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TSA head on MSP airport security delays: ‘It’s improving’

ST .PAUL -- A surge of new resources has helped improve long security lines at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, but top officials aren’t ready to declare victory just yet.

After wait times routinely above 40 minutes at the airport in recent weeks caused traveler frustration and some missed fights, the Transportation Security Administration moved extra screeners to the Twin Cities and — almost as importantly — more bomb-sniffing dog teams.

The combination seemed to have worked on Friday, when security lines were short and fast-moving midday despite a projected travel volume 40 percent above normal.

“You already see improvements,” said Peter Neffenger, TSA’s administrator, who visited the airport Friday on the invitation of U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar. “We’re hitting this very hard.”

Klobuchar said things seem to have improved but that she was holding off judgment for now.

“I don’t think we can ever be satisfied until things get back to a place where people feel really good about coming to the airport,” Klobuchar said. “I think we have seen some improvements.”

Long lines followed the consolidation of checkpoints at the airport last month, and were exacerbated by a simultaneous uptick in travelers and decrease in TSA staffing. Another factor: more intense security screenings after several airplane bombings around the world in recent months, and an inspector general’s report last year that found major shortfalls in TSA procedures.

In the week of Feb. 15, after the airport consolidated its checkpoints, TSA data show wait times as high as 70 minutes from when passengers entered the line to when they passed through the scanner. That peak was at 10 a.m. Friday, Feb. 19.

Waits this week have been considerably shorter. Travelers Sunday morning saw 48-minute wait times, in part because K-9 teams weren’t working one of the checkpoints. The past six days have seen peak wait times between 22 and 28 minutes — usually maxing out around 5 or 6 a.m.

Other airports around the country have seen similar issues, said Neffenger, who recently persuaded Congress to give his agency extra money for more staff.

Some of those added staffers will be coming on board in coming weeks and months, though the new trainees often have to fill vacancies instead of adding new capacity.

Neffenger said one of the biggest impacts on airport delays was the decision to deploy more K-9 units to large airports like Minneapolis-St. Paul. If a bomb-sniffing dog has screened a line for explosives, those passengers can go through security without removing their shoes or taking laptops out of bags.

“It’s essentially turning you into a PreCheck-like passenger,” Neffenger said, referring to the program in which travelers can get expedited security screenings for five years if they pass a background check and pay an $85 fee. “We’re able to rapidly move lines when we have dogs.”

An extra K-9 unit was recently relocated to Minnesota from Hawaii — “Sorry, dog,” Klobuchar quipped — and one more will be arriving by the end of this month, for a total of six.

Airlines have offered some of their resources to speed up the security lines and thus keep airline customers happier and on time. Delta Airlines senior vice president Bill Lentsch said Delta has offered to use its engineers to help TSA predict when high numbers of travelers are likely to arrive at the airport, so they can have more staff on duty.

Delta also volunteered staff to do jobs that don’t require security clearances, such as moving luggage bins, so TSA personnel can focus on screening passengers and luggage.

Klobuchar and Gov. Mark Dayton said it was encouraging that the TSA administrator would travel to Minnesota in person to address complaints about long lines. But Dayton said a short-term improvement doesn’t mean the problem has been solved.

“I believe that we’ll see some improvement there — but of course, that’s the acid test,” Dayton said. “It remains to be seen.”

Marino Eccher contributed to this report.

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