass to hand to the agent then quickly take off your shoes, pull the toiletry bag out of the carry-on and the laptop out of its case, then dump the water bottle. The quicker you get through the screening process, the quicker for everyone in line behind you.

To all travelers, we say a heartfelt good luck.

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Updated: May 19, 2016