Decades ago, air travel was glamorous. It seemed magical: you hop on a plane, lean your seat back and enjoy a nice meal on your way to a distant vacation!
These days, air travel is more like riding in a cattle car. Long lines, grumpy TSA agents and cranky travelers — and that’s before you meander down the jetway to a tiny cabin, squeeze into ever-shrinking seats, wolf down those meager bags of pretzels and then simply endure the hours aloft.
After 9/11, of course, it only got worse. Long lines and stranded passengers this spring led to the demotion of Kelly Hoggan, TSA’s head of security operations. But his removal — he was placed on administrative leave, not fired as first reports said — hasn’t solved any problems. In fact, this week the head of the TSA, Peter Neffenger, told a House committee that travel this summer may become even more challenging for those who must use the nation’s airports.
TSA’s answer to long lines
The TSA has offered a couple of “solutions” to the problem, but they might be barking up the wrong tree. On Wednesday, Neffenger said that the TSA will add 768 new screeners by mid-June to help mitigate long lines that were making passengers late for flights even before the busy summer vacation travel season begins.
“We have a challenge this summer, which we are aggressively meeting head-on,” Neffenger said to the House Homeland Security Committee. He also stated that the 450 passengers recently stranded in Chicago overnight shouldn’t have missed their flights due to security delays. Neffenger said it was totally preventable, and he’s right.
Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), the committee chairman, said the crisis “didn’t just come out of nowhere. Airports and airlines have been sounding the alarm for months. Wait times are not soaring simply because security is that much tighter. It’s because the TSA bureaucracy has gotten weaker.” So will more agents help with the problem? Who knows.
TSA Pre-Check program
Another “solution” the TSA has offered is the TSA Pre-Check Program. Sounds cool, right? Trust us, it’s not as good as it sounds. In order to receive Pre-Check status, you have to complete an online application, then either make an appointment or walk into a TSA application center with proper documentation to be fingerprinted. Oh, and you also have to fork over $85 to become a program member. Of course, there are delays, even after you jump through all the hoops.
If you have children 12 and younger, they can accompany you through the Pre-Check line at the airport, but as soon as they’re 13 they have to have their own clearance, and that’s not a reasonable amount of money to spend for families who travel once or twice a year. If a family of four with two teens apply, they’ll spend $340 on top of plane tickets and checked bag fees, turning an affordable summer jaunt into something that could break the bank.
Some people argue that business travelers should take advantage of the Pre-Check program, but road warriors — those business men and women who travel the most — don’t need it. Once a traveler achieves elite status with an airline they can skip a majority of the headache-inducing parts of the security checkpoint. They go to the front of the line and get to the x-ray machines before sometimes hundreds of people.
It should also be noted that, at some airports, the slowest line is that TSA Pre-Check line. It can be understaffed and suddenly long, too. No matter who you are, it doesn’t sound like a good deal. Also, cheap-o airlines don’t necessarily participate in Pre-Check, so if you patronize the no-frills side of the flying business, verify that you can even get a Pre-Check ticket. That’s right, you can do Pre-Check but then not be able to use your status, depending on who you fly with.
Bottom line: If you travel a lot or you can expense it, get Pre-Check. If you use airports sparingly or have an entourage of teens with you, skip that hassle and just get to airport early.
If you have an afternoon flight, check your bags, do TSA early and have lunch in the terminal. Most big airports are like malls these days, anyway, and the food options are better than in years past. Avoid connecting flights if possible — delays elsewhere could easily leave you stranded halfway to your faraway beach or mountain destination.
A staycation might be a better option
Think a staycation sounds pretty fabulous about now? You aren’t the only one. If you live close to a big metro, going downtown for the weekend is a great way to tune into that vacation vibe without traveling far. For many of us, fantastic museums, live shows and killer restaurants are just a short car ride away. Plus, who doesn’t like to hang out by a hotel pool or indulge in a massage?
Another option is to set aside a weekend in which everyone puts their phones away, logs off of Facebook and spends some quality time with one another. A visit to local attractions, that restaurant you’ve been meaning to try for months or a fun-filled game night can make for great staycation memories. Pitch a tent in the living room and watch movies while noshing on experimental recipes of home-cooked popcorn, or go play a couple of rounds of paintball. There’s plenty of fun to be had close to home.
If you decide to brave the lines at the airport instead, be sure to arrive a couple of hours early and pack an extra dose of patience. You’ll make it, it may just take you longer than it used to.
– Megan Winkler