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With busy summer travel season starting, TSA sends 350 officers to border

People travel ahead of the Independence Day weekend at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport
A Transportation Security Administration officer inspects a traveler’s documents at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in Arlington, Va., in June 2016.
(Michael Reynolds / European Pressphoto Agency)

With U.S. airports expecting a record number of airline passengers this summer, the Transportation Security Administration head said wait times could rise slightly because he has sent hundreds of staffers to the southern border to help with an influx of immigrants.

The TSA expects a record 263 million passengers and crew members to fly through U.S. airports from Memorial Day to Labor Day, an 8% increase over the same period last year.

Los Angeles International Airport officials predicted they will serve 2.9 million people over the 11-day period around Independence Day, about 40,000 more fliers than during the same time last year.

During a conference call Monday to discuss the summer travel season, TSA Administrator David Pekoske said 350 TSA officers have volunteered to help border officials at the southwest border, which “might lead to a slight increase in wait times” at U.S. airports.

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“We are doing everything we can to mitigate the impact,” he said about losing the staff during one of the busiest times of the year.

The border has seen a dramatic increase in crossings in the last few months, and Pekoske said he has sent volunteers from his agency to help Border Protection and Department of Homeland Security officers processing the immigrants.

The TSA officers and administrative staff, who volunteer for 45 days at a time, are primarily performing logistical duties such as helping with transportation, distribution of meals, personal property management and legal support, according to the agency.

Pekoske described the transfer of TSA staff, starting in May, as a temporary move that shouldn’t have a permanent effect on his agency, which employs more than 43,000 security officers.

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But when asked what travelers should expect when arriving at U.S. airports this summer, he said, “I’d prepare for a little more time.”

Thanks to a strong economy and high consumer confidence, the demand for air travel has been surging for the last several years.

The TSA has tried to keep up with the higher workload by requesting increasing funding from Congress, promoting the TSA PreCheck program for pre-screened fliers and deploying “automated lanes” to speed up screening times.

In April, Pekoske asked for $58.6 million in additional funding for the 2020 fiscal year to pay for 700 additional full-time screeners, saying the agency needs to “maintain acceptable wait times, and avoid crowding at the checkpoints, which is itself a security concern.” The budget for next year has yet to be approved.

During Monday’s conference call, Pekoske said the deployment of 350 employees to the border has not increased wait times so far, but that could change as the busy summer travel season begins and airports become more crowded.

The TSA sets the goal of keeping the average wait time for passengers at less than 30 minutes in regular screening lines and less than 10 minutes in the TSA PreCheck security lanes. “We are well within those standards,” he said.

Pekoske said he hopes that new funding from Congress to address the crisis at the border and efforts by Mexico to curtail the flow of migrants heading north will eventually end the need for TSA staffing at the border, allowing the federal employees to return to their positions at U.S. airports.

hugo.martin@latimes.com

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