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TSA Braces For Record Airport Crowds During Summer Travel Season


If you're flying this summer, prepare to wait. Airlines expect a record number of passengers over the next three months; that means more pressure on security agents. And a plan to move some TSA workers away from airports could compound the problem. From Chicago, NPR's David Schaper reports.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Summer hasn't even officially begun yet, and already, the TSA has set a new record for the number of airline passengers and crew members screened in a single day. Nearly 2.8 million people went through airport security checkpoints on the Friday before Memorial Day, and the sixth-busiest day ever for the TSA was just the day before that, Thursday, May 23. And it's likely to get even busier.

MARK HOWELL: We've been prepping for it forever.

SCHAPER: TSA spokesman Mark Howell says they've hired staff and added screening equipment, but he says lines will still likely get longer this summer.

HOWELL: There's periods where we can have every line open, every resource available, but there will be so many passengers that come in at certain parts of the day where that funnel is going to fill up and then start to overflow.

SCHAPER: So the TSA is enlisting the help of a really cute 10-year-old with four legs and a keen sense of smell. Her name is Yulie. She's a black Lab. Those are her toenails clicking on the floor as she runs up to and sniffs airline passengers as they walk through a terminal at Chicago's O'Hare Airport. She goes from one person to another and another, until she stops on a dime behind a man who was carrying a decoy of explosive materials in a backpack.

NATE RIVERA: Yeah. Good girl.

SCHAPER: Yulie's handler, Nate Rivera, praises her for finding the decoy. Then he plays with her, which is Yulie's reward.

RIVERA: She thinks she's a cat, as you can see. (Laughter) She's very friendly, and she's very good at what she does.

SCHAPER: Yulie is one of 14 explosive-sniffing dogs working at O'Hare, up from just four in 2014. The TSA has more than 1,000 such dogs staged at airports around the country and scores more being trained to sniff out dozens of different substances used in making explosives. Mark Howell says the agency is beefing up K-9 units to add both an extra layer of security and to speed up screening.

HOWELL: What these dogs are bringing to us is a mobile detection and instant risk assessment on passengers that are coming through the checkpoint. When they can do a quick snap decision on if there's a potential threat in a bag, we can deem them low-risk as they're coming through.

SCHAPER: The TSA has made enormous strides in reducing wait time since 2016, when travelers sometimes waited for hours to get through checkpoints and missed their flights. But now there are new concerns, as the Trump administration plans to move hundreds of TSA employees from airport duties to checkpoints on the Mexican border.

SARA NELSON: When you take levels of security away, you are potentially leading to not only long security lines but also a potential breach in security.

SCHAPER: Sara Nelson heads the Association of Flight Attendants.

NELSON: It doesn't make any sense to undermine aviation security, which has been commonly the way that we have been most under attack, in order to shift it to the border.

SCHAPER: Industry groups representing airlines, airports, pilots and the TSA employees union are joining members of Congress in raising concerns about plans to shift 400 TSA workers to the southern border. They join 700 Customs and Border Protection agents already redeployed from airports. Still, the TSA's Mark Howell says the request represents just 1% of the total TSA workforce.

HOWELL: So you're not going to see a big operational impact at checkpoints.

SCHAPER: Nonetheless, he tells travelers this...

HOWELL: Don't chance it.

SCHAPER: Especially when it comes to the summer travel season, he says arrive at the airport at least two hours before departure to make sure you have enough time to get through security and make your flight.

David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Schaper is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, based in Chicago, primarily covering transportation and infrastructure, as well as breaking news in Chicago and the Midwest.