TSA Screens Most Passengers Since Start of Pandemic as Travel Surge Creates New Challenges for Airports, Travelers

The TSA is projecting that more than 130 of the nation’s largest airports will experience staffing shortages this month

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In another sign that a sense of normalcy is taking flight, air travel has rebounded to about 75% of where it was at this time in 2019.

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) said it screened over 2 million travelers Friday at U.S. airport security checkpoints -- almost 31,000 of those passengers were screened at San Diego International Airport.

It’s the highest volume of airport traffic since March 2020 when the coronavirus pandemic brought travel to an abrupt halt, but the long-awaited moment is creating new challenges for travelers and airports.

“The lines were crazy, not just at TSA, but dropping bags and everything,” said MaryCay Durrant upon returning home to San Diego after visiting family in Minnesota for a few days. “I didn’t get on a plane for over a year and all of a sudden, in the last month I’ve been on nine planes in three weeks.”

The surge in travelers taking to the skies is causing a summer staffing scramble.

Busier airports are causing longer wait times, putting more pressure on the TSA as the agency faces the same staffing challenges as so many other industries, while demand quickly ramps up from historic lows.

The TSA is projecting that more than 130 of the nation’s largest airports will experience staffing shortages this month.

Acting TSA Administrator Darby LaJoye is asking office employees to volunteer at airports for up to 45 days to handle non-screening functions such as onboarding for new hires and management of security lines.

The agency is looking to hire 6,000 new officers to handle the summer travel rush, but only around 3,100 have been added so far.

As a result, the agency is offering incentives, including a $1,000 bonus for officers who accept employment with the agency.

The TSA released a statement saying the agency was “well-positioned to meet rising traveler volumes,” and began a “concerted recruitment effort this past winter in anticipation of increasing volumes.”

Pat McGraw flew to San Diego Saturday from Denver. The Asheville, N.C.-native told NBC 7 she was especially thankful she and her husband have TSA PreCheck today.

“We got right through [security], but there were people that don’t have it that waited anywhere from a half hour to 45 minutes,” she said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced new guidance which allows people who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 to travel freely in the U.S., as long as they remain masked.

Frustrations extend from the airport to curbside, as many drivers quit during the pandemic and began working for delivery services where they often have opportunities to make more money -- the driver shortage prompting Uber to offer incentives to bring them back.

“Once you get to an airport, there’s very little means of transportation like taxis and Ubers,” added McGraw.

Durrant told NBC 7 if the pandemic taught us anything, it’s patience, and that’s what we’ll all need moving forward.

“I think it’s a lot about taking the connection and compassion we learned during the pandemic and let’s grant that to each other while TSA and others figure out how to right staffing,” she said. “Take some extra time, bring a good book or a good companion to talk to.”

As we take to the skies again, it’s important to remember that it’s still a federal requirement to wear masks in airports as well as on planes.

In California, masks will still be required on airport property even after most Covid-19 restrictions drop when the state fully reopens on June 15. The state mandate in airports will run to at least early September.

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