O'HARE — If you know anyone who's flown out of either of Chicago's airports in the past month, you've probably heard the horror stories.
All across the country, infuriated passengers are packing into hours-long security lines, with nowhere to turn but social media to air their grievances.
At O'Hare Airport, the second-busiest in the nation, the sprawling terminals are bursting with crowds as far as the eye can see.
Because of so many people missing their flights, cots had to be set up Sunday night.
At Midway, meanwhile, the crowds are stretching even farther than that.
So, who has visited this travel hell upon Chicago? And what's being done about it? Here's what you need to know.
Why are airport lines so long right now?
The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) says it doesn't have enough staff to meet the demand for flyers. The reason for that, though, depends on whom you ask.
TSA officials put the brunt of the blame on increased demand.
"Our strong economy means air carriers are enjoying record travel volume," a TSA statement reads, "which is resulting in heavier than normal volumes of travelers at our nation’s airports — some with double digit increases over last summer."
But the New York Times reported earlier this month that the TSA actually cut about 10 percent of its screeners on the expectation that more passengers would sign up for TSA PreCheck, an expedited security program.
Crain's Chicago Business reported that at O'Hare there were 1,932 full and part time TSA staffers last year; that's down from 2,045 two years ago, even as the number of passengers has grown by 15 percent. At Midway, TSA had 471 employees last year, fewer than in 2013 and 2014. Use has grown there, too.
Congress has agreed to use $34 million to hire 800 more TSA officers and pay for overtime for this summer. But the officer's union says the nation's airport security system needs 6,000 more screeners.
What is TSA PreCheck? Can I use it to skip the lines?
In 2011, the TSA introduced PreCheck as a way for frequent flyers to keep their shoes on, bring liquids on board and breeze through traditional metal detectors. Passengers can apply by paying $50-$100 — depending on the airport and airline — and scheduling a short security interview at an airport or government office. The pass lasts about five years before it needs to be renewed.
When it comes to Chicago airports, though, passengers can't always depend on PreCheck as an option. It's offered for most airlines, but not all of them. And PreCheck lanes close between 6 p.m. and 8 p.m., depending on the terminal.
Check out the full timetable at the Chicago Department of Aviation's website.
Is the TSA doing anything to bring down wait times?
TSA officials say they're trying to hire an extra 768 officials by June 15, so they can temper the worst of the crowds by the time summer heats up. Those new screeners weren't supposed to join the ranks until September, but the agency is expediting hiring and boosting overtime pay thanks in part to a $34 million advance from Congress.
Can't the airports do something?
Here in Chicago, city officials are vowing to "explore every possible option" to reduce wait times, Chicago Department of Aviation spokesman Owen Kilmer said in an email. So far, he said, that's meant offering up extra canine units to expedite screening and delivering temporary cots to passengers whose flight delays or cancelations keep them stuck in the terminal overnight.
In New York, the airport authority there has sent a letter to the TSA demanding the problem be fixed, saying the situation could force people to abandon air travel. "The patience of the flying public has reached its breaking point," the authority wrote.
What are airlines doing?
The crowds have been "very frustrating" for airlines, too, American Airlines spokeswoman Leslie Scott told DNAinfo Monday.
American Airlines, which employs 9,000 people at O'Hare alone, has been repeatedly delaying flights to accommodate flyers held up in long lines. On Sunday, Scott said, the airline delayed 30 of its flights from Chicago.
"We've had planes missing 50 passengers at departure time, which in some cases is up to half the flight," she said. "So in a lot of times we have no choice to delay, which will cascade onto other future flights."
The airline is also freeing up personnel to help out the TSA at security checkpoints, Scott said.
An industry trade group, Airlines for America, has launched www.hatetowaitapp.com to pressure the TSA. The site allows people to vent and the campaign is "raising awareness of the issue and serving as crowd-sourced (wait time) information," a spokeswoman told USA Today.
Should I feel sorry for the TSA officers?
Maybe. It's stressful to deal with angry people all day.
On the I Love TSA Facebook page, officers describe what being an officer is like.
Posted one: "Say what you will about TSA, but we officers on the front lines are doing the best we can with what we are given. While verbally abused and disrespected on a daily basis we continue to believe in the mission and have our hearts in the right place. If given the chance would you walk a day in our shoes?"
Salaries range from $31,500 to $45,000 plus overtime.
What can I do about it?
There's only one surefire solution all transportation agencies agree on, and it's not what anyone wants to hear: get to the airport very, very early.
TSA and airline officials both recommend arriving two hours early for domestic fights and three hours early for international flights. But such long waits have been reported, especially at Midway, that even that may not be enough time.
For advance warning on how long their lines will stretch, passengers can turn to smartphone apps like MiFlight, which track wait times at airports around the country.
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