On Thanksgiving Day, travel expert Christopher Elliott ran late, arriving at the airport 50 minutes before his scheduled flight from Fort Lauderdale to Los Angeles, despite the fact airlines were asking people to show up two hours early. As it turned out, Elliott didn't have to worry about waiting in the holiday lines -- he breezed through security in under 10 minutes and made his flight.
Elliott is not alone. Across the country, holiday travelers were whisked through security checkpoints by screeners employed by the Transportation Security Administration, which was able to reduce wait times despite eliminating 6,000 full-time screener positions since March.
"All these travel experts said that this would be the worst Thanksgiving in memory because the TSA made cutbacks. Experts were telling people to get to the airport three hours early. There was all this talk about flights being booked to capacity, because airlines have reduced cut flights," said Christopher Elliott, editor of
TripRights.com, a consumer travel Web site. "People got whipped up into a big frenzy over the prospects of travel and it didn't happen. It was a nonevent."
After a Congressional mandate forced the TSA to cut staffing levels from 55,600 screeners in March to just 48,279 by the end of September, the Thanksgiving travel holiday represented a big test for the government agency. But the agency passed with flying colors, according to research from Travelocity. From coast to coast, wait times from curbside check-in to the airport gate were short, a half-hour at worst, a far cry from the 90-minute waits many expected.
"They've shown: do more with less. You could have fooled me if you told me they're a government organization. My hat is off to them," said Elliott.
How'd They Do That?
The TSA did more with less this year by making its operations more efficient. The 6,000 full-time positions eliminated were replaced, in part, by part-time workers deployed during peak times. The agency also barred most employees from taking the day off and redeployed office workers to airports to help, ensuring that screeners had support personnel and travelers had TSA staff to advise them.
"We were very fortunate to have all hands on deck. All the administrative
personnel and staff at headquarters were asked to help with customer service, but not doing screening or those front-line jobs. I went out and helped passengers understand the three tips: in, out and off," said Chris Rhatigan, a spokesperson with the Transportation Security Administration.
Indeed, heavy promotion of the "in, out and off" system is a big reason why the TSA was able to get travelers through security in a timely manner. Unlike last year, travelers were prepared to get through security, by putting their keys, change and cell phones "in" their carry-on baggage, by taking their laptops "out" of their bags and by taking "off" their shoes before they reached checkpoints.
Travelers were better prepared -- and so was the TSA. When the agency faced its first Thanksgiving last year, data on airport traffic didn't always correspond to the number of people who needed to pass through security. With better data, the TSA deployed more personnel at the busiest airports and fewer at those with service cutbacks, like Pittsburgh.
"Some airports will say they originate 100,000 passengers. But that's not necessarily the true count that needs to go through the magnetometers and get their bags checked," said Rhatigan. "We use a lot of different variables when determining the resources we need, like the number of lanes. Some ports have one checkpoint for every five gates. That requires more people."
This is a far cry from the TSA's first year serving the airports, when staffing levels didn't exactly match up with peak travel times or tough periods of service. Frequent travelers joked that TSA actually stood for "thousands standing around," while leisure travelers bristled at the "hassle factor" that comes with random searches and other new security procedures put in place.
On the day before Thanksgiving, traditionally one of the busiest travel days of the entire year, the hassle factor was virtually nonexistent. While airports in Atlanta, Washington D.C. and Cleveland reported waits as long as 30 minutes to go from curbside check-in to an airline's gate, airports along the East Coast had waits half that long. As the table below shows, on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, another busy travel day, wait times were similarly short.
"Wait times were under 10 minutes across the country, and I can tell you in Baltimore-Washington there was a two-and-a-half minute wait in
the security line," said Rhatigan. "That's a sign. Anyone who travels regularly on the East Coast knows that BWI has had challenges -- a 30-minute wait was the norm for them."
Good weather also helped, especially in markets like Boston, New York, Chicago and San Francisco, where weather-related delays can snowball and cause problems over an airline's entire flight schedule. And while the wait through the security line is shorter, with airlines using technology to eliminate lines completely, some travelers continue to dread those X-ray machines.
Wait No More
While the wait to pass through security is shorter, with airlines using technology to eliminate lines completely, some travelers continue to dread those X-ray machines. And with the TSA still down 6,000 full-time employees from last year and looking for more part-timer workers to fill in during the peak times, there could be longer lines during nonholiday periods when the TSA doesn't have all hands on deck.
"It's still the most frustrating thing I have to do today when traveling," said Tom Parsons, CEO of
BestFares.com. "It's a necessary evil, but when I look at other technologies and other things the airlines have done, like e-ticketing, they help us stay out of lines. The only line I have to regret now is security."
After meeting the Thanksgiving challenge, the remainder of the holiday season should go as smoothly, with the TSA using a combination of efficiency and education to keep lines moving. While Christmas travelers should continue to follow the TSA's guidelines, they may want to ignore experts who keep warning a government agency can't get the job done.
"The TSA gets the message that the image of 'thousands standing around' was not a good one," said Elliott. "I expect things to keep getting better. If anyone tells you this will be the worst Christmas ever, take that with a grain of salt. Unless there's weather or a labor issue, I don't see long lines that snake around the side of the airport during the holidays."