TSA warns of travel ‘hiccups’ as it braces for ‘very, very busy summer’

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Meeting in North Texas on Tuesday, the nation’s TSA chief David Pekoske and airport and airline leaders said there will be inevitable “hiccups” this summer as they expect the largest airport passenger crowds since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

Labor shortages and sky-high demand have besieged the travel industry, and Pekoske said the agency is ready to deploy as many as 1,000 TSA agents and K-9 units to pain points across the country to counter potential backlogs at airport security checkpoints. The Transportation Security Administration created a new position for new hires that will allow them get them up to speed faster and staff checkpoints better, helping experienced TSA agents with tasks that don’t require certification.

“We expect the summer to be very, very busy,” said Pekoske, who was nominated for a second five-year term by President Joe Biden this week. “That’s not to say that there will not be some hiccups along the way — those things will happen, but we’ll do everything we can to recover quickly.”

Pekoske was joined Tuesday in Coppell at Homeland Security offices by some of the most influential leaders in the U.S. travel industry, including Airlines for America CEO Nick Calio, DFW International Airport CEO Sean Donohue and Regional Airline Association CEO Faye Malarkey Black.

DFW Airport is expecting domestic traffic to be at about “98 or 99% of 2019,” Donohue said, with the only decrease in travel being to Asia.

Each of the groups represented at the meeting has dealt with its own obstacles since travel started to rebound swiftly last spring, issues that have only intensified in the 12 months since.

Some expect airport crowds to surpass 3 million passengers a day on the busiest travel days this summer between Memorial Day and Labor Day. But the demand comes with challenges, too.

Pilots are complaining about fatigue and flight cancellations heading into the summer at airlines including Fort Worth-based American Airlines, Dallas-based Southwest Airlines, Alaska Airlines and Delta Airlines. Airport restaurants are once again begging for employees, and there have also been shortages of workers at car rental desks, airlines’ customer service call centers, people who push wheelchairs, and ground employees who pull planes back and forth from gates.

“Everybody is facing labor shortages; airlines and TSA are no different,” said Paul Doell, vice president for the National Air Carrier Association. “At just about every level you can think of in the airline industry we can speak of, we’re having labor shortages.”

Airlines themselves are honing in on running reliable operations this summer and cutting down on the number of delays and cancellations that have sometimes plagued travelers during peak periods in the last year. That has led some, including Southwest, to cut thousands of flights from schedules. While that could help airlines run on time, it will also mean planes will be more full and the pressure will be on workers in airports, including TSA agents, to get those travelers to flights on time.

But regional air carriers, which fly about 43% of all scheduled flights in the U.S., say they are facing labor shortages as employees such as pilots are being poached by the larger airlines. That could create issues connecting smaller destinations to larger hub airports, Black said.

“The pilot shortage is impacting the regionals, and we expect to see the small communities hit the hardest,” Black said. “We expect this to continue to be a trend, but those pain points will assert themselves at hubs as well.”

TSA has already suffered some extraordinary long waits at airports that have seen passenger volumes surpass 2019 levels, including at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport and Orlando International Airport.

Transportation Security Administration administrator David Pekoske, left, smiles as he...
Transportation Security Administration administrator David Pekoske, left, smiles as he listens to Kevin Burke, president and CEO of Airports Council International North America, during a press conference Tuesday in Coppell.(Shafkat Anowar / Staff Photographer)

Pekoske also warned that many travelers this summer could be getting on a plane for the first time in three years, especially as masking and COVID-19 restrictions have fallen in many parts of the country and international travel restrictions are being lifted.

“The amount of people that worked concessions prior to the pandemic are not there now,” said Kevin Burke, head of Airports Council International-North America. “They’ve come back, but they’re nowhere near where they need to be.”

That confluence of issues could make for a challenging summer for passengers and airline employees alike.

“So we really ask that we try to have patience and understanding when they are dealing with employees at the airport,” Doell said. “Everybody is trying to make do the best job they can to make sure this is safe, secure and also as comfortable as it can be under normal circumstances but especially when you have those tough days where you have storms that are disrupting the system.”


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