The head of the beleaguered Transportation Security Administration told lawmakers on Capitol Hill Wednesday the long passenger lines at screening checkpoints at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport this month should have been avoided. He also said it was a "failure" on the part of the agency to get some things done.
"Chicago was a preventable incident in my opinion," TSA Administrator Peter Neffenger said at a House Homeland Security Committee hearing.
"When you look at what happened, this was a surge that was anticipated, it was known, it was a failure to get some things done in advance of that," Neffenger said.
Neffenger, the lone witness at the hearing, added that the O'Hare incident was fixed "pretty quickly" through a combination of accelerating the deployment of additional K-9 units, sending more transportation security officers to Chicago, converting 100 part-time officers to full time and approving more overtime hours for workers there.
"The total of that has resulted in a significant change in the Chicago picture," Neffenger said.
He also cited the Chicago Tribune, which reported wait times are now 15 minutes at that airport, down from waits that exceeded two hours earlier this month and led to hundreds of people missing their flights or spending the night at the airport. The shorter wait times, he said, are the result of a new TSA management team at O'Hare and converting dozens of part-time screeners to full time.
Neffenger's testimony comes at a critical time for the TSA as the agency is receiving increased congressional scrutiny over its management and accountability. It also comes just days before Memorial Day weekend, the start of the summer travel season.
Earlier this week, the head of security for TSA, Kelly Hoggan, was replaced after the House Oversight Committee found he received more than $90,000 in bonuses over a 13-month period.
Neffenger told lawmakers at Wednesday's hearing, which lasted about two hours and resulted in few fireworks, of his plans to expedite screening times as the summer travel season gets underway. That includes adding 768 screeners to its workforce by mid-June.
He also noted that there will be a "lag time" in how quickly problems will be resolved. Neffenger said the TSA projects that checkpoints across the country will screen 100 million more people in 2016 than it did in 2013, while the agency's workforce has been reduced by 12 percent over that same time period.
Committee Chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas, described issues with the agency as a "crisis" and not just limited to Chicago. He added that the bureaucracy at the TSA "has gotten weaker."
"This crisis didn't just come out of nowhere. Airports and airlines have been sounding the alarm for months," McCaul said. "The agency has struggled to keep up with the high demand and has been unable to put the right people at the right place at the right time. Change is not happening fast enough."
The issue of travelers bringing more carry-on items through security checkpoints to avoid additional bag fees was raised at the hearing.
Neffenger acknowledged it is a problem, saying there are four times as many carry-ons coming through security compared with what gets checked.
Louisiana Democratic Rep. Cedric Richmond urged Neffenger to look into waiving checked-bag fees if passengers enroll in the TSA's Pre-Check program. He called the additional bag fees many airlines impose "just another way to dig in the American people's pocket."
But he did offer a solution.
"Why don't we say anyone who has Pre-Check, the airlines can't charge you baggage fees. And that would drive people to go enroll in Pre-Check and we get to, not stick it to the airlines, but we'd get to help the American people," Richmond said.
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