In Time For Summer Travel, Homeland Security Says Help Is On The Way But Lines Will Still Be Long "Waiting three hours for what may be a two-hour flight or 90-minute flight is not acceptable," Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said Friday.

After A Season Of Long Lines, Homeland Security Secretary Says He Feels Your Pain

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Airport security lines have been growing and so have the number of complaints about them. So many passengers have missed their flights in recent weeks that an air travel group calls the situation a national crisis. But rest assured the government says it has a plan to hire more screeners and to redeploy others. NPR's Brian Naylor reports.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: It's been a tough spring for air travel. Nearly 7,000 American Airlines passengers missed their flights during spring break in March. In New York, the operator of the region's three major airports is threatening to privatize the screening system. So Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson went to Washington's Reagan National Airport today to give assurances that help is on the way.

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JEH JOHNSON: Waiting three hours for what may be a two-hour flight or a 90-minute flight is not acceptable, and that's not a good thing. And it attacks everybody's patience. We want to reduce that as much as possible without compromising the safety of the American public.

NAYLOR: The problem has many parts. Air travel is at record levels, thanks to a relatively healthy economy. But there are fewer transportation security administration screeners because of faulty traffic projections in years past. What's more, the TSA is finding it hard to hang onto the screeners it has, many of them part-time, working in stressful conditions for low pay. TSA administrator Peter Neffenger.

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PETER NEFFENGER: Right now, one of the challenges I face is that I only hire part-time TSOs and I'd like to hire more full-time - my full-time work force is actually fairly stable. It's about a 9 percent attrition rate over the year. It is true that we lose a lot of our transportation security officers, but we're bringing on more than we're losing.

NAYLOR: None of this has gone unnoticed by members of Congress. Florida Republican John Mica who has long called for privatizing TSA screeners was irate that some visitors to his office the other day missed their flights home.

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JOHN MICA: You cannot recruit, you cannot train, you cannot retain and you cannot administrate - administer. It's just a huge failing government program, and it will fail.

NAYLOR: But Congress is not without blame. Lawmakers demanded changes after a government watchdog was able to smuggle mock explosives past screeners 95 percent of the times it tried last summer, so the TSA ordered screeners to focus on their jobs and not to worry about long lines. Massachusetts state Democrat Stephen Lynch summed up the dilemma at a hearing yesterday.

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STEPHEN LYNCH: When we criticize you today about having long lines and taking too long to screen people, next week if there's a breach, we will haul you up here again and lambaste you for, you know, not being more thorough.

NAYLOR: Congress gave the TSA authority to hire more than 700 new screeners who are expected to be on board by mid-June, and it's redeploying others. Still Homeland Security Secretary Johnson says air travelers should expect there will be what he terms increased wait times at security checkpoints this summer. Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.

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