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TSA lines are out the door again at Austin’s airport

Tuesday, May 17, 2022 by Nathan Bernier, KUT

The lines for security screenings spilled out of the Barbara Jordan Terminal and onto the sidewalk Saturday morning at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. The wait was so long that some people who showed up well in advance missed their flights.

“It was pretty crazy,” said Arjun Kannan, a New York City resident who was visiting Austin for the first time. “Airports have bad days, but I haven’t seen something this bad.”

Kannan said he showed up at 4:45 a.m. and didn’t get through the line until almost three hours later, missing his 7 a.m. JetBlue flight. The airline rebooked him on a later flight free of charge.

Another passenger, San Marcos resident Jennifer Harris, described a chaotic scene as she and her husband tried to find the end of the line outside the terminal while people were crossing the sidewalk to get inside.

“It was really confusing to find. You almost had to follow the line and ask people as you were moving if they were in line,” Harris said. “It really was kind of messy, but fortunately other passengers were pretty helpful.”

Harris said she waited more than an hour to be screened by the Transportation Security Administration. She and a group of people ran to their gate. The airplane door was closed, but some Delta employees let them on anyway.

“They didn’t have to do that, so we were thankful for that,” Harris said. “It was a stressful experience.”

The Saturday morning mess came just days after airport leadership said TSA had reduced wait times to under 30 minutes. ABIA officials said the TSA’s move to implement mandatory overtime, give employees retention bonuses and bring in temporary agents had helped tame the notorious lines.

But TSA didn’t have enough officers to keep wait times under 30 minutes on Saturday, a day when 24,000 passengers were expected to travel through AUS. Airport officials consider anything over 22,000 to be a busy day.

Travelers wait in line at TSA Checkpoint 2 on April 4, 2022.
(Patricia Lim/KUT) Travelers wait in line at TSA Checkpoint 2 at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport in April.

“While each checkpoint was open to allow for more throughput, each lane within each checkpoint was not open,” airport spokesperson Bailey Grimmett said. “A just unfortunate situation about not enough staffing.”

Airport Executive Director Jacqueline Yaft pleaded with TSA Administrator David Pekoske in March to send more agents, saying security lines out the front door had become a “normal occurrence” and could create “soft targets” for terrorists.

Since then, TSA increased the number of temporary agents at AUS from 35 to 50 and extended their deployment through the busy summer months. U.S. Customs and Border Protection sent additional canine units to screen passengers while they wait in line to help speed things up.

TSA acknowledges it is understaffed in Austin but says it has been trying to recruit and retain enough officers.

“We have implemented retention incentives, moving some part-time officers to full-time, chipping away at overtime, and the president’s budget includes improved compensation for our workforce – which, if passed, will have a great impact on the workforce,” TSA spokesperson Patricia Mancha said in an email.

The TSA is also planning to install more high-tech screening equipment in Austin in August that offers better views of carry-on luggage, reducing the need for additional screening and searches.

Mancha said the local retention incentive for TSA officers had been raised. Agents had been receiving a temporary pay boost of 15 percent. Now, the increase is 25 percent.

A job posting for a TSA officer in Austin lists a starting salary of about $45,000.

A TSA officer helps screen passengers at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. A blurred out "TSA is hiring" sign appears in the foreground.
(Patricia Lim/KUT) A TSA officer helps screen passengers at AUS.

But the union representing TSA workers in Austin says pay is still too low, because the retention incentive is temporary. And the union argues the problems go beyond salaries.

“You cannot sugarcoat bad management,” said Henry Nnorom, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 1048. “You have managers who just don’t know how to manage people, and their bosses just keep covering for them.”

Nnorom alleged TSA managers “can fire you just for looking at them the wrong way.” He said a system of employee favoritism was damaging morale among agents at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport.

“You can give (TSA agents) a $1 million sign-on bonus,” Nnorom said. “They will tell you, ‘No thank you, sir. I don’t want to be treated the way I’m being treated.'”

KUT reached out to TSA for a response but did not hear back before publication.

AFGE has advocated for a bill in Congress that would grant TSA workers the same rights and protections as most federal employees. House Resolution 903 passed the House on May 12 with a vote of 220 to 201 and is now headed to the Senate.

Airport officials have warned June will be busier than May with additional flights on the schedule. American Airlines will begin flights in June to Asheville, North Carolina; Belgrade, Montana; Santa Ana, California; Cozumel, Mexico; and Montego Bay, Jamaica. Air Canada starts nonstop service to Vancouver four times a week on June 1. Virgin Atlantic will begin new nonstop service to London four times a week on May 25.

Overall, the number of seats available on flights out of Austin is expected to increase by 29 percent compared to June 2019, the last blockbuster year for AUS.

Airport officials are forecasting an unprecedented 22 million passengers this year. That would exceed 2019’s record-breaking 17.3 million travelers by more than 20 percent.

This story was produced as part of the Austin Monitor’s reporting partnership with KUT.

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