House security panel grills TSA chief over exec bonuses, delays at U.S. airports

“This is not a new rodeo. Why didn’t we see this coming?” Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, asked at Wednesday's hearing.
By Doug G. Ware  |  May 25, 2016 at 8:06 PM
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WASHINGTON, May 25 (UPI) -- Facing questions over lofty cash bonuses given to agency executives and long lines at airports nationwide at the start of the busy summer travel season, U.S. Transportation Security Administration Administrator Peter Neffenger tried to provide some explanation for a House committee Wednesday.

Neffenger testified before the House Homeland Security Committee, which convened to address issues related to the federal transportation agency.

The hearing came amid major delays at many U.S. airports, where hundreds of passengers have been missing their flights in recent weeks due to excessive security lines.

"This is not a new rodeo. Why didn't we see this coming?" Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, asked.

Neffenger responded by saying air travel has recently been busier than the TSA expected and his agency is short-staffed. Federal officials estimate that nearly 100 million additional passengers will travel by airplane in 2016 than did last year.

"We are at a lower staffing level than we need to be to address peak demand," Neffenger said.

The TSA said it has about 2,200 fewer screeners working at U.S. airports than it had in 2013. Neffenger told lawmakers that the hiring of nearly 800 additional screeners, authorized by Congress, is underway and would be in place next month.

The committee also grilled Neffenger for citing staffing needs when the agency had paid out substantial bonuses to agency executives -- in particular, Asst. Administrator for the Office of Security Operations Kelly Hoggan, who reportedly received $90,000 in bonuses over a 13-month period starting in 2013, a time the agency was under intense pressure for continuing to fail security tests.

Hoggan was replaced by Neffenger Monday in a staff shakeup that also provided a new team of administrators at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, which is experiencing some of the nation's longest delays.

A hearing by the House Oversight Committee on May 12 had questioned why Hoggan was receiving the bonuses, reportedly paid out in increments of $10,000, when security operations were not improving.

"Those bonuses were given to somebody who oversees a part of the operation that was in total failure," House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, said at the hearing.

Neffenger said the bonuses were given before he became TSA chief last July, and that he stopped the practice upon his arrival. He also added that Hoggan is on paid administrative leave.

Several major U.S. airports are reportedly considering a switch to private security agencies -- and nearly two dozen, including San Francisco's, have already done so under the TSA's Screening Partnership Program.

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