The TSA Workforce Has Adapted to the Changing Threat Environment, Remains Steadfast and Committed to Securing the Nation’s Transportation Systems

Thursday, October 27, 2022

The article published by The Verge on August 31, 2022, and the follow-on podcast coverage by Apple News, lacked input from the TSA and contained outdated or misleading scenarios and information.

Over the last 20 years, the TSA workforce has been a professional, highly skilled, and dedicated workforce of approximately 60,000 people, including frontline Transportation Security Officers (TSOs), Federal Air Marshals, inspectors, cybersecurity experts, canine handlers, and intelligence and vetting professionals. They bring commitment and dedication to work every day to protect the nation’s transportation systems from emerging threats to ensure the freedom of movement for people and goods.

Changing Threat Landscape:

TSA was created 20 years ago after 9/11 to protect the nation’s transportation systems. Today, we are an agile agency, driving technological innovation and implementing airport security solutions and technologies throughout the nation’s 400+ airports. Unfortunately, the premise of the originating Verge article is based on the notion that 9/11 is merely an historical occurrence, and there is no need for continued physical security efforts in transportation security. This ignores the need to protect the United States from a range of persistent threats to our transportation network.

The threat environment today is much different than it was prior to 9/11. TSA’s mandate is not only to mitigate the threats of today but to preempt evolving threats as our adversaries continue to adapt and evolve their tactics and methods. From the 1960s through 9/11, Americans routinely witnessed hijackers using planes as weapons by taking over jetliners with concealed firearms and explosives. Since 9/11, there have been no hijacked American airliners and TSA has stopped tens of thousands of firearms and other potentially threatening items from being brought aboard aircraft. Today, TSA faces new and extremely sophisticated threats from state and non-state actors, ranging from cyberattacks to concerns about careless or hostile drone operators.

TSA maintains its focus on sophisticated plots and large-scale attacks, as well as on emerging threats, which could come from domestic violent extremists and those who work inside the transportation system. The threat landscape has grown more complicated over the years, and we continue to face adversaries who are intent on finding a point of vulnerability to exploit.

Mr. Campbell asserts that security is primarily dependent on partner intelligence agencies. This statement ignores the fact that TSA also has its own intelligence capability focused on transportation and works closely with transportation, law enforcement, and other intelligence partners to secure transportation and protect people.  

TSA may be best known for aviation security screening at airport checkpoints, but it plays a key role in protecting the Nation’s surface transportation networks – mass transit and passenger rail, freight rail, highway and motor carrier, pipeline, and maritime. For example, following a recent ransomware incident on a pipeline, TSA helped lead the Department of Homeland Security’s efforts to improve baseline cybersecurity requirements for the pipeline sector through the introduction of performance-based standards to increase cybersecurity resilience within the transportation network.

Regarding Transportation Security Officers:

Mr. Campbell made some good points about our TSOs, and TSA agrees that they are underpaid, overworked and treated poorly for the essential task they perform. In fact, assaults against TSOs occur far too frequently, and we are grateful that our partners in the U.S. Attorney’s Office prosecute those assaults as a federal offense. Our TSOs represent the backbone of the agency and are members of the local communities in which they serve. They stand every day on the frontline of the transportation network, and do so with 30% less pay than at counterpart agencies. All TSOs attend a two-phase training academy with nearly 200 hours of training, during which they learn the fundamentals of every checkpoint position. TSA has continually expanded this training to address the evolving threat, and will add 40 more hours of basic training in 2023. As professionals, these officers employ experience, discretion and teamwork to identify threats to transportation security, screen for prohibited items and keep them from entering secure areas. They are continually tested to maintain and improve those skills.

So far in 2022, TSA has screened more than 550 million airline passengers as well as their checked and carry-on items. In the same time, TSA has stopped more than 4,500 firearms and other prohibited items from entering the passenger cabins of commercial aircraft. An overwhelming majority of those firearms, about 86%, were loaded. TSA also screens for explosives and items that could pose a security risk to our nation’s transportation network.

Regarding Pay Equity:

President Biden included funding to provide pay equity for the TSA workforce in the FY23 President’s budget request, which would bring TSA employees on equal footing with their government counterparts.  Pay equity is a critical element in recruiting and retaining our frontline officers, and providing for pay equity remains a priority for Administrator Pekoske. We are waiting on Congress to appropriate the funds.

Regarding Gender and Racial Discrimination:

TSA announced this year new standards for screening transgender, non-binary, and gender-nonconforming airline passengers at TSA checkpoints to improve the screening experience for all passengers, which were not reflected in the interview with Mr. Campbell. In December, President Biden issued an Executive Order on Transforming Federal Customer Experience and Service Delivery to Rebuild Trust in Government. As part of that order, TSA is testing the use of innovative technologies that enhance security and improve passenger experience and providing new ways for passengers to communicate with TSA officials with questions and to provide feedback.

First, we identified an opportunity to improve the Advanced Imaging Technology (AIT) units in airport checkpoints. TSA is working with the manufacturer on an algorithm update that increases accuracy and efficiency. By replacing the current, gender-based AIT system, this new, more accurate technology will also advance the customer experience of travelers who previously have been required to undergo additional screening due to alarms in sensitive areas.

No one likes pat downs, and TSA has taken steps to reduce this number without compromising security. We updated our Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) for TSOs to permit less invasive screening procedures for certain passengers who trigger the AIT scanner in a sensitive area. The change reduced pat downs for TSOs and the traveling public without compromising security.

In February 2022, TSA updated its checkpoint SOP to remove gender considerations when validating a traveler’s identification at airport security checkpoints. When travelers appear at the travel document checker podium for identity verification, gender information is no longer used in determining that a traveler may proceed into the screening area.

In July, the TSA announced the implementation of a new gender option for the TSA PreCheck® application process. The TSA PreCheck program application has been updated to include an additional gender marker option to better serve non-binary and gender non-conforming travelers. This action will ensure the TSA PreCheck system accurately reflects traveler gender. As of April 2022, TSA has allowed TSA PreCheck applicants to select their gender based on self-attestation, regardless of the sex assigned at birth. TSA remains committed to ensuring all travelers are treated with respect and dignity. This new TSA PreCheck enrollment feature reaffirms our commitment to equality and inclusion for all people, including the LGBTQIA+ community.

Travelers with questions regarding airport security screening procedures may send a message via Facebook or Twitter to @AskTSA for live assistance from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. ET on weekdays or 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. ET on weekends. Individuals who require screening assistance due to a disability, medical condition or other special circumstance may contact TSA Cares at least 72 hours in advance of their flight by calling (855) 787-2227.

Regarding Technology and the Future of Screening and Vetting

The introduction of new technologies has played a significant role in how airport security has evolved over the past 20 years in partnership with the aviation industry. TSA strives to remain the recognized global leader of transportation security by focusing on capability innovation based on evolving threats. TSA has implemented several technologies and enhancements not mentioned in the Verge article. These key technologies include:

  • Computed Tomography, or CT, which produces high-quality 3-D images that can be rotated up to 360 degrees on three axes for a more thorough visual analysis of a carry-on bag’s contents. It also reduces the need to touch or manually check bags.
  • Credential Authentication Technology, or CAT, machines automatically verify identification documents presented by passengers during the security screening process and confirm a passenger’s flight information and vetting status without the need for our officers to see a boarding pass. TSA has worked to modify CAT machines to allow self-service operation, so passengers can scan their own photo ID without our Officers touching the document.
  • Advanced Imaging Technology, or AIT, safely screens passengers for both metallic and non-metallic threats such as weapons and explosives without physical contact.  Enhancements have reduced the number of false alarms at the checkpoint by using even more sophisticated millimeter wave technology.

TSA has also invested in biometric technology, which adds an important layer to our security procedures. Biometrics are a powerful tool, improving, for example, identity verification performance, and TSA is employing biometric technology carefully to safeguard passenger privacy. TSA’s CAT-2 uses facial matching technology that compares the live image of a passenger with the image on the passenger’s photo ID, never stores biometric information, and any information captured for one passenger is deleted by the time the next passenger approaches. Maintaining passenger dignity is an agency priority and new technologies, like CAT-2, should enhance both transportation security and the passenger experience.

Digital credentials, such as mobile driver’s licenses (mDL) and digital passports, are becoming increasingly common. Working with Apple, TSA began testing the acceptance of mDL in participating states early this year, starting at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. Mobile driver’s license technology can enable a more seamless airport security screening experience for travelers. TSA is working with industry and the public to find innovative ways mobile driver’s licenses can facilitate easier and faster transit through TSA checkpoints. TSA is constantly pursuing innovative solutions that allow us to improve identity management while ensuring privacy and mitigating potential risks that these new technologies may introduce.

TSA screens more than two million passengers daily through TSA’s Secure Flight passenger vetting system, introduced in 2009. TSA’s airport screening process is intelligence-driven and applies a risk-based strategy that establishes security practices to expedite screening for known and trusted travelers at security checkpoints while focusing resources on higher-risk and unknown passengers.

TSA’s security strategy also includes other vetting activities. To address risks associated with Insider Threats, TSA vets more than 25 million transportation workers daily against the Terrorist Watchlist, including airport workers, airline flight crewmembers, mariners, commercial drivers who haul hazardous materials, and cargo screeners and handlers. TSA also vets students who enroll in training through FAA-certified flight training providers and the entire Airman Registry against changes or updates to the Terrorist Watchlist. To improve the vetting process, TSA has implemented the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) recurrent criminal history vetting service known as “Rap Back” to provide near real-time updates to an aviation worker’s criminal history, representing a significant improvement to threat mitigation. With all of our screening and vetting programs, we work to ensure that there are appropriate redress mechanisms in place to ensure the protection of travelers’ civil rights and liberties.

TSA also works closely with its international partners to share best practices, techniques, and technologies, to collaborate and facilitate measures to harmonize mutual aviation security goals for the safety of travelers. Air cargo is today more secure than it has ever been with 100 percent of cargo screened or secured on flights departing U.S. airports to international locations, consistent with the International Civil Aviation Organization’s (ICAO’s) updated standards. TSA also established the Third-Party Canine-Cargo (3PK9-C) program to enhance the screening of air cargo by leveraging the capabilities of third-party explosives detection canine teams. In other modes of public transportation, TSA works to advise, credential, monitor, evaluate and improve the security baseline across air carriers, general aviation, pipelines, highways, railroads, and maritime vessels.

As an organization built on agility, TSA is building a culture of innovation and remains focused on staying ahead of emerging threats with evolving technologies and procedures to ensure all airline travelers reach their destinations safely.