During a meeting in North Texas on Tuesday, the nation’s Transportation Security Administration chief David Pekosky and airport and airline leaders said there will be inevitable ‘barriers’ this summer as they anticipate the largest crowds of airport passengers since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
Labor shortages and high demand have trapped the travel industry, and Pekoske said the agency is ready to deploy up to 1,000 TSA agents and K-9 units to pain points across the country to counter potential backlogs at airport security checkpoints. The Transportation Security Administration has created a new position for new employees that will allow them to pick up speeds faster and staff checkpoints better, helping experienced TSA agents with tasks that do not require certification.
“We expect the summer to be very busy,” said Pekosky, who was nominated for a second five-year term by President Joe Biden this week. “It doesn’t mean there won’t be some hiccups along the way – these things will happen, but we will do everything we can to recover quickly.”
Pekoske was joined Tuesday at Coppell in the Homeland Security offices by some of the most influential leaders in the US travel industry, including American Airlines CEO Nick Calio, DFW International Airport CEO Sean Donohue, and Faye Malarkey Black, CEO of Consortium Regional Aviation.
Donohue said DFW Airport expects domestic traffic to be around “98 or 99% from 2019,” with the only drop in travel to Asia.
Each of the groups represented at the meeting It has dealt with its own hurdles since travel began to pick up quickly last spring, issues that have intensified in the 12 months since.
Some expect airport crowds to exceed 3 million passengers per day on this summer’s busiest travel day between Memorial Day and Labor Day. But demand comes with challenges, too.
Pilots are complaining of fatigue and flight cancellations as summer approaches at airlines including Fort Worth-based American Airlines, Dallas-based Southwest Airlines, Alaska and Delta. Airport restaurants are again begging for staff, and there has also been a shortage of workers at car rental desks, airline customer service call center workers and people pushing wheelchairs and ground staff pulling planes back and forth from gates.
“Everyone is facing a labor shortage. Airlines and TSA are no different,” said Paul Doyle, vice president of the National Association of Air Carriers. “At just about every level you can think of in the aviation industry, we can talk about having a labor shortage.”
The airlines themselves are running reliable operations this summer and reducing the number of delays and cancellations that sometimes hit travelers during peak periods last year. This has resulted in some, including Southwest Airlines, cutting thousands of flights from their schedules. While that may help airlines run on time, it will also mean planes will be more full and pressure will be on airport workers, including TSA agents, to get these travelers to flights on time.
But regional carriers, which fly about 43% of all scheduled flights in the United States, say they are facing a labor shortage as employees like pilots are poached by the larger airlines. That could create problems connecting smaller destinations with larger hub airports, Black said.
“Experimental shortages are affecting the area, and we expect to see small communities hardest hit,” Black said. “We expect this trend to continue, but these pain points will assert themselves in the centers also.”
The TSA has already experienced some unusually long wait times at airports that have seen passenger numbers surpass 2019 levels, including Austin-Bergstrom International Airport and Orlando International Airport.
Pekosky also warned that many travelers this summer may board a plane for the first time in three years, especially as masking and COVID-19 restrictions have fallen in many parts of the country and international travel restrictions have been lifted.
“The number of people who worked on concessions before the pandemic just aren’t there now,” said Kevin Burke, president of Airports Council International in North America. “They’re back, but they’re not near where they should be.”
This confluence of issues could lead to a challenging summer for travelers and airline employees alike.
“So we really ask that we try to be patient and understanding when they deal with staff at the airport,” Doyle said. “Everyone trying to do their best work can make sure that this is as safe and secure and also as comfortable as it can be under normal circumstances but especially when you have those tough days where you have storms that crash the system.”