TSA lines open again at Austin airport

Lines for security checkpoints 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 resident visiting Austin for the first time. “Airports have bad days, but I’ve never seen anything so bad.”

Kannan said he showed up at 4:45 a.m. and didn’t cross the line until nearly three hours later, missing his 7 a.m. JetBlue flight. The airline booked it for free on a later flight.

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 as people crossed the sidewalk to enter.

“It was really confusing to find. You almost had to follow the line and ask people as you walked around if they were online,” Harris said. “It was definitely a bit messy, but luckily the other passengers were quite helpful.”

Harris said she waited over an hour to be checked by the Transportation Security Administration, or TSA. She and a group of people ran to their door. The plane’s door was closed, but some Delta employees let them through anyway.

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

The Saturday morning mess came just days after airport management said the TSA had cut wait times to less than 30 minutes. ABIA officials said the TSA’s decision to implement mandatory overtime, award employee retention bonuses and bring in temporary agents helped tame the notorious rows.

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

Travelers line up at TSA Checkpoint 2 on April 4, 2022.

Travelers line up at TSA Checkpoint 2 at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport in April.

“While every checkpoint was open to allow more throughput, every lane at every checkpoint was not open,” airport spokesman Bailey Grimmit said. “A just unfortunate situation about the lack of staff.”

Airport executive director Jacqueline Yaft pleaded with TSA administrator David Pekoske in March to send in more officers, saying security lines at the front gate had become a ‘normal occurrence’ and could create “soft targets” for terrorists.

Since then, the TSA has increased the number of temporary agents at ABIA from 35 to 50 and extended their deployment through the busy summer months. US Customs and Border Protection has sent additional canine units to screen passengers as they line up to speed things up.

The TSA acknowledges that it is understaffed in Austin, but says he tried to recruit and retain enough officers.

“We have implemented retention incentives, moving some officers from part-time to full-time, reducing overtime, and the President’s budget includes improved compensation for our workforce – which, if it is passed will have a significant impact on the workforce,” TSA spokeswoman Patricia Mancha said in an email.

The TSA also plans to install more high-tech screening equipment in Austin in August that provides a better view of carry-on baggage, reducing the need for additional screenings and searches.

Mancha said the local retention incentive for TSA agents has been increased. The agents had received a temporary salary increase of 15%. Now the increase is 25%.

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

A TSA agent helps screen passengers at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport.  a blur

A TSA agent helps screen passengers at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport.

But the union representing TSA workers in Austin says wages are still too low because the incentive for retention is temporary. And the union says the problems go beyond wages.

“You can’t soften bad management,” said Henry Norom, 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 continue to cover them.”

Norom claimed that TSA officials “can fire you just for looking at them the wrong way.” He said an employee favoritism system was hurting the morale of agents at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport.

“You can give [TSA agents] a $1 million signing bonus,” Norom said. “They’ll be like, ‘No thanks, sir. I don’t want to be treated the way I’m treated.'”

KUT contacted the TSA for a response, but did not hear back before publication.

AFGE has advocated for a bill in Congress that would give 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 heading to the Senate.

Airport officials have warned that 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 is launching nonstop service to Vancouver four times a week on June 1. Virgin Atlantic will launch a new non-stop service to London four times a week on May 25.

Overall, the number of available seats on flights departing Austin is expected to increase by 29% compared to June 2019, the last successful year for ABIA.

Airport officials predict an unprecedented 22 million passengers this year. This would surpass the 2019 record of 17.3 million travelers by more than 20%.

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