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Long lines for security at the nation's airports have caused thousands of travelers to miss their flights. And those lines have prompted changes at the agency conducting the screening, the TSA. At the same time, Congress has taken the first steps toward increasing funding so the agency can hire more screeners. NPR's Brian Naylor has the latest.
BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: There is a lot of blame to go around for the security lines that have snaked around airport terminals across the country. The biggest problem - not enough screeners to handle a surge in air travelers. There are some 5,000 fewer screeners at the TSA now than there were just a few years ago. The head of their union, J. David Cox, told NPR one reason for the short staffing is Congress itself.
J DAVID COX: Congress took the money the passengers pay on the airline tickets and used that money for other purposes instead of funding TSA.
NAYLOR: Congress voted to divert some $1.3 billion this year from the security fee that we pay in our plane tickets to pay down the deficit. That's a big chunk of the TSA's $7.5 billion dollar budget, money the airline industry says should be returned to the TSA. Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois says Congress should take some responsibility for the TSA's problems.
DICK DURBIN: When you talk about an increase in passenger and then no increase in those - in the screening stations, do the math. It just doesn't work. Even good management can't patch up some of those problems.
NAYLOR: The TSA is also having trouble holding onto the screeners it has. The agency suffered a 13 percent attrition rate last year, employees leaving in droves from jobs that are often only part-time, low-paying and high stress. TSA administrator Peter Neffenger told lawmakers recently that the agency also underestimated staffing needs by overestimating how many people would pay $85 to enter the pre-check program. It allows passengers to go through screening without removing their shoes or pulling their laptops from their carry-ons.
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PETER NEFFENGER: It's just a fact that we're a smaller agency on the front-line workforce than we were before and that we have significantly more people moving through the system.
NAYLOR: Neffenger has acted to shake up top managers at the TSA. He removed Kelly Hogan, who was head of security operations and was under fire from lawmakers for punitively reassigning TSA workers who'd been whistleblowers. And Congress is moving to shore up the agency's financing that allowed TSA to shift around some of its resources to hire another 768 screeners by mid-June. And today, a Senate panel approved an increase in TSA's funding to hire additional screeners. New Hampshire Democrat Jeanne Shaheen says there's also money to test automated security lines as are now in use in London.
JEANNE SHAHEEN: It's demonstrated there that it could move 25 to 30 percent faster getting people through security lines. So I think technology offers another opportunity. But I also think that it's important to remind people that part of the challenge here is making sure that the flying public is safe.
NAYLOR: But even if the full Senate and House approved funding the 1,300 or so additional screeners, they wouldn't be hired until the fall at the earliest, little consolation for travelers waiting in line this summer. Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.