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Long waits in TSA security lines across the country, but short lines are in Houston. The reason is tough to pin down. (KTRK)

Be happy, Houston fliers.

Almost everyone leaving from Bush Intercontinental gets through Transportation Security Administration checkpoints in less than 10 minutes, records obtained by Ted Oberg Investigates show.

It's a contrast to the long delays seen by passengers at the Atlanta airport.

At O'Hare in Chicago.

And at the Los Angeles International Airport.

At Bush at the Terminal C TSA checkpoint for example, 99 percent of passengers got through security in under 10 minutes, according to data collected by the Houston Airport System. In Terminal A, the number of passengers who get through security at Terminal A get through in under 10 minutes hovers around 96 percent.

"It's not too bad," said frequent flier Ryan Crochet. "It's better than O'Hare."
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Long waits in TSA security lines across the country, but short lines are in Houston. The reason is tough to pin down.

Ted Oberg Investigates timed Crochet, a non-PreCheck passenger. It took him 10 minutes and 12 seconds from the start of the security line to the time he was putting his shoes back on.

Hobby Airport figures were not available.

In a counterintuitive twist, the airport's numbers also show minor security slowdowns mid-week and on weekends, which are traditionally off-peak times.

Across the nation, the TSA has been the target of a cacophony of criticism from the public this month.

In response, TSA chief Peter Neffenger replaced the agency's top security official this week and and ordered a new group of administrators to oversee security at Chicago's O'Hare International. And Neffenger said Wednesday that he was hoping to ease wait times by promoting screeners from part-time to full-time, reassigning hundreds of behavioral detection officers to help on security lines and shifting bomb-detection dog teams to larger airports.

Houston's Bush has avoided many of the complaints.

Pat Bodin, a Houston resident headed to Bush's Terminal C security checkpoint to catch her plane to Madrid, Spain, told abc13 she flies once or twice a month. She seldom sees lines, she said.

"For some reason at Intercontinental it's no issue," she said. "I haven't seen a real problem."

So why so many problems with security wait times at other major airports when Houston's Bush is doing fine?

The exact reason is hard to pin down.

Some of the longest waits are at airports that funnel fliers through just a few checkpoints.

Bush has seven security checkpoint areas.

Some point to an increased number of passengers.

Houston's passenger count is up this spring. It's just half the national average. Most large airports are seeing a bigger passenger surge.

The TSA union blames a lack of funding for more agents for the delays.

"The Transportation Security Administration currently has about 42,000 officers on the job, down from 47,000 in 2013. At the same time, the volume of passengers has risen 15 percent, from 643 million to 740 million," said TSA union brass in a statement released earlier this month.

But the TSA team at Bush has seen a decline in agents, too. And the airport is not the worse for it.

"From a local perspective we do a very, very good job," Houston-based TSA Federal Security Director Gerry Phelan told Ted Oberg Investigates. "We've been able to manage it. It's about knowing the population that's going to come through that front door and staffing appropriately."

He did, though, raise questions about the Houston airport's claim of mostly 10-minute security lines.

"We're not at 99 percent. Less than 10 minutes? Probably 80-plus percent overall," Phelan said. "We have some areas that exceed that and some areas that don't."

Houston airport officials said they get their numbers by timing select passengers going through the airport's security lines.

Digging into the Houston Airport System's wait time data, abc13 found Terminal C's South checkpoint was a little faster than the Terminal C North gate so-called 'premier' travelers are allowed to use. But the laggard has been Terminal D, which for years has been a problem spot. TSA says in its most recent full week Terminal D reported the longest wait time at 63 minutes.

Phelan did note that long wait times such as the one at Terminal D are "experienced very rarely" at the airport.

Still, getting a true comparison between Houston and O'Hare or Los Angeles, or even between Dallas or Austin is practically impossible.

The TSA's Neffenger said the TSA was planning to release an app next month that would provide wait times at America's busiest airport.

TSA officials in Washington D.C. said they would not provide detailed wait times by airport. Instead, they suggested abc13 send them an open records request through the federal Freedom of Information Act.

A quick response is unlikely.

A recent study by MuckRack, an organization designed to push transparency in government, found that out of 907 FOIA requests filed, only about 42 percent are completed on time and 27 percent are still without response the first three months.

Five percent wait a year or more.

A recent FOIA request made by abc13 to the TSA. The TSA took two-and-a-half years to respond and the response was all but useless. Of the around 1,000 pages of documents abc13 received from the TSA, 887 of the pages were blacked out.

Regardless, getting out of Houston might be easy, but there could be long waits trying to get back.

And there will certainly be longer security lines in Houston over Memorial Day weekend, Phelan said.

"We're anticipating and are preparing for that initial blast in the mornings on Friday and Saturday and in the afternoons as well," he said. "I anticipate there's going to be a wait. Our models show there is going to be a wait. I think, frankly, most folks know there is going to be a wait."

He asked the public that keeping prohibited items at home will help keep the lines moving.

"Guns, other prohibited carry-on items create a bottleneck," Phelan said.

Phelan also asked passengers not to get frustrated if they see a security gate and X-ray machine not being used.

"When you see an X-ray that's not being manned, that's because I know it's not a peak time and that resource is somewhere else," he said.

The other issue that Phelan noted about wait times also gives a glimpse into why the TSA may not have quickly addressed wait times nationally: The TSA's goal is safety, not quickly moving security lines.

"The barometer of success is that you get through safely and you get to your destination safely," Phelan said. "I want people to get through safe and sound so that everybody gets to enjoy that vacation. That's the barometer that I like to use."

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Ted Oberg Investigates
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