Four ways to cut those airport lines for good

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Travelers wait to go through a TSA security check point at O’Hare International Airport in May. | Teresa Crawford/Associated Press

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The feds didn’t do Chicago any favors earlier this month when they allowed security lines at O’Hare and Midway airports to grow so long that hundreds of people missed their flights.

Good transportation is a key to Chicago’s success and its future. A reputation as a place to go to miss flights could be devastating to the city.

But that’s been the word when it comes to Chicago airports in recent weeks. Travelers have had to wait two to three hours in security lines. Many of those people, including 450 on just American Airlines, were left at the airports — even after all that waiting — as their flights departed without them. Many people wound up sleeping on cots. At Midway, lines reached out the terminal doors all the way to the Orange Line.

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The U.S. Transportation Security Administration already has imposed a shake-up, removing its top security official and adding new administrators at O’Hare. The TSA has promised an extra 300 officers for Chicago airports by mid-August, 58 of whom will show up within the next three weeks, and five new canine teams. Also, 100 part-time Chicago workers in Chicago will go full time, and the amount of available overtime will be tripled.

Because of changes already made, American Airlines, United Airlines and the Department of Aviation said Tuesday lines are significantly shorter at the airports than they were earlier this month.

But we fear a minor patch job that will fall apart when the bad publicity fades. More needs to be done.

First, the TSA must do a better job of aligning its staffing levels and resources with the number of people who show up. Heavy travel times, such as Memorial Day weekend — typically one of the busiest times of the year — shouldn’t come as a surprise. Airlines for America, the industry trade group, is predicting record passenger volume this summer. The TSA had better be ready.

The agency says it was surprised more people didn’t sign up for its PreCheck program, which could have moved lines more quickly. But that’s no excuse for not adapting promptly when those enrollment numbers didn’t meet projections. A smart business doesn’t blame the customer.

Second, local officials must keep up the pressure. The complaints by U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and others have brought progress, but a relapse to the bad old ways would be easy.

On Sunday night, the city announced the TSA has agreed to provide a biweekly “report card” that will list average security wait times at the airports; the maximum wait times; TSA security officer levels, and canine team levels. Local officials must monitor those reports and jump at the first sign of backsliding.

Third, the airlines must help. The three major airlines already have agreed to provide information on wait times for the biweekly report. The airlines also should do everything they can to ensure that travelers — their customers — understand the security requirements and don’t cause unnecessary delays by, for example, attempting to bring items on board that should have been placed in checked luggage. A smart business educates the customer.

Fourth, Congress must get real about the cost of airport security in these terrorist-troubled days. After a meeting last week at O’Hare Airport, Durbin emphasized that TSA budget cuts have made it harder for the agency to do its job. The TSA says it has about 5,600 fewer staff members than it had four years ago. Congress needs to fix that.

Last week, Aldermen Edward Burke (14th), Mike Zalewski (23rd), Danny Solis (25th) and Marge Laurino (39th) proposed a resolution to explore private contractors to screen passengers and baggage under federal oversight. Burke said more than 20 airports, including San Francisco International and Kansas City International, do so. But opening the airports to private contractors would require years to implement and can be viewed only as a long-term alternative, although just the talk of it might keep up the pressure on the TSA.

Since the heyday of the railroads, Chicago has thrived as a transportation center. Just this week, Choose Chicago reported March “leisure” hotel bookings topped 600,000 room nights for the first time. Chicago can’t allow bungling Washington bureaucrats to slow us up.

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