TSA Women in Aviation: Karen Hanlon

Tuesday, September 22, 2020
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Editor’s Note: This story features a leading woman in aviation and is in recognition of Girls in Aviation Day on September 26 sponsored by Women in Aviation International. Through this story on Karen Hanlon, learn about her early motivation and passion for TSA’s mission.

Karen Hanlon, Department of Homeland Security/TSA attaché to Poland, finds herself in familiar territory – a career crossroad. With gratitude, she shares her singular journey and looks forward to her latest opportunity with TSA, proving she still earns her wings every day.

Who encouraged you to pursue a career in aviation?

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My parents were my role models. My mother was accepted to the American Airlines Flight Attendant Academy and my father was an engineer for General Electric, making significant contributions in jet engine manufacturing and spacecraft propulsion systems for NASA. My passion for aviation came after making many trips to the airport as a young girl to see my father off on another flight. I loved the excitement at Boston’s Logan International Airport and would spend hours watching the airplanes take off and land.  

Through their encouragement, I began my career in aviation in 1978 as a flight attendant for Eastern Airlines based in Miami, Florida, serving the Americas, Mexico, the Caribbean and the Bahamas. The position required a four-year college degree, and I was proud to be one in 100 selected. Upon graduation, the class voted me most likely to succeed to fulfill the airline’s slogan “We Have to Earn Our Wings Every Day.” 

How did your passion for aviation lead you to TSA?

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I held positions of increasing responsibility with Eastern Airlines and Northwest Airlines (NWA). Acting on the advice of a mentor, I made a career change in 1993 and worked in ground operations at NWA’s largest hubs, including Detroit and Memphis. 

In 2003, I earned a Master of Business Administration in international business from the University of Miami, and in 2005, I accepted a position with the International Air Transport Association (IATA) based in Montreal, Quebec. I served the airline industry at IATA by delivering global learning solutions at training centers worldwide.

IATA led me to TSA which allowed me to represent, lead and serve my country in aviation. In 2011, I was hired as the Deputy Federal Security Director (DFSD) under Federal Security Director Karen Burke at McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas and worked with a talented team of women to include Denver International Airport DFSD Anne Cross and Training Centers Division Director Barbara Schukraft.

Special thanks to Senior Liaison Officer to the U.S. Department of State Paul Fujimura, who gave me an opportunity to represent TSA in international operations, where my true passion lies, and to former Regional Directors Europe Dave Bassett and Bob Vente for their ongoing encouragement and support.  

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During my tenure at TSA, my contribution in Poland is one of three major capstone moments. In 2019, Poland and the U.S. celebrated 100 years of diplomatic relations, and Poland became the 39th country to join the Visa Waiver Program. It is with pride that I serve as the DHS attaché and TSA representative to the ambassador’s mission that faithfully fulfills the Administrator’s Intent to improve security operations through intelligence and information sharing with government partners.                                                                                                                          

As I begin my 43rd year in aviation and transportation security, I have accepted a new assignment as RD Western Hemisphere based in Miami, Florida. I am honored and humbled to serve TSA in this capacity. My journey has been a rewarding adventure, and through faith, family and friends, I will continue to earn my wings each and every day.