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Emanuel credits ‘heroic’ effort by TSA for easing summer travel

Getting through security lines at O'Hare Airport averaged 7 minutes in July, down from 98 minutes in May. | Getty Images

Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Tuesday credited a “heroic” effort by the much-maligned Transportation Security Administration for turning the May meltdown at O’Hare and Midway airports into a summer travel success story.

“When things get messed up, people always report it. When they get fixed and addressed, they should also be reported,” Emanuel told a news conference at O’Hare.

Passengers who missed flights and slept on cots after waiting an average of 98 minutes to get through security in May breezed through TSA checkpoints during peak travel times in an average of 7 minutes in July, the mayor said.

Last week, O’Hare hit a “record low” of 4 minutes, which made it the “best-performing large hub airport in the system,” Aviation Commissioner Ginger Evans said.

Same goes for Midway, where the average peak waiting time is down to 10 minutes, compared with 55 minutes in May.

The dramatic improvement is the product of reinforcements.

Since the May fiasco that prompted Congress to appropriate more funding for TSA, the number of canine teams at O’Hare has tripled. The TSA also added 99 screening officers and converted 260 part-time screening officers to full time to accommodate the summer travel surge.

At Midway, where a security line in May stretched all the way out to the CTA’s Orange Line station, 53 screening officers were added, 29 part-timers were converted to full time and two temporary canine teams were deployed during rush periods.

On Tuesday, Emanuel applauded TSA Administrator Peter Neffenger for being a “man of his word” and solving a problem in Chicago that could have had ripple effects across the nation.

The mayor also credited his decision to issue twice-a-month status reports on O’Hare and Midway waiting times “to keep people informed and keep the pressure on, to be honest.”

“With the pressure on, the TSA performed. All of their employees performed,” Emanuel said.

“Time is one of the most important commodities all of us try to manage. And TSA’s effort here has been heroic in addressing a problem and giving us the resources.”

Emanuel said the job is not done. Congress needs to make certain that the “resources applied over the last three months are not fleeting” and travelers “never experience what they experienced back in May.”

“It’s not like air travel is decreasing. It is constantly increasing, which means the Congress this September has to make the funding for TSA permanent so that the gains we’ve seen are also made permanent,” Emanuel said.

Neffenger agreed. “We need the resources to meet the demand. That was one of our biggest challenges. And we’re working very closely with members of Congress to ensure that we can maintain those resources,” he said.

After the May meltdown, Neffenger traveled to Chicago to take his punishment and set the bar low.

He warned the traveling public that the summer would “continue to be a challenge” and offered no assurances of an early remedy for the fiasco that had prompted aldermen to float the idea of privatizing security at O’Hare and Midway only to be shot down by Emanuel and the TSA.

On Tuesday, Neffenger returned to O’Hare for the equivalent of a victory lap.

He credited the “daily national command call” to big-city airports to “get ahead of problems before they happen instead of discovering them after the fact.” He talked about “near-term opportunities to begin to dramatically change the experience” for air travelers.

“The Chicago Department of Aviation and our airline partners are looking at immediate improvements to checkpoint lanes. We’re putting in some automated lanes. And we hope to see those within the next number of months and some other big improvements,” Neffenger said.

“That’s important because . . . this is a tough threat environment. It’s been tough for a number of years now. It’s not getting any better. Recent tragic events tell us that . . . . I want to keep people moving through the lines, but I want to do it in an effective way” without compromising security.

Although the TSA lines are down, the long-term outlook is not all rosy.

As the Chicago Sun-Times reported last month, O’Hare remains the only one of the nation’s top 10 airports without a TSA PreCheck center inside the airport. Somebody has to provide the space, and no deal has been sealed on who should give up that space, even after nearly three years of negotiations.

In July, TSA officials said they hoped to open an O’Hare TSA center soon. The Chicago Department of Aviation said it hoped to open two TSA PreCheck centers soon. Still, no deal has been reached to make it happen.

Contributing: Rosalind Rossi