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Summer Travel Forecast: Long Lines, Short Tempers

Long lines, full flights, niggling fees for everything: Welcome to the new normal when it comes to air travel. While the flights can’t get much fuller, and there are few new opportunities to charge extra for non-basic services, those long lines are going to get longer before they get shorter.

That’s partly due to the expected 8 percent spike in airline passengers during the peak summer travel months, of course. But the problem isn’t limited to the summer crush; it’s been festering for months, with flyers already facing hours-long lines and missed flights.

According to a recent New York Times editorial, even as passenger traffic increased 5 percent, the number of TSA employees decreased by 3 percent. That’s a sure recipe for amping up congestion.

In a statement, Jeh Johnson, Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the TSA, acknowledged the problem’s severity: “TSA Administrator Admiral Neffenger and I are acutely aware of the significant increase in travelers and longer wait times at airports, and their projected growth over the summer.”

Long term, the fix may require a fundamental redesign of the security-screening system. But for the immediate future, easing the congestion at security checkpoints is mostly a matter of approving budgets to fund more security screeners.

The TSA’s request to reallocate a portion of its budget to hire more agents was approved last week by the Senate, but so far the House has taken no action on the proposal. And at this point, for summer 2016, a hiring binge may already be too late. By the time new TSA screeners are vetted and trained, travel volume will have returned to post-peak levels.

Aside from traveling during non-peak times, and avoiding chronically congested airports, summer travelers can’t do much to improve what is shaping up to be a very stressful airport experience.

While no cure-all, the TSA’s Precheck program will at least get travelers through the security-check bottleneck a bit quicker, without having to remove their shoes or display their laptops. With the summer crush less than a month away, there’s never been a better time to sign up.

Reader Reality Check

How do you keep your stress levels in check during summer trips?

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After 20 years working in the travel industry, and 15 years writing about it, Tim Winship knows a thing or two about travel. Follow him on Twitter @twinship.

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