Why do we fly? The answer is quite simple – to get somewhere much faster than if we drove. Speed is the name of the game in aviation. But we’ve regressed since the 1970s, which had minimal security lines and even the Concorde in service internationally to get those who could afford it to their destinations quite quickly. But that optimism disappeared with terrorist attacks, and since 9/11/2001, things have continued to slow down.
This year in the United States, staffing levels for the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) have fallen to low levels that are causing massive delays at airports. Unless you have access to the TSA’s Pre-Chek system (which itself is not 100% guaranteed despite having to pay for it), today one can expect delays of 2 hours or more at many major airports. Some news entities suggest that the only way to solve the problem is to get rid of the TSA. And projections don’t show the problem as getting better in 2016.
The statistics look horrible in terms of missed flights and re-bookings. During one week in March, more than 6,800 passengers on American Airlines missed their flights because of TSA delays. (American likely did not get any compensation for this) And things are expected to get worse during the peak summer travel season. The airlines are unhappy, as with high load factors, it is nearly impossible to accommodate displaced passengers on most flights.
TSA staffing levels are down by about 5,800 screeners from last year, with 42,350 screeners currently available. That 12% shortfall is making a huge difference in lines at major airports, with travelers taking over 90 minutes to clear screening during peak hours. The TSA plans to hire 768 additional officers, but that’s a drop in the bucket compared to the shortfall. How could this happen? Is the agency simply unsophisticated in planning? Does it talk to the airports and airlines regarding schedules and capacities? The answer, unfortunately, is apparently not.
Of course, bigger news last year was that TSA missed 95% of potential items placed in luggage in tests, an amazingly poor statistic that leads one to wonder why bother. To a degree, TSA had become security theater. Nonetheless, this year’s problem may result in part from the facts that agents are really being asked to pay attention to what’s going on in light of their miserable failures last year.
Will TSA delays cause people to avoid flying?
We believe that it already is doing just that. The short-haul market is dying, and much of the blame can be placed on TSA. On many short-haul routes, security wait times make driving easier than flying. Consider Boston-New York LGA, a 191 nautical mile flight that normally takes about 45 minutes and is scheduled, given taxi times, for a little over an hour. One can drive that distance in approximately four hours, or drive 2.5 hours to a Metro North train in Connecticut that arrives at Grand Central station at a reasonable cost in a little over an hour.
Let’s consider a typical trip from the suburbs to the airport to your destination. Typically, it is about 30-45 minutes to the airport, so allow an hour for potential traffic tie-ups on either end, which are typical at rush hours. Then arrive, according to TSA, up to two hours early for security. That’s 2.75 hours. Add a little over an hour for the flight, and we’re at almost four hours. Then grab a cab from the airport to your destination, and 40 minutes later the trip is about 4.5 hours. We ignore the stress of flying in the example – but it is far higher than catching a train.
The alternative is driving. Leaving the suburbs and driving to the destination takes about 4 to 4.5 hours, depending on traffic. But one can leave on one’s own schedule, not need ground transportation at the destination, and have the familiarity of your personal vehicle for the trip. So why go through the hassle at the airport if the elapsed time is about the same? The reason we fly is to save time. But if that doesn’t happen, it is easier to drive.
The Boston-New York shuttle market reflects that trend. A route on which Eastern Airlines once utilized peak-time A300 wide-bodies now operates with Embraer E-Jets at American and E-Jets or 717s from Delta. Demand is down. While some of this demand reduction may be due to high prices ($2 per mile full fare yields) and some demand loss through electronic substitution with desktop videoconferencing being more productive, the loss of time productivity is clearly impacting demand. TSA is the wild card in that demand scenario – as it is difficult to predict how long their delays will be.
For those traveling long distances, there isn’t much of a choice than to endure a TSA line to get where you need to go. The problem is that it will be much less productive than in the past, before delays got out of hand. The answer is to enroll in Pre-Check and pay a fee for the privilege of a faster line, or gutting it out with the crowds and not having that uncomfortable seat in economy being the worst part of the trip.
The Pre-Check dilemma
TSA massively overestimated the enrollment for Pre-Check, expecting much larger enrollment. As a pre-check member, I find it extremely productive, with minimal waits and the ability to quickly clear security in 5 minutes or less for most flights. But only 7 million are enrolled in the programs for which TSA expected 25 million.
TSA blames its shortfall on its budget. But since all of us who travel already pay a TSA security fee, the more relevant question is how is that money used. (see this TSA link for more on the fees) If, like the highway trust fund, it goes straight into the general fund for Congress to allocate, we can trace the problem to Capitol Hill. It should go straight to funding the security process at the departing airports, and since each passenger pays a fee, there should be no budget shortfall and an automatic increase as traffic grows. But apparently this simple and elegant solution is unworkable in real life.
The Bottom Line
Between higher fares, smaller seats, no meals, and jammed overheads, air travel is not getting easier. Adding another two hours at the front of a trip due to bureaucratic incompetence doesn’t do anyone any good. Maybe it is time to go back to the drawing board and re-think the TSA.