TSA Lines Are Being Aggressively Addressed, Johnson Says
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
The most recent stories of how infuriating air travel can be are not coming from the air. They are about TSA security lines on the ground. Here's one horror story. American Airlines said 450 passengers were stranded in Chicago overnight because long security lines made them miss their flights.
And with that, let's greet Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, who is in our studios this morning. He's in charge of the TSA. Mr. Secretary, thanks for coming in.
JEH JOHNSON: Good morning, David.
GREENE: So are these...
JOHNSON: Thanks for having me.
GREENE: Well, thank you. And we appreciate it. I know a lot of passengers were wondering - are these lines going to get shorter? And if so, how quickly?
JOHNSON: Well, the American public should know two things. One, we are not going to shortcut their safety. We are not going to shortcut aviation security. The other thing the American public should know is that we are aggressively addressing the wait times along with the airlines. The airlines have a role in this, too. They can help.
But we have reversed the trend that occurred over the last several years of reducing the TSA workforce. This year, Congress and we held off on the elimination - the further elimination of 1600 positions. We've expedited bringing on something like 800 new TSOs. We expect to have them on by mid-June.
GREENE: These are the security officers in the blue uniforms we see at the checkpoints?
JOHNSON: In Chicago, we surged additional TSOs to O'Hare. What happened last week at O'Hare, as Administrator Neffenger said, was inexcusable. It should not have happened.
GREENE: He's the administrator of the TSA. You're talking about the horror story that I just mentioned? Or this was - these were other incidents at O'Hare?
JOHNSON: The incident last week where a lot of people - hundreds of people - missed their flights. Now, it's notable that since that time, we've actually had a day with more travel volume, but we were prepared. People got through. Nationwide, the average wait time is something like 30 minutes. But at the busiest airports...
GREENE: A lot longer.
JOHNSON: ...The top five or seven - there can be these surges where you see much longer wait times. But we are aggressively addressing that right now. More overtime to convert part time to full time - and we're bringing on an additional 800 or so. The airlines can help with this, obviously.
GREENE: Well, how can the airlines help? I mean, I know one idea has been to deal with the fees that they charge for checked luggage because that has made people want to carry everything, including the kitchen sink, in their carry-on luggage. And I gather that adds time at security lines. I mean, is that one idea you're talking about with that?
JOHNSON: As every American who travels by air knows, the carry-on and the inspection of the carry-on is probably the most time-consuming part of going through the security check. And so a number of senators and I have asked the airlines to consider eliminating the checked baggage fee.
But in addition, there are other things they can do - more aggressively enforce the one-plus-one rule when it comes to carry-on. And airlines are doing that. A number of airlines have...
GREENE: This is the one larger carry-on, one personal item.
JOHNSON: The airlines - some of the airlines have stepped up and offered some of their own personnel to assist in the non-security aspects at the checkpoint, which is a good thing. And so in general, we have an ongoing dialogue with the airlines about how they can help.
But at TSA, the administrator has an aggressive plan. We're working with Congress. We've got more funding for overtime. And we're using more K-9s. And we're - we have a team focused on the busiest airports. But in general, we're advising the public - make sure you get to the airport with plenty of time.
GREENE: Sounds like you also made a personnel move. We got news that the head of the TSA's day-to-day airport operations was relieved of his duties last night. Why was he sacked?
JOHNSON: Administrator determined that we needed to make a management change at the senior levels of TSA. And that's what he's done. And I support it.
GREENE: Well, Republicans pointed out that he - Kelly Hoggan, who was in charge of these operations at airports - was getting these performance bonuses - perhaps $90,000 over a period of about a year. And this was at a time when passengers were all complaining about these long waits.
If he's getting paid extra money at a time when passengers are going through this, does that sort of, I mean, bolster the criticism that you've gotten that the TSA hasn't exactly been laser-focused on the problems here?
JOHNSON: Well, again, I think Administrator Neffenger has made what he believes is a necessary management change in the senior ranks of his organization. And I support it.
GREENE: Did you sign off on those bonuses that Congress has suggested he was getting?
JOHNSON: Did I?
JOHNSON: No, not to my knowledge. No.
JOHNSON: But again, the administrator is making much-needed management change at the top. And I fully support it. And I support Pete's efforts at what he's doing to address wait times and to rebuild and reorganize his organization. And I believe he also has a lot of support among TSOs. I've heard that from TSOs directly when I visit airports.
GREENE: Mr. Secretary, one other thing that we've read about is - the TSA agents, some, have been brought in to offer security at presidential campaign events.
GREENE: Is that happening, and is that a role you feel like they should be playing at this time when passengers are going through all this?
JOHNSON: Well, that is correct - that TSOs support campaign events. They support the screening with the use of the magnetometers for large campaign events - at presidential campaign events - along with other components of the Department of Homeland Security.
It's not just the Secret Service. The Secret Service is in the lead. They have the responsibility. But they get good support from Homeland Security investigations - from TSA and, where necessary, the Coast Guard and other components of ours.
GREENE: Do you blame passengers for feeling a little frustrated if they're sitting there in these long lines, knowing that there might be more TSA officers there checking people at the airports, making the lines shorter, but instead they're off covering - you know, helping at campaign events around the country?
JOHNSON: I don't blame passengers for being frustrated with the long lines, without a doubt, which is why we're bringing on a larger number of TSOs as quickly as possible, training them and getting them on board as soon as possible this summer. I can understand passengers' frustration with the long lines.
You know, we've got to make - ensure aviation security and the safety of the American travel public. That is our principal responsibility. And I've made it clear to TSA that we should not shortcut that in response to the increased travel volume. And so we're going to keep at this. We're going to continue to build the resources of the organization. We're going to focus on the busiest airports.
We'll move TSOs and assets around the country as needed. But I want the American public to know that we're aggressively focused on this and working with Congress to get the resources the TSA needs.
GREENE: I just want to make something - just get something very clear here. I mean, you keep saying that you're not going to give up anything when it comes to keeping people safe.
That makes me think that whatever you're doing, as aggressive as you can possibly be, your messages - I mean, these lines might be long. I mean, summer travel might be difficult. People might be waiting in these lines for a very long time.
JOHNSON: Well, what I mean by that is - aviation security is always a balance between doing what we think is necessary, which - we continually evaluate it - without unnecessarily burdening the American travel public. And so it's easy to go to the most extreme physical security.
But it's always a balance, which we continually re-evaluate. And so we're not shortcutting what we believe is necessary because of increased wait times. What we need to do, and what we are doing, is continue to build back the resources of the organization - more K-9s, more search teams in the busiest places - and encourage the public to sign up for TSA PreCheck.
The average wait time for TSA Pre is five minutes or less. And so we're going to keep at this.
GREENE: All right. Mr. Secretary, thanks so much for coming in. Jeh Johnson is secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.