Chicago airport staffing to increase after long security lines

Reuters News
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Posted: May 20, 2016 2:58 PM

By Suzannah Gonzales

CHICAGO (Reuters) - The U.S. government is accelerating plans to add security staff and bomb-sniffing dogs at Chicago's two major airports after a "breakdown" earlier this week frustrated travelers and caused some to miss flights, a senior transportation official said.

"Earlier this week we had a breakdown here in Chicago," Peter Neffenger, U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) administrator, told a news conference on Friday. "We are working hard to make sure that does not happen again."

Chicago's O'Hare International Airport is the second-busiest U.S. airport, with 77 million people traveling through it in 2015, according to trade group the Airports Council International.

Chicago is the only city in North America where American Airlines, United Airlines and Southwest Airlines all have major operations, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel told the same news conference.

Long security lines at airports across the United States recently have frayed tempers and led to calls for the government to fix the problem.

Passenger screening has slowed since TSA canceled a program last year in which behavior detection officers would pull travelers randomly into faster but less rigorous "PreCheck" lanes, after reports of screening lapses.

However, TSA budget and staffing levels had been set assuming that the program would be in effect, and that more people would self-enroll in PreCheck. As a result, the agency found itself without the resources to handle rising passenger traffic on U.S. airlines, expected to be at an all-time high this summer.

In Chicago, TSA has added thousands of hours in overtime for security workers in order to meet demands, and officials received funding sooner than they had expected it to be available, Neffenger said.

Emanuel said that 58 extra full-time TSA staff would be in place in the next couple of weeks, 100 part-time workers will go full-time, and 250 more agents will work in the city by August.

Chicago experienced a big-volume day earlier this week, but it was not unpredicted, Neffenger said. Travelers followed recommendations to arrive early.

"We, quite frankly, simply put, did not have enough checkpoint lanes open when they arrived. And once behind, it takes a long time to catch up," Neffenger said.

Chicago inherited financial problems, which led to staffing, technology and canine issues, and those responsible failed to fund and staff positions, Emanuel said.

"Now we have a situation that is totally not tolerable for the flying public," Emanuel said.

(Additional reporting by Jeffrey Dastin in New York; Editing by Matthew Lewis)