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USA Today: Congress approves TSA request for screeners to meet summer crush

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Pittsburgh, May 12, 2016 | Coleman Lamb ((202) 225-5516) | comments

By Bart Jansen

WASHINGTON – Congress approved TSA's request Wednesday to hire more screeners and pay overtime to deal with a surge in summer travelers who are already jamming airport checkpoints.

The Transportation Security Administration asked Congress on May 4 to shift $34 million between its accounts to hire and train 768 new officers and pay overtime for its 42,500 officers. Key senators agreed the same day, and their House counterparts approved the shift Wednesday.

The approval came after Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, said Wednesday that delays at checkpoint lines could be reduced if Congress authorized more funding.

“I do know that the TSA takes very seriously the responsibility they have to protect our aviation system, but also to minimize the inconvenience to U.S. travelers,” Earnest said. “A problem that people have noticed can be traced back pretty easily to the inability of Republicans in Congress to govern the country.”

Democratic members of the Homeland Security Committee – Reps. Kathleen Rice of New York, Donald Payne of New Jersey and William Keating of Massachusetts – urged the money shift Tuesday, after the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey reported wait times have increased significantly at La Guardia, John F. Kennedy and Newark airports. Delays have also been reported at Atlanta, Miami, Chicago, Denver and Seattle airports.

“The shortage of TSA screeners is causing a lot of problems for passengers in airports across the country, and it’s only going to get worse this summer,” Rice said. “We need to act now to get more screeners on the ground at airport checkpoints, or we can expect even longer lines and wait times, more passengers experiencing travel disruptions and more airports forced to consider privatizing security.”

Airlines for America, an industry group representing most of the largest carriers, created a website, www.ihatethewait.com, and hashtag #ihatethewait to encourage travelers to post pictures of long checkpoint lines.

But Rep. John Carter, R-Texas, who is chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee for Homeland Security, initially raised concerns because Congress provided TSA with more funding this fiscal year than the Obama administration requested.

“Bottom line – the security of the traveling public is our primary concern,” Carter said when the request was filed. “As always, the committee continues to encourage the department to suggest ways to improve service without compromising security.”

TSA Administrator Peter Neffenger warned in March that wait times nearly doubled from last year. TSA also stepped up security following the terror attacks in Paris, Brussels and Egypt over the past year.

A watchdog report last year that found screeners missed hidden weapons also spurred TSA officials to scrutinize travelers and their carry-on bags more closely.

Add to that an estimated 8% uptick in the number of travelers flying this summer, Neffenger said.

The TSA has taken some steps to alleviate the bottlenecks, including shifting 28 teams of bomb-sniffing dogs from smaller airports to those where lines have grown the worst.

Security officials also made a public push for travelers to join Precheck, which allows pre-screened travelers to keep on shoes and belts and leave laptops and small containers of liquids in carry-on bags as they pass through the checkpoints. Precheck registered 2.36 million members by the end of March, but officials want to recruit millions more. To join, travelers pay $85 for five years and provide fingerprints and some biographical information.

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