Emails reveal blame game over long lines at MSP

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The long spring break lines at the airport may be over, but dozens of emails between TSA and the Metropolitan Airport Commission (MAC), provided to the FOX 9 Investigators, indicate the blame game could be just beginning. 

On March 1, Metropolitan Airports Commission Commissioner Rick King sent an email with a picture of a long line, and wrote:

"5:50am. Lines on both sides.  First view of our facility when you walk in the airport is this. While Pre-Check took only minutes, the regular line was taking 45 minutes. Several unmanned TSA lanes. The usual number of uniformed TSA people 'not screening' were there. This needs to be all hands on deck to fix before Spring Break.”

Commissioner Tim Geisler set off alarm bells on February 26, writing:

"We did not spend millions to have the ticketing lobby full of travelers trying to get thru security. We touted the consolidation as a fix to avoid such congestion.”

The airlines were also unhappy.  On February 26, an American Airlines representative emailed, writing: “Terrible morning… Missed 64 customers.”

The emails show TSA and MAC debated between telling passengers to arrive 90 minutes early for their flight, or two hours ahead.

The lines began at the end of February and stretched the length of ticketing, and led to up to 70-minute long wait times for passengers to get through TSA screening.  It was also the first trial run for a new $17 million dollar North Checkpoint, as six checkpoints were consolidated into just two larger checkpoints at the North and South end of ticketing. 

TSA’s top man at MSP, Federal Security Director Cliff VanLeuven was out of town as the lines became massive.  He said in an email that he planned an early spring break, but then had to take care of sick family member.  VanLeuven, who spearheaded the checkpoint re-design wrote by email:

"Not pretty - I agree. And not what we expected with the opening of the new checkpoint..."

Van Leuven goes on to detail various reason for the long lines.  Passenger volume was up 5 percent, and Van Leuven says he lost 60 to 90 screeners due to budget cuts over the last three years. 

But according to TSA’s own numbers, obtained by the Fox 9 Investigators, TSA was actually overstaffed at MSP with 654 screeners. 29 more than its 625 allocation.

Van Leuven also says the end of “managed inclusion,” in which random passengers were selected to enter the TSA Pre-Check line had caused some of the congestion.  TSA ended the practice in September 2015 because of security concerns. 

TSA promised Congress there years ago it could get 25 million passengers nationwide enrolled at a cost of$85, but currently have only 9 million. Passengers who have TSA Pre-Check don’t have to take off their shoes, and are processed at twice the speed of other passengers.

And yet, despite the lack of demand for TSA Pre-Check, during spring break, there were 4 to 10 Pre-Check lines open at MSP, when sources tell the FOX 9 Investigators, demand only required two.

A TSA spokesperson said Wednesday they routinely monitor wait times, and adjust Pre-Check accordingly, but they wouldn't provide Fox 9 with any wait time numbers.

TSA has been accused by whistleblowers of fudging those numbers in the past, and a spokesperson for MAC said they are working on an automated wait-time measurement so they have some independent data.

Eventually, Gov. Mark Dayton and Sen. Amy Klobuchar got involved as the long lines appeared to hit a crisis point. The head of TSA was dragged out from Washington, overtime was authorized, and canines brought in to speed things along.

With TSA’s Van Leuven out of town, his deputy, Dave McMahon took the brunt of the criticism.  When a MAC Commissioner suggested to the media that perhaps screening at MSP should be privatized, as it is at some other airports, including San Francisco.  In a March 5 email, McMahon shot back:

“I recognize that the tribune (Star Tribune) is going to pull what they want from statements made in interviews but this is extremely disappointing and shows no unity between MAC and TSA. The article blames us for building the checkpoint when I was told that it was initiated by MAC to free up lobby space. Commissioner Bovin’s statement about get the TSA out of here… this is about Customer Service is a lapse of memory to what TSA does Security.”

TSA’s McMahon goes on to say: ”I fear the lack of unity will cause other concerns.” McMahon ends the email, ”If I could recommend one thing that would be no more articles because it is not working."

In fact, the emails repeatedly show TSA’s concern with media coverage and bad press.

A spokesperson for MAC says the the consolidated checkpoint was part of a long term plan. The larger checkpoints allow for more efficient use of TSA staff, more space for passengers to collect their belongings, and allow the use of explosive detection canine units.  The decision to accelerate the timing for construction of the checkpoint was made jointly by TSA and MAC after a security checkpoint meltdown during spring break 2014.