If you're already bracing for a long airport security line during the spring break travel season, then you must remember last year.
You do, don't you? That's when Transportation Security Administration screening wait times doubled under the weight of tighter security and swelling crowds. On just one day in mid-March, 6,800 American Airlines customers reportedly missed their flights, thanks to the lengthy TSA lines.
The agency assigned to protect America's transportation systems responded with a 10-point plan to speed up airport lines, and the lines abated by the end of the summer. During the winter holidays, the agency estimates that 99 percent of air travelers waited in security lines for less than half an hour and that 95 percent waited less than 15 minutes.
But with spring break 2017 in our sights, air travelers are wondering if history will repeat itself. And if there's anything they can do to avoid getting stuck in line.
They're air travelers like Beverly Byrum, a nurse from Louisville, who got a little preview of a worst-case scenario when she returned from a trip to Mexico through Atlanta in January.
"The immigration lines were 500 travelers deep, then another long line for TSA," she says. "The anger in the crowd was growing. Many people missed connections."
Although Byrum doesn't entirely blame the TSA for the slowdown, she says it was a contributing factor. The TSA hasn't announced any new efforts aimed directly at easing lines during the busy spring travel weeks. Then again, this is a different spring and there's a new administration in Washington.
Change is definitely in the air. One of the solutions that could be quickly put into place if new lines crop up: private security screeners. "That has long been a GOP-backed solution for inefficiency in the security process," says Anthony DeMaio, a lobbyist with O'Neill and Associates in Washington. He expects to see a renewed push for increased privatization of TSA screeners. Already, more than 20 airports participate in the TSA's Screening Partnership Program, which allows private companies to conduct airport security screening.
Agency observers also expect a renewed push to promote TSA PreCheck, the agency's expedited screening program. And while hyping the pricey program during a busy travel season may seem opportunistic, PreCheck's advantages are undeniable.
Bryan Cunningham, who owns an aviation services company in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and is a frequent air traveler, says PreCheck membership, which costs $85 for five years, is "absolutely, definitely" worth the money. TSA's internal metrics indicate that 97 percent of passengers with PreCheck clearance waited less than five minutes in line during the last holiday period.
"When you're checking in, it cuts the wait time down by 80 percent, compared to a conventional line," Cunningham says. "Plus, you don't have to take off your shoes or remove your computer most of the time."
The benefits are especially clear to inbound international travelers, who can use a kiosk and bypass the lengthy lines after immigration - the same lines Byrum had to contend with in Atlanta.
The TSA says it is taking the threat of longer lines seriously. Although its plan to ease congestion, put in place almost a year ago, has worked so far, "we continue to expand on some of the initiatives," says Bruce Anderson, a TSA spokesman. For example, the agency plans to utilize overtime and expedite the hiring of screeners this spring. It also plans to deploy more K-9 teams and, over the long term, to invest in research and development in technologies that will speed up screening.
Will it be enough? Kevin Mitchell, who runs the Business Travel Coalition, an advocacy group in Radnor, Pennsylvania, that represents corporate travel managers, thinks we may be headed for a replay of spring break 2016 unless more is done quickly. In fact, he wants the National Guard deployed during the busy air travel weeks to help move things along.
The only thing that would permanently reduce the lines is to remove the clutter - specifically, the carry-on bags passengers try to drag through the screening area in an effort to avoid checked-baggage fees.
"To encourage travelers to check bags and reduce the number of items TSA agents need to inspect, Congress should pass legislation that would require airlines to temporarily reduce baggage fees by 50 percent," Mitchell says.
That's a long shot, but Congress has an opportunity to do just that in the upcoming Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization Bill. While it may be too late for this year, there's always spring break 2018.
Until then, passengers flying in March and early April should consider arriving at the airport at least a half-hour earlier than they normally would. "If you can, fly during nonpeak hours, and check your bags," advises Paul Hudson, the executive director of Flyersrights.org, a nonprofit organization that advocates for air travelers.
Unlike last spring break, the TSA, airlines and their passengers are flying into this busy travel period fully aware of what could happen. And if all goes as planned, the screening experience will be the least memorable part of your vacation.