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To Shorten Long Security Lines, Union Calls For More TSA Screeners

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Travel this spring has brought long waits in airport security lines - so long airlines report tens of thousands of people have missed their flights after getting stuck in extra-long security lines. Here are the voices of some travelers who made their flights into Washington, D.C.

DUSTIN RANDALL: Dustin Randall (ph) - we flew in from Honolulu, Hawaii. The lines were pretty long. It probably took us an hour and a half to get through. Everyone was very frustrated. And a lot of people were trying to jump the lines.

CHERYL TUPPA: My name is Cheryl Tuppa (ph). Chicago the other week was a nightmare. People who were waiting in line for two hours were missing their flights. So it's a nightmare.

BRITTANY ROBINSON: My name is Brittany Robinson (ph). I flew in from St. Louis. There weren't very many agents working. But the line was really, really long.

MONTAGNE: Doesn't make you want to fly. Now, the union that represents airport security agents is calling for emergency funding to hire more scanners - screeners. J. David Cox is president of that union. Good morning.

J. DAVID COX: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Now, 6,000 new screeners - that sounds pretty expensive. What kind of money are you talking about here?

COX: Well, Renee, first off, let's talk about the fact that 6,000 screeners would only put us back to the level that TSA was at in 2011.

MONTAGNE: And that - those 6,000 screeners disappeared because of what?

COX: Disappeared because Congress took the money that passengers pay on the airline tickets and used that money for other purposes instead of funding TSA. Each one of us - every time you and I or any person purchases an airline ticket, there's a fee on that ticket. That money goes to fund TSA.

The Congress of the United States made a decision to divert monies from that pot over to do other things instead of hiring more transportation security officers.

MONTAGNE: As it turns out, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson says TSA hopes to have nearly 800 new security officers in place by mid-June - quite a big gap between what you say are needed and what you seem to be getting.

COX: Well - but the 800 is definitely a start, obviously. The second fix is hiring the 6,000 new officers and then to continue to hire officers on an ongoing basis. The turnover in TSA - it's the highest turnover of any government agency in the country. Last year, they had over 4,000 agents to leave and only replaced 300 of them.

MONTAGNE: Why is that?

COX: These are some of the lowest-paid federal employees throughout the country. Many of them are hired as part-time, only 20 hours a week. It ranks as one of the lowest-morale agencies in the federal government.

So when we look at those type things, we believe it is time to hire more staff. It is time to treat those employees as we treat all other federal employees. And we would certainly see a great deal of improvement in any of those situations.

MONTAGNE: Well, of course, it's not a good thing to hear for anyone flying - for the passengers - to think that the group of security people who are hopefully there to protect everyone - their morale is low.

COX: And that's exactly right. And I say very clearly that is the fault of the Congress, who, number one, has taken the money the American public pays to provide safety. They've taken that money for other purposes. And I certainly think the American public needs to be reminding Congress of their responsibility to allocate the monies appropriately that we are paying as taxpayers.

MONTAGNE: J. David Cox is president of the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents TSA screeners. Thank you very much for talking to us.

COX: Thank you so much, Renee. It was great being with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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