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Will long airport lines end? TODAY asks TSA chief Peter Neffenger to 'give it to us straight'

Amid fierce criticism over long lines at airports, TSA chief Peter Neffenger defended his agency.
/ Source: TODAY

Amid fierce criticism over long lines at airports, TSA Administrator Peter Neffenger defended his agency — but also suggested the delays may continue through the summer — during an exclusive interview with TODAY’s Matt Lauer and Savannah Guthrie.

Neffenger failed to directly address whether passengers will still need to head to the airport two to three hours before their flight takes off. "We’re going to see record travel going this summer again," he said.

But Neffenger insisted most airports are in good shape. "It’s really the top 20 airports where you see the biggest challenge. And we’re putting a lot of resources into those airports," he said.

Neffenger’s beleaguered agency has been under fire for increasingly long airport security lines that have caused tens of thousands of passengers to miss flights this year. He testified about the issue Wednesday before the House Homeland Security Committee. The hearing came days before the Memorial Day weekend, the start of the busy summer travel season.

Earlier this week, the TSA replaced its top security official, Kelly Hoggan, after a hearing by a separate congressional committee raised concerns about screening efficiency. Hoggan received more than $90,000 in bonuses yet his team of screeners failed to discover fake explosives and weapons smuggled through checkpoints 95 percent of the time in dozens of covert tests.

The agency has scrambled to make improvements, but remains thousands of security officers short and faces a record number of passengers moving through the nation’s airports. Neffenger said nearly 100 million more people are expected to pass through screening checkpoints this year than it did in 2013, even though its workforce has been reduced by 12 percent over the same time period.

On TODAY, Neffenger dismissed the idea that airport security could be streamlined if a private company took over the process for federal TSA workers.

“The security of this nation is a federal responsibility,” he said. “No matter how you do it, you need federal oversight of the system to ensure consistency and ensure high standards.”

He pointed out that airports currently are allowed to request assistance from private contractors but those vendors are still accountable to the TSA.

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Neffenger also acknowledged that bumping up pay for TSA screeners, who on average make about $30,000 a year, could help with retention problems.

“I’d like to see pay and benefits reform across the whole system,” he said.

Asked whether eliminating costly baggage fees could help shorten lines, Neffenger demurred.

“I don’t know that there’s a direct correlation between that, but I do know that there’s a direct correlation between people carrying prohibited items through checkpoint and slowing down the checkpoint,” he said.

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