Here’s why airport security takes so long

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A TSA checkpoint. (Image: CBSNews.com/CBS Interactive)

CHICAGO — Airport security is a special kind of hell, and anyone who goes through it regularly knows it.

One graph by Quartz shows the simple reason for it. There are too many people coming in and not enough people to process. And don’t we know it — almost every time we travel, the lines appear to be getting longer, and so do the wait times. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to gauge when to turn up for pre-screening ahead of our flights, because unthinkable variables get in the way.

Just last week, the “longest TSA line you’ve ever seen” was spotted at Chicago Midway. A video posted of a line that spanned more than two minutes gained notoriety on Reddit and social media.

But with the number of passengers vastly outweighing the number of TSA agents, the situation is only getting worse.

It’s so bad that the TSA is now warning travelers at some airports, like Chicago O’Hare and Midway, to show up at their departure airport up to three hours before their flight leaves — all because there aren’t enough staff to man the security posts.

And I know all too well, because this weekend I was there.

Flying back from Chicago to New York at the end of the weekend was a nightmare for this exact reason. My partner and I were bounced from one flight to another, waiting in reserve, after we missed our first flight because of snaking TSA lines that were hundreds of people deep.

Once we were airside, it wasn’t just passengers complaining about long waits and their missed flights. Airline staff were also feeling the strain.

“There just aren’t people to screen everyone,” said one airline customer service official. Another said it’s been a “nightmare” for months, because the lines back up and the airlines have to fit people who missed their flights on overbooked and already-packed flights.

Earlier this year, American Airlines said that the TSA is its “number one problem right now.”

The big question is why are TSA agents are leaving in droves?

According to one report, the TSA lost 4,644 employees in 2014 and hired 373 people. This year, the TSA will hire almost more than 760 new officers to speed up the screening process, but that’s a drop in the growing sea of air-travelling passengers.

Whistleblowers have said that the TSA is an “agency in crisis” in part because of a culture of hostility and intimidation within the agency. Former TSA agent Jason Edward Harrington said in a report for The Guardian last year that there are “far too many TSA managers who reign with a tyrannical hand, and whose promotion to managerial positions remains a mystery to the workforce.”

A TSA spokesperson did not comment at the time of writing, but we’ll update if we hear back.

The agency has also come under fire for spending tens of thousands of dollars on apps that took others just a few minutes to develop in open-source. An inspector general report from last week showed the TSA also had serious IT deficiencies, including failing to patch servers, which “increases the risk that baggage screening equipment will not operate as intended.”

“TSA needs to clean house from the top down, and floor-level agents should be focusing more attention on passengers and less attention on objects,” said Harrington.

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