Waves of extra security help are headed to Chicago’s O’Hare and Midway airports to reduce long lines at screening checkpoints, apologetic federal officials said Tuesday.
The Transportation Safety Administration announced its Chicago plans after intense lobbying from Chicago heavyweights and a deluge of embarrassing news coverage about excruciating security lines at O’Hare and Midway in recent days.
“I do apologize to the people in Chicago who found themselves stranded,’’ TSA Administrator Peter Neffenger said Tuesday, referring to about 450 O’Hare passengers who had to be rebooked Sunday night because of 2½-hour wait times at TSA security checkpoints.
“We had a significant challenge in Chicago,’’ Neffenger said at a travel conference in Houston. “We have a team there now trying to find the cause.”
On Tuesday, Mayor Rahm Emanuel denounced the long lines as “maddening and frustrating,’’ especially because he said he has been asking TSA for two to three weeks to “get ahead of this problem” before summer travel picks up.
U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., sent Neffenger a letter on Monday night spotlighting a video of an “unimaginably long line” last week at Midway that has since gone viral, racking up more than 2.2 million hits.
By Tuesday, Kirk was contending that Neffenger should resign if he can’t get security lines at Chicago airports under control before Memorial Day.
TSA plans for Chicago include a deluge of extra manpower — and canine power. But it was not clear whether all of it would arrive before the May 26 kickoff of the Memorial Day travel period or how it would be divided between Chicago’s two airports.
The TSA plans for Chicago include:
• Adding 58 more TSA officers; converting 100 part-time officers to full-time; tripling the amount of overtime; and adding additional morning shifts. Those moves should allow TSA to open more lanes and screen more passengers, officials said.
• Adding five bomb-sniffing canine teams, the first of which arrived Monday. Passengers in standard screening lines who pass muster with TSA dogs can forgo removing their shoes, packaged liquids and laptops — just like travelers in the TSA’s expedited screening PreCheck program. As a result, the TSA should be able to screen 5,000 more passengers a day in Chicago, officials said.
• Sending a special team to identify and implement additional measures to “improve the passenger experience while maintaining security.”
With the Memorial Day travel period due to hit in about 10 days, Chicago Department of Aviation spokesman Owen Kilmer said the 58 extra TSA officers would be “assigned to Chicago airports in the next three weeks,” and nearly 250 additional staff should be on board by mid-August.
Long lines have dogged airports nationwide as TSA struggles with the fewest number of TSA officers in five years and the highest number of screened passengers in the same time period. Adding to the problem was an audit last year that prompted the agency to limit the number of random travelers it was allowing to enter expedited PreCheck lines. That resulted in longer standard screening lines than TSA had anticipated.
In a news release Tuesday afternoon, Emanuel’s office said the mayor had “secured” the extra Chicago help after calling Neffenger and his boss, U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson, on Tuesday.
U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., also put on the heat. He called Johnson on Monday to complain about delays, said his spokeswoman, Christina Mulka.
Durbin also is pressing Johnson to improve the enrollment process for the TSA’s PreCheck expedited screening. It currently requires travelers to sign up in advance by providing fingerprints, submitting to a background check and paying an $85 fee.
Durbin said he will encourage airlines to drop their baggage fees during peak travel months so screening lines move more smoothly.