The blue uniforms TSA officers wear every day as they screen passengers and bags at more than 400 airports across the country are instantly recognizable. Over the last decade and a half, the true-blue uniforms have helped give TSA’s hardworking and dedicated officers the pride, authority and respect they deserve.
After TSA was created in the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the agency continuously refined screening processes to further enhance aviation security while improving the passenger experience, however, the evolution of officer uniforms lagged behind.
Fifteen years ago, on the seventh anniversary of 9/11, TSA unveiled the blue uniforms which are now familiar to anyone passing through an airport. The uniforms included a TSA patch featuring an eagle superimposed over part of the American flag with nine stars and 11 stripes representing 9/11. The uniforms also featured a gold metal shield badge to replace the previous cloth patch.
But in the early days of TSA, the agency had two other versions of uniforms officers were required to wear.
Standing up a new agency
Starting a new agency from the ground up was no easy task. The creation of TSA just 10 weeks after the 9/11 terrorist attacks that killed nearly 3,000 Americans marked the largest mobilization of the federal government since World War II. Outfitting 50,000 people in uniforms in a compressed timeframe was a monumental effort, accomplished by a dedicated team of professionals.
When President George W. Bush signed the Aviation and Transportation Security Act into law on November 19, 2001, it required screeners wear uniforms approved by the Under Secretary of Transportation. This mandate was critical to defining and identifying the first federalized security force safeguarding American airports.
Before 2001, airports outsourced security to private security companies. After 9/11, with the implementation of federal security screening, it was necessary for screeners to command respect and be easily identifiable in a crowd.
TSA’s inaugural uniforms
The first-generation uniforms (1G) for security screeners were designed, developed and issued in 2002 and intended as an interim solution for the requirement to wear uniforms.
The 1G uniforms consisted of a white shirt and navy blue trousers. Typical accessories included a black leather belt, a burgundy sweater vest, a striped tie and a one-line nameplate. Black shoes and socks were a required part of the uniform.
1G shirts featured Department of Transportation (DOT) emblems on both shoulders, a gold TSA cloth badge above the left chest pocket and “TSA” in block letters with navy blue thread on the back of the shirt. The lettering was meant to ensure that a screener could be easily identified.
Not everyone was happy with the uniform TSA officers had to wear at the agency’s outset.
“The first uniforms made us look like mall cops,” said Wayne Carey, now a Writer/Editor with Strategic Communications & Public Affairs, who started working at TSA in 2002 and chaired the first National Advisory Council (NAC) from 2005 to 2007. “We wanted to be approachable and respected. We were federal officers and needed uniforms that projected authority, with real badges.”
TSA’s Second-Generation Uniforms
On October 9, 2003, TSA convened a uniform advisory board to recommend changes to the 1G uniforms. Representatives from headquarters, area staffs, screeners and the uniform vendor participated. The board agreed on a variety of changes to the screener uniform, and in 2004, TSA rolled out the changes.
The 2G uniforms added law enforcement-style shoulder boards to better distinguish supervisors from screeners. TSA upgraded the cloth chest badges to show more detail and added the DHS logo, enhancing the uniform’s professional appearance. The “TSA” emblem on the back of the shirt was embroidered in block letters that were about twice the size of the original letters.
TSA replaced the original DOT cloth emblems with DHS emblems because of the transfer of TSA from DOT to DHS.
On November 9, 2005, TSA reclassified the agency’s screeners as transportation security officers (TSOs). The new classification acknowledged the judgment and skills required to be a TSO and the standards to which TSA holds its workforce, and was the impetus that drove new uniforms.
Employee-led uniform change
While improvements were made for the comfort and duriabily of the unforms, TSOs agreed the 2G uniforms did not evoke the professional image they wanted and deserved.
Third time’s the charm
For the 3G unifom, TSA replaced the white shirts with royal blue and replaced the DHS patch on the left sleeve with a new “team spirit” patch featuring an eagle over the American flag with nine stars and 11 stripes representing 9/11.
Gold metal shield badges were put in place of cloth chest badges. The design included two blue enamel ribbons surrounding a DHS/TSA seal, centered on the shield. The top ribbon read “Officer” and the bottom said “Transportation Security Administration.”
Justin Testerman also started working at TSA in 2002 as a member of the mobile screening force, first at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York and at several other airports before becoming an TSA supervisor in Tucson, Arizona. He is now a regional desk officer with international operations. Testerman said despite the original uniforms’ problems, they got the job done.
Testerman said accomplishing TSA’s mission trumped any issues with the uniforms.
“I know a lot of folks didn’t enjoy the first uniforms,” Testerman said. “They didn’t particularly care for the color. They didn’t care for the materials.”
“I was less concerned about that,” he added. “What it meant to me to wear that uniform…there was a certain kind of authority and capability and a sense of relief when you dealt with air carriers and passengers. They could instantly recognize we were now improving security at their airport. And you could tell they actually felt better about getting on those aircraft.”
Finally getting the blue uniforms, with all the employee-designed improvements, helped provide officers a sense of pride and respect that remains to this day.
“When you looked at yourself in the uniform in the mirror, it just looked sharp. It kind of imbued a little more authority and gravitas,” Testerman noted.
“You truly felt like you were a federal officer now with that shield, standing there carrying out that mission. And when you looked around at the checkpoint as a supervisor, you just saw a sea of blue. It felt great. You could see everybody. And when a passenger walked up, the blue was more calming visually. It just worked really, really well to cement our position and our authority.”
By Angela Drehobl, TSA Historian Program, and Mike Frandsen, TSA Strategic Communications & Public Affairs