The inexcusably, intolerably long TSA line at O'Hare Airport

When getting through the inexcusably and intolerably long TSA security line at O’Hare Airport as we were  leaving on Friday for Washington, D.C., I thought that it might have been anomalous. After all, why would United Airlines, in whose terminal the lines stretch to near-horizon length, put up with their customers being treated so contemptuously.

The line looked like something out of a science-fiction movie, like the condemned slouching to their demise in the classic film Soylent Green.

The herd shuffles towards a TSA checkpoint at O'Hare Airport. (Chicago Tribune)

The herd shuffles towards a TSA checkpoint at O’Hare Airport. (Chicago Tribune)

Shuffle forward a few steps, wait, drop your carry-ons. Pick up your carry-ons, shuffle ahead a few steps, drop-your carry-ons. Finally get to the TSA agent checking your boarding pass and your ID. Then repeat, shuffle, drop, shuffle, drop until you arrive at the screening station. Wait patiently as the people ahead of you fumble with their belts, shoes, laptops, loose change, smart phones.

It took my wife Barb and I 45 minutes to make it through. We made our flight only because we left our north suburban home a ridiculous three hours before our flight would start boarding.

Unbelievably, upon our return on Monday, the line appeared even longer, snaking out of sight. So the long lines weren’t unusual. Having shifted mostly to my car to go to any destination less the two days away because flying has become such a tortuous  guessing game, I didn’t know if this was typical for all airports.  I know it wasn’t the case at Dulles Airport when flying back. We practically sailed through the PreCheck gate. (More on that below).

Then there was the Chicago Tribune Tuesday op-ed:  “How to shorten airport lines? Get rid of the TSA.”

Millions of Americans have learned to dread going to the airport. An unfortunate combination of surging passenger volumes and declining numbers of screeners have led to security lines that can average over an hour in length. Thousands of passengers are missing flights daily. Meanwhile, airports and airlines nationwide are struggling to contain passenger anger. In desperation last week, one leading U.S. airline trade group asked passengers to troll the Transportation Security Administration by tweeting of long lines with the hashtag #ihatethewait.

Then there were the warnings of possibly longer lines and more inconvenience during the up-coming summer travel season and of cutbacks in TSA staff.

I don’t know whether the fault lies with the TSA or the  inefficient and unfriendly O’Hare Airport. Or both. I suspect that getting rid of the TSA and replacing it with private sector security contractors wouldn’t work so well at O’Hare. Run the Chicago Way by City Hall, the airport is the city’s main patronage magnet for insider contracts and payroll workers. Considering past contractor performance, I seriously question whether City Hall would find private contractors any more competent than those  who run the airport  coffee shops and other concessions.

Meanwhile, the TSA appears to be setting new records for the speed at which a new government agency has plunged into a bureaucratic swamp. Take its TSA PreCheck program that  is designed to move low-risk passengers on selected airlines more quickly by using express lanes leading to their own security station.

Maybe it was me, but I couldn’t find the PreCheck line at O’Hare while its was plainly visible at Dulles. More troubling was that while Barb and I are both registered PreCheck flyers, it wasn’t indicated on our boarding passes, as it was supposed to be. The only expedited lanes I saw at O’Hare was one that gave PreCheck passengers an open lane about half-way into the security line, where they waited like everyone else.

So, I later asked a United employee, didn’t my boarding pass indicated I was a PreCheck passenger (like the the Dulles boarding pass)? Oh, she said, the TSA is using some kind of system to randomly pick who would get the PreCheck treatment. Could be, although it doesn’t make any sense.

Why should anyone be surprised at this chaos? Flying has become more than a burden; it is a demeaning, confusing, inefficient and time-consuming death march. Cramped cabin seating, unexpected extra charges, unexplained flight delays, and at O’Hare–possibly the worst run airport in America. At some point, something’s got to give.

Meanwhile, you can express your anger by posting photos of your tortuous wait at #iHateTheWait.

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  • Was the line this bad when you were there?

  • It's hard to tell because the O'Hare line snaked back and forth over itself. Still, the line in the video (which I've added to the post above) could well be longer. It certainly is outrageous and indicative of (1) the difficulty of the task of screening everyone while adhering to the ideological mandate of "no profiling," (2) the general incompetence of government, (3) the danger of caving into organized labor's demands that TSA workers be unionized, and (4) the state of the airline industry itself, which has become a virtual predator feeding on its own customers.

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    As someone who is always on a plane, it is unfair for you to generalize about TSA or any airport for several reasons. Here are a few of them: 1) The airline makes a difference - fly American and you'll be checked-in in less than 10 minutes at O'Hare 2) pay attention to what time you fly, obviously there are peak flying hours that result in longer lines 3) TSA Precheck is something you have to apply for so that you always get it - don't assume that just because you had it in the past, you'll get it always 4) and this is probably the most important point I will make... passengers and their selfishness are what make lines long. If you have seen the things that I've seen, you'd understand that TSA does a great job and they are there to keep us safe, not cater to you as you go through security. If you have a problem with the process, then tell people to comply with the simple rules first and then see how quickly your experience will change. So next time you are in line at a security checkpoint, instead of complaining about a TSA agent, thank them for making sure you get where you need to go safe and sound

  • In reply to ILiveInAirports:

    (1) That's one reason why United is rated the lowest among the major airlines. (2) Sure, there are peak flying hours. So everyone should take the red eye? Maybe TSA or the airlines could help by telling us when is the best time to fly. (3) As I said, we are approved PreCheck flyers and for some odd reason (as I also said) the check showed up on my Dulles boarding pass, but not the one at O'Hare. (4) Yes, some passengers, because they are unfamiliar with TSA regulations, slow things down. But the vast majority don't. At O'Hare, each station didn't have enough room for people to take off their shoes, belts, etc. and fill those plastic containers. And TSA workers let the containers run out so people had to wait.

    Maybe TSA is doing a wondrous job considering the job they've been given. Maybe there's nothing to be done. As I said, I don't know whom to blame--the airlines, the airport or TSA. But the inescapable fact is that getting on an airplane has become a tedious, frustrating and anger provoking job. I'm trying to avoid it s much as I can.

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