Airport Security Delays Reach Crisis Point, Rep. McCaul Says
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Travelers have been getting pretty riled up about those long security lines at airports. And you can understand why. Many have been missing flights, even after arriving super early at the airport. Well, Republican Congressman Michael McCaul of Texas says travelers now deserve answers. He was leading a hearing yesterday questioning Transportation Security administrator, Adm. Peter Neffenger.
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MICHAEL MCCAUL: This was really not our first rodeo. Why didn't we see this coming?
PETER NEFFENGER: That's a good question. And as you know, when I came on board last year, it was immediately apparent to me that one of the challenges we were going to have is enough screening staff to man the checkpoints effectively.
GREENE: Congress recently gave the TSA $34 million to hire nearly 800 new officers and to pay current staff overtime. And the administrator of TSA told lawmakers yesterday the agency is trying to make many part-time officers full time, which could help with those long waits.
I spoke to Congressman McCaul, who chaired yesterday's hearing of the House Committee on Homeland Security, a few minutes after the session ended. And he said, yeah, he's angry at the agency's performance.
MCCAUL: We shouldn't have been in this position in the first place. This is a crisis.
GREENE: But this Republican congressman put much more of the blame on fellow lawmakers.
MCCAUL: We've had a bill that's been sitting in the Senate that would help in addressing this problem. And it's unfortunate they failed to act on it.
GREENE: Well, Congressman, your party controls the Senate. You must have some contacts over there, if you wanted to try and convince them to get things moving, right (laughter)?
MCCAUL: (Laughter). Right, you would think so. But it seems like they're always very slow to move. And this is one of those bills that - there's no excuse for not passing them today and putting them on the president's desk. These are bipartisan bills. The president supports it. It's just a matter of the Senate taking action.
GREENE: What's in the bill - or in this legislation in the Senate that you think would help the problem here?
MCCAUL: Well, I think on two levels - one, on the lines - is the TSA Screening Act, which would expand the TSA PreCheck program so that these lines can be - will go down as more people are going through the PreCheck lines. The other two bills deal with our technical assistance and training and equipment to foreign airports.
Like, for instance, the one in Cairo that I visited just two weeks ago, prior to the Egyptian airliner tragedy, where - there are security issues at that airport...
MCCAUL: ...That could be addressed if we could pass these bills.
GREENE: You mentioned the PreCheck. That's, of course, something that costs Americans money if they want to sign up for it. I mean, would Congress do something to help more people be able to get PreCheck without having to dole out cash in, you know, some tough economic times?
MCCAUL: Yeah. And we'll - you know, that's something the airlines mentioned. Airport authorities is reducing the cost, trying to market the program through the private sector. I think we can greatly expand that program, which has been very successful and very popular.
And again, you know, this bill is being held up in the Senate primarily because they want to take the $85 dollars that people are paying to get into the PreCheck program and put it into the general treasury rather than into TSA's efforts to enhance the PreCheck program.
GREENE: I got to ask you. I mean, it's - you know, this is a moment when so many Americans have been so frustrated with what they see as not much getting done in Washington. It sounds like you've - I mean, you've got - you're a Republican.
It sounds like you're supportive of the changes that a Democratic administration (laughter) is supporting. I mean, what do you tell Americans who are like, why can't you just get this done and get some help and get these lines shorter?
MCCAUL: Well, I - you know, I voice my strong frustration with the Senate. This is Washington. Game's at its worst when it's slowing down the process. And we can take action today that would change this. I'll be introducing this bill that will help with greater flexibility at the local level to improve the staffing model changes.
And then we're also going to be looking at repositioning assets from part-time employees, who were already trained, into full-time employees. This could actually change things overnight.
GREENE: Let me just finish by asking you this, if I may, Congressman. We had the secretary of Homeland Security, Jeh Johnson, on our program this week. And I want to play a little tape of what he said. I mean, he said he's being as aggressive as he can while still, you know, ensuring passenger safety.
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JEH JOHNSON: The American public should know two things. One, we are not going to shortcut their safety. We are not going to shortcut aviation security. The other thing the American public should know is that we are aggressively addressing the wait times along with the airlines. The airlines have a role in this, too. They can help.
GREENE: Are you and the Homeland Security secretary on the same page? I mean, there's - be aggressive. But there's only so much you can do. And sort of in these times - in the need for security, passengers might just have to expect some long lines this summer?
MCCAUL: Well, I mean, you know, I work very closely with Secretary Johnson. I agree with him. We're in a high-threat environment. I think that you look at the Egyptian airline crash. You look at Sharm el-Sheikh - the Russian airliner. And so there's a reason why screening has been ramped up.
But I don't think that should compromise these long lines. And I think, again, it's positioning, you know, the staffing model, putting them in the right position. I think greater coordination needs to take place with the airlines and the local airport authorities.
That's what they tell me - is that the TSA is not getting their input. And so they're not there when they need to be at the right time in the right place. And I think that's a pretty fundamental basic thing that can be addressed. The secretary, I think, is very sincere when he says that they're aggressively trying to resolve this.
The administrator, Adm. Neffenger, talked about things they're doing right now to address the situation. But Congress has a role, too. And I think we need to act quickly. And again, I think, also, this moving from part-time to full-time employees could greatly assist.
GREENE: All right. We've been speaking to Congressman Michael McCaul, Republican of Texas. He's the chairman of the Committee of Homeland Security in the House. Congressman, thanks so much for joining us.
MCCAUL: Yeah. Thanks for having me. I appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.