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TSA gets new lease at O’Hare and Midway to accommodate more officers

Crowds of passengers juggled their flight schedules as they waited for flights to start boarding again at the O'Hare American Airlines terminal on September 26, 2014. A fire at the Aurora radar control tower stopped all passenger flights out of O'Hare and Midway airports. | Al Podgorski / Sun-Times Media

Mayor Rahm Emanuel has credited a “heroic” effort by the much-maligned Transportation Security Administration for turning the May 2016 meltdown at O’Hare and Midway airports into a summer travel success story.

On Wednesday, the avalanche of TSA agents who poured into Chicago to reduce long lines at security checkpoints turned into a financial success story for both airports.

The City Council’s Aviation Committee signed off on a new five-year lease with the TSA that includes higher rents, more space to accommodate the influx of agents and more money for the city’s airport enterprise fund.

Under the old lease, the TSA paid $90 per square foot and $1.46 million in annual rent. Under the new lease, the rate goes up to $105 per a square foot and $1.92 million.

The TSA uses the space for training, storage, break rooms and offices. It does not include security checkpoints, where no rent is paid.

At O’Hare, the TSA will go from 16,237 square feet to 18,293 square feet. At Midway, the office space will grow from 1,481 square feet to 2,089 square feet.

The TSA meltdown at O’Hare and Midway made national headlines and prompted four powerful aldermen to propose giving TSA the boot and privatizing passenger screening.

That drastic measure turned out to be unnecessary.

The TSA administrator apologized to the people of Chicago and dispatched dozens of reinforcements after several days of passengers missing flights and sleeping on cots at O’Hare because of the hourslong wait to get through security and a security line at Midway that stretched all the way out to the airport’s CTA Orange Line station.

By July, passengers who had missed flights and slept on cots after waiting an average of 98 minutes to get through security were breezing through in just seven minutes.

After Congress appropriated more funding for TSA, the number of canine teams at O’Hare tripled. The TSA added 99 screening officers and converted 260 part-time screening officers to full time to accommodate the summer travel surge.

At Midway, 53 screening officers were added, 29 part-timers were converted to full time and two temporary canine teams were deployed during rush periods.

At the time, Emanuel applauded then-TSA Administrator Peter Neffenger for being a “man of his word” and solving a problem in Chicago that 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.”

On Wednesday, Ald. Ray Lopez (15th), a former Southwest Airlines skycap, asked First Deputy Aviation Commissioner Susan Warner-Dooley to get him a breakdown of full- and part-time TSA agents at O’Hare and Midway, and what shifts they are assigned to work.

“That was the issue that caused a lot of the consternation [last year]. They had an imbalance in the amount of workers on different shifts,” Lopez said.