The US Transportation Security Administration (TSA) finally seemed to be getting things right in late 2014.  

John Pistole, a Federal Bureau of Investigation veteran who served as TSA administrator from June 2010 to December 2014, had spent years shifting the agency’s focus from treating all airline passengers as equal threats to using intelligence and risk analysis in airport security. The Pre-Check expedited screening program he introduced in 2011 was gaining real traction, enabling hundreds of thousands of passengers to keep their shoes on and their laptops in their bags as they made their way through faster security lanes. Meanwhile, Pre-Check and other risk-based methods were narrowing the pool of passengers who warranted intense scrutiny from screeners.

Airport security lines were moving and airlines and airports—which had been subjected to a my-way-or-the-highway approach in TSA’s early years—felt like the agency was actually treating them as partners. TSA, for the most part, was no longer getting in passengers’ and airlines’ ways.

So it was particularly disappointing and somewhat mystifying when US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) secretary Jeh Johnson stepped in front of a throng of television cameras and reporters at Washington National Airport (DCA) during a May press conference and declared: “There will be wait times this summer. We encourage people to have the appropriate expectations when you arrive at airports.”

Johnson and TSA administrator Peter Neffenger called the media to DCA to address angry complaints from airlines and the public about increasingly long lines at passenger screening checkpoints; waits of more than 90 minutes and even as long as three hours in some instances are wreaking havoc with air travel at major airports around the country. 

How did TSA go from the positive feelings of late 2014 to essentially conceding that passengers will have to be prepared to stand in tedious queues this summer? 

The first sign of trouble came last June when news reports revealed that “red team” undercover inspectors from the DHS inspector general’s (IG) office had repeatedly brought banned items through passenger checkpoints at major US airports. Johnson immediately relieved TSA acting administrator Melvin Carraway of his duties when the reports surfaced. Neffenger was sworn in as TSA administrator in July 2015, and his first order of business was addressing the “vulnerabilities” highlighted by the IG red teams.

One step that Johnson and Neffenger took appears to have had severe consequences. TSA had been widely deploying a strategy called “managed inclusion,” which involved sending large numbers of passengers who were not enrolled in Pre-Check to the expedited security lanes. It was part of the agency’s larger risk-based approach to security. 

But Johnson and Neffenger mostly ended the practice last summer following the IG revelations. “We dialed back managed inclusion,” Johnson said. “That has no doubt contributed to wait times … We knew that the dialing back of managed inclusion would lead to increased wait times.”

Indeed, Neffenger said in February that he was “willing to increase wait time slightly if it means keeping you safer.”

Two other factors have exacerbated the move away from managed inclusion to lead to more than “slightly” longer wait times: Passenger numbers are higher than TSA expected and the Pre-Check program is not growing as quickly as hoped. As a result, the TSA workforce, which suffers from a relatively high attrition rate, is simply too small. (In 2014, for example, 4,644 employees left TSA while the agency hired just 373, according to the House of Representatives Oversight and Government Reform Committee.) 

TSA plans to hire more than 750 new screeners on an expedited basis by mid-June. And Johnson is pushing hard to boost Pre-Check enrollment, even going so far as to write a letter to the leaders of the US’s 100 largest companies to ask them to reimburse workers who sign up for the program.    

Johnson emphasized that TSA “will not compromise aviation security,” which he conceded may entail accepting some level of longer wait times at security checkpoints. “There continues to be a concern about aviation security,” he said. “We can’t call it quits and go home … There is no specific credible threat that we know of around aviation security, but there still continues to be a general concern that we have about aviation security in the current global environment … We’re asking the American people to be patient while we bring on the added resources as quickly as possible.”

Some in Congress, such as Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut) and Edward Markey (D-Massachusetts), have seized on the extended security lines to take swings at one of lawmakers’ perennial punching bags: airline baggage fees. The senators believe that if airlines stopped charging checked bag fees, then more luggage now being carried onboard by passengers (and thus through airport checkpoints) would be checked, thereby shortening security lines. 

But much more than carry-on bags, the long lines are about processing a large volume of passengers—many of whom are infrequent travelers and not very familiar with security procedures—who have not been pre-vetted by the government. And the senators would no doubt bristle at the higher base airfares that would be required to cover the cost of carrying checked bags if the fees went away.

Other members of Congress are pinning the blame squarely on TSA. Longtime critics of the agency, such as Rep. John Mica (R-Florida), are having a field day with the long lines. The congressman sat on the floor cross-legged next to photographers in front of the DCA podium where Johnson and Neffenger were speaking at their May press conference, and immediately jumped up and started addressing reporters when the officials departed. He called the plan outlined by Johnson to shorten lines “a little bit late at the gate.”

“It’s unbelievable,” Mica said, calling TSA “a bureaucracy that suffers from bad management … They don’t know how to recruit. They don’t know how to train.”