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Brown: Airport security fiasco demands more than just new hires

Long security lines at O'Hare (shown) and Midway have some aldermen wanting to boot the Transportation Security Administration and use private contractors. | Tim Boyle/For the Sun-Times

I was driving my adult son to the airport Sunday at a ridiculously early hour for his scheduled flight when the conversation naturally turned to the anticipated security checkpoint snafu necessitating our precaution.

“What I don’t understand is why they don’t just fix it,” my suddenly agitated, frequent-flyer said, or words to that effect. “Why haven’t heads rolled? Why hasn’t somebody been fired?”

At first, my wife and I played our part as old-timers and tried to reason with him, rolling out the excuses offered by the Transportation Security Administration for long airport lines and arguing that it’s not a situation that can be fixed overnight.

But my son, who normally doesn’t express a lot of opinions about government, was having none of it. The reason was obvious to me: for maybe the first time, government ineptitude had interfered with his life in a way that he could appreciate.

And the more I thought about it, I decided he was absolutely right. In such situations, heads must roll.

OPINION

Not because of him, of course, but because of the ridiculous, totally predictable, self-inflicted wound to our nation’s air transportation system that has disrupted the lives of hundreds of thousands of people in recent weeks—with further strife ahead. All of which can be laid squarely at the feet of the Obama Administration.

On Tuesday, politicians from Mayor Rahm Emanuel to U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin scrambled to take credit for a series of steps TSA is now promising to take to alleviate the waits at Chicago’s airports after Sunday’s meltdown.

That conversation with my son came actually a few hours before the lines at O’Hare Airport became so ridiculously long Sunday that American Airlines was forced to rebook 450 passengers who missed their flights.

My son, who flew United, got out just fine, but only after an 80-minute, angst-filled wait as hundreds of other passengers facing missed flights were moved to the front of the line by airline personnel for expedited treatment.

If you’re like me and don’t fly much, the whole business of out-of-control airport lines may have come as a surprise.

But the crazy part if you’ve followed the news is that it’s been months in the making, a slow-motion train wreck that was forecast weeks ago and has been gathering steam ever since — without anyone in charge stepping up to fix the problem.

The essence of that problem is that the Transportation Security Administration cut way back on its staffing levels in anticipation of large numbers of travellers paying $85 and submitting to an interview to enroll in its PreCheck program for expedited boarding.

Except only a fraction of those expected to sign up for PreCheck did so. Couple that with lower air fares leading to more passengers, many of whom are dragging their baggage through security to avoid extra fees, and you’ve got people waiting hours in line at our nation’s busiest airports.

Obviously, this is a situation that those in charge could have seen developing and made adjustments. The mayor’s office said it had been working with Homeland Security on the issue for months. But nothing was done.

We all have become accustomed to making some sacrifices or dealing with inconvenience in the name of safety, especially at the airports. But this was caused by stupidity, not safety.

Some of the fixes promised Tuesday include shifting 100 part-time TSA staffers to full-time and bringing an extra 58 TSA officers to Chicago over the next three weeks. By mid-August, another 250 TSA officers have been promised. And oh, yeah, they plan to triple the amount of authorized overtime.

The union that represents TSA workers says none of this is enough to fix things.

I agree. Someone needs to figure out which bureaucrat dropped the ball here.

Even the knucklehead the Republicans are running for President knows how to say: You’re fired.