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Transportation Security Administration

Remarks at the ACI-NA Public Safety and Security Fall Conference

Administrator David P. Pekoske
Arlington, Va.
Tuesday, October 17, 2017
As Delivered

Edited for clarity

It’s great to be here with you this morning. Our TSA office is literally right across the street, so it was a joy just to be able to walk across the street for a change. I really appreciate the opportunity and the invitation of Kevin Burke and Chris Bidwell to talk with you this morning.

Partnerships

I’ve been the TSA Administrator for about two months now, so I’m very much still on the learning curve, and I’ve been travelling all about the United States and internationally to get a good feel for how the TSA operations proceed and then how our partners proceed with us. And I think at the very beginning of my remarks, and Kevin already mentioned it, I would just like to thank you for your support over the course of the summer months. This summer was incredibly busy. In fact, we had record days of passenger travel through airports. All told, between Memorial and Labor Day, we had 240 million passengers that passed through screening.

What I tell my TSA team, when I talk with them at town hall meetings, is that inside the U.S. federal government, TSA in my view – unless somebody has another example which I haven’t heard yet – typically interacts with 2.4 million passengers every single day in this country. That’s 2.4 million people not just seeing one transportation security officer, but seeing several individuals. And so I emphasize to them a couple things. One is that at the checkpoint they are, in some ways, the last line of defense for the security of air travel in this country and in route to international destinations. The other thing is that they set the tone for a passenger’s experience in an airport.

And believe it or not, I’m a TSA Administrator who focuses on passenger experience. I think it’s a key part of what we need to keep in mind as we work together. But one of the things that I’ve seen as I’ve gone around the country is the tremendous partnership that we have with airports, so I want at the very beginning of my remarks to thank you for that partnership and just to bell ring the fact that we couldn’t have processed 240 million passengers successfully over the course of the summer without your support and the airlines’ support – and we greatly appreciate that.

The other thing from my perspective is, particularly in this digital age, I don’t think anything can replace face-to-face contact. You’re going to get a feel for me over the course of the morning both when I speak in these remarks and when we have some Q and A. So you get a sense for my personality and how I approach the job going forward, and I think that face-to-face contact is critically important and one of the great ways to keep the lines of communication open. I think that we will all succeed if we can have a dialogue and we can be frank and honest with each other going forward, and so I will endeavor certainly, to do my part with that and I know you will too.

Security

Well let me say up-front a couple things from my perspective with regard to TSA. TSA as you know is the Transportation Security Administration, emphasis on “S” in security, and so the absolute priority of TSA is security. I approach everything I do in this job with security as a priority because the way I look at it is if we don’t do our job in security, then we may as well not be there, and that certainly won’t make air travel safe and secure going forward.

When I have town hall meetings with the transportation security officers at your airports, I say to them two things. One, is that I want them to do their security job. They are paid to follow the standard operating procedures that we have. They are paid to use some level of discretion and to do their job and provide the security that they are in place to provide. What I tell them at the front lines of the checkpoint is I do not want them worrying about wait times. That’s not the job of folks conducting the screening – that’s the job of the management of TSA. So everybody behind the checkpoint, the transportation security managers, all the way up to the federal security director and then up to headquarters, our job is to make sure that those airports are resourced properly. But I do not want transportation security officers to feel like they have to rush a process because there’s a long line there. And we have processes in place that I think have been successful over the course of the last couple years to make sure we have the resources in the right spot.

The other thing that I say, I think one of the reasons why Coast Guard officers are superb candidates to be TSA Administrators, and I’m biased that way, is that in the Coast Guard, we always view – when we have a security mission of course – part of our job is to facilitate the flow of commerce in this country and to support the economy of the United States. And so, as I look at my job, I want you to know that I think facilitation of the flow of passengers through airports is a priority for us and enhancing the passenger experience, to the extent we can do that – and you say to some passengers, I am TSA, I am here to enhance your experience, and they have a whole different view of what that might be – but for me it’s that they encounter a professional team at the checkpoint that expeditiously processes them through security, and then when they go and sit on that aircraft ready to take off for their flight, they have a trust that we’ve done our job adequately and that that flight will be safe. In addition, the work of the Federal Aviation Administration makes sure that it’s safe and secure. So TSA has a security role, and FAA has a safety role, but I’ve always viewed safety and security as two sides of the same coin if you will. If you have one, you generally get the other.

Workforce

I spent a good part of probably three weeks total travelling around the country in the hurricane-impacted areas, first in Houston, then into Florida, and then Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. And you know I had lots of conversations at airports with employees who were impacted by the storms, and the reason why I made all that travel was I firmly believe that I’m effective in my job if I get out and about and see what’s really going on at the point of service delivery. I’m always concerned about the well-being of our employees, so I travel to reinforce my support for our employees and to make sure that they have everything they need to be successful when disaster strikes. There’s a lot of things that we do for our employees to make sure they are able to recover, and I also travel to make sure that the entire system is geared towards helping them out. And so I’ve had a lot of opportunity to get around mostly in the hurricane-impacted areas, and I would say that one of the things that I have been most pleased with since I’ve been the administrator is the ability of the TSA, with our partners, to respond to these disasters.

Generally, our protocol is to have a team who stays in the airport when the hurricane goes over so that we have folks in the airport ready to be able to provide whatever services are needed and secure the equipment that we have there. Additionally, we pre-stage teams around the country so that as soon as the hurricane lifts we can send teams in to provide that screening support. I’m sure glad that we do that because I can tell you having been on-scene with a number of our employees who are impacted by these storms, you’re impacted by a hurricane even if you don’t have any property damage, because certainly you probably have a family member, a friend, somebody else who is impacted that affects you as a person and then certainly your daily routine is definitely impacted.

But I can remember watching some of our screening operations at Houston Intercontinental and just looking, and I could tell that some of our transportation security officers while they were there for work had lots of other things on their mind. So bringing in fresh teams from around the country I think really, really helped us stand up that recovery operation and do a really good job at it.

Operations

This was again another example of great partnership with the airlines and the airports. We had a saying in the Coast Guard that if you’ve seen one port – you’ve seen one port. And folks told me that as I traveled around the airports, if you’ve seen one airport, you’ve seen one airport, and I agree with that. But the one thing, the little caveat difference is when you get to an airport – that’s an entry point into a global system. Much more so than a seaport. And so what’s always in my mind is that you look at the security regime that we have in place is an entry into any part of that security regime gives you a pass to the rest of it, and sometimes on a global basis. And so as you think about my approach to security, that’s always in the back of my mind.

In September, I went down to Dallas-Fort Worth and the CEO of the airport, Sean Donohue, basically gave me his entire team for a day to just teach me what happens at airports. And really what I wanted to get was, as a TSA Administrator, I wanted to have an appreciation for the impact on partners for actions that we take. And so I just asked Sean if he would give me kind of a behind-the-scenes look at how a large airport, a hub airport, operated and I spent the entire day there.

I was really impressed by lots of things, but one of the things that I thought was very good – and again it kind of goes back to my prior experience, and I think the experience of a lot of operating agencies in the federal government – is we all have operation centers. I have several actually in this area, and part of the challenge is making sure we fuse those operation centers together so that there’s a consistent reporting of information. What I saw at DFW airport, a terrific airport operation center, those airport operation centers (AOCs) really help vital information move quickly. And I’m a strong supporter of AOCs, and so I would ask you as folks from a public safety and security perspective in your committee work with ACI-NA to think about that and to think about if you do have the real estate to create an airport operation center, it is great for coordination on just typical day-to-day security work, but importantly, from my perspective, if something goes wrong, it’s a great location to make sure that we all have the right information and are given the right direction to passengers.

I thank Sean very much for the opportunity to really get inside DFW and learn a lot. I got to put out a fire on an airbus, which was a lot of fun. I did okay at that. Fortunately, I had an expert right next to me and we were able to actually put it out. But I would just offer to all of you, as I travel to airports and I’ll continue to do that, I’ll continue to do that for as long as I’m TSA Administrator, that I always make an effort to not just visit with the TSA folks at that airport. That’s why I’m there, so I go there, and I talk with them, but I also want to visit with airport owners and operators; and I also want to visit with the federal air marshals that might be co-located in that city; and if there’s an airline headquarters in that city, I also want to visit with the airlines.

So, it’s my effort to make sure that when I have face-to-face contact with key players in our overall system, and that we can have a frank discussion and talk about some issues. You’ll find with me, I’d rather hear something that’s different than what I perceive than continuing to say the wrong thing in public over and over again. So I rely on those interactions. For one, to make sure that I’ve got the issues right and that we can have a dialogue, because we do have shared interests in making sure that air travel is secure.

The other thing that I would mention with respect to hurricanes was something I didn’t fully appreciate before I got into this job. It’s one of those things you sort of know but you don’t think about enough. It’s when there’s a disaster in a region or an area, the very first thing to stand up really and to start to resume some semblance of normalcy is oftentimes the airport. And I saw that in Houston. I saw it in Florida. I saw it in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. It’s just a critical role that airports play with respect to resilience and recovery in the nation as a whole. One of the key things is to try to bring anything back to normal for the affected populations, and I think we did just a really great job as coordinating our team together so that we didn’t have an airline and all of a sudden wanted to push a high number of flights through when either the airport or TSA wasn’t ready to do that. I don’t think there was an example of any one of the parties involved in airport operations saying something different in public with respect to the reopening of airports, and I think that was a real strength that we brought to the table based on the partnerships that we have.

One of the things that I look at as well is hurricanes. You hope they never occur. When they do start to build, you have some warning that’s there. What are we thinking about with respect to one an ever-present threat, which I’ll talk about in a second, and then some things that we have no warning on, like active shooter. And I know you’re going to have a discussion from Fort Lauderdale on active shooter later this afternoon, but I would like to offer some thoughts on that from my perspective. But let’s first talk about the terrorism threat.

Importance of Communication

I’ve been out of government for seven years, worked in the private sector, and while I still had a security clearance, I wasn’t given the same level of briefings that I get day in and day out today. If anybody thinks that the threat to aviation is steady or diminished, it’s not – by a long shot. In fact, a lot of professionals in the intelligence world will tell you that there is more activity now with respect to threats to aviation than they can remember since 9/11. And that threat is very real. It’s very dynamic, and we must be determined and creative. One of my objectives for TSA is if we have a very dynamic threat posture, we ought to have a very dynamic change in procedures at the checkpoints to be able to respond to changes in threat posture, and that’s one of the things that I am going to push forward within TSA.

I think our partnership overall is built on communication and open dialogue, and it has this foundation in mutual trust and respect, and that to me is really important for all of us to think about all the time. When I have a meeting with an airport CEO or an airline CEO or a chief of security at an airport or an airline, I want to estimate a relationship based on trust and respect. One of the things that we’ve done on a more macro scale within TSA is to try to keep the daily communications going, organization-to-organization. I think a great example is the daily ops call. We’ve got to have an acronym for everything in government, so it’s the AOC call, which either Eddie Mayenschein or Victoria Newhouse have hosted every morning for a year-and-a-half now, and many of you have participated in those calls. We take them very seriously. That’s why we have an assistant administrator of TSA responsible for holding it every day. Those calls began in response to the wait time crisis that Kevin mentioned, that we all dealt with in the summer of 2016, and it really has proven to be indispensable for real-time operational reporting and sharing between TSA and its partners.

Every morning on my way into my office, I walk right past that airport operations center, and I can see across the major airports in the country which ones we, we use the GAR (Green, Amber, Red) model, which ones are green, which ones are amber, and which ones are red. And trust me, I get a lot of notifications when we have issues with airport throughput through the system, but on average I would tell you that I get a report summary every morning from the prior day. That summary shows that in the standard lane, we have 99.9 percent of our travelers within 30 minutes, and in the TSA precheck lane, 99.7 or 8 within 10 minutes. Those are pretty darn good standards going forward, but one of the things you’ll see me do is I’m a firm believer in the Trusted Traveler programs, and I will place more and more emphasis on Global Entry and TSA precheck. I do think that if you can look at the background of an individual and satisfy yourself that they can be trusted beyond somebody who didn’t give you authorization to look at their background, you should offer them expedited screening, and our way to ensure that that’s a proper approach is the randomness that we use even in TSA precheck. Every once in a while a TSA precheck passenger will be selected for regular screening just so we can double check with what we’re doing.

In addition to that daily call that looks at throughput, we do quarterly airport security reviews and then we do a monthly national airports call. So all those things I think are really important to keep the communications going, and just know that that’s on my radar, that’s what I see, and I’m very glad those processes are in place.

Another great example of how we’re working together and a huge concern of mine is addressing public area security. Recent events such as the terrorist attacks in Brussels and Istanbul and the January 2017 lone shooter at Ft. Lauderdale airport highlight the need for vigilance in the public area. In my ideal world somewhere downstream, we won’t have hundreds of people queued up to go through a security checkpoint because that in and of itself is a security vulnerability.

Kevin mentioned that we have some infrastructure constraints certainly there, and I appreciate his work in keeping infrastructure front and center in the national discussion because it’s only there that we’ll be able to make I think significant progress in that regard. But I also harken back to the recent mass shooting in Las Vegas as a stark reminder of the need for public-area security. I know everybody is still shocked by that attack. The more and more you learn, the more shocking it gets, and we all continue to keep the victims in our thoughts and prayers. We had a TSA employee who lost a daughter on that day, so it impacts everybody. And it gives us a lot to think about with respect to public area security. After every event like this, we get a document that talks about lessons learned and one of my great frustrations in working in security for nearly 40 years is I’ve seen all these lessons learned reports, but I don’t call them lessons learned because I find that when a similar event occurs later on, they’re really lessons identified.

I don’t think we’ve learned enough from these lessons. To me it’s a responsibility that we all have, to take instances like this and really in deference to the victims and their families, who I think their key ask would be, please do whatever you can to prevent this from happening again. But we do that. We do whatever we can to prevent this from ever happening again, and so I think it’s really important that we prepare and plan for events like this. I don’t think it’s a situation where we live in constant fear or needless panic, but our job as security professionals is to run through the what-ifs. What if this happened? I think all the time about, what if something happened with an aircraft incident, how are we going to respond in TSA? How are we going to be resilient? Because we’ve got one incident that it could very well be multiples out there, and you’ve got to make sure that you’re keeping your head clear.

But one of the things that we have are public area security summits that we partnered with the Homeland Security Office of Infrastructure Protection. I think these have been very successful. We’ve had four so far. We’ve got more scheduled in the months ahead, but I just want you to consider the public area security summits. I’ve talked to some of the airports that have experienced them and get a sense for the value that they derive from those summits.

Insider threat to public area security has my attention, what you may or may not know is that TSA also has responsibility for public transportation systems, pipeline systems, bus systems, mass transit systems in the United States with respect to security, and so I think of it from an airport perspective and also from a mass transit perspective.

Innovation & Technology

I think partnership and innovation are key elements to facing the, to be able to face the threats that we all know exist today, both the constant threat from terrorism, the threat from unplanned events and even events that we know are occurring that are going to happen to us like weather events in couple of, couple, three, four, five days, depending on our forecast environment, but at TSA, and you may chuckle at this, I hope not, we take a very serious approach at innovation, and innovation in government is hard to do. And so what I’ve asked my team to do is you’ll find that one of the key focus areas that I have is on innovation. I don’t think that we do enough of it, and I don’t think we’re the sole source of all knowledge for sure on innovation. And so, as you may know, we have an innovation task force right now that looks at kind of two things with respect to innovation. One is technological innovation. How can we bring new technology into the checkpoint environment? And importantly they also look at process innovation.

I’ll give you an example. Thanks to the generosity of the airlines and airports, we have automated screening lanes in place in many airports across the country. I just came back from Atlanta where 22 of 29 lanes in the domestic main checkpoint are now automated screening lanes. But as you look at the process of our officers and passengers trying to figure out this new technology, there are certainly areas where we’re not taking full advantage of the technology that we have in place. And so we’re going to continue to partner with the airlines and with the airports to figure out hey how can we really make sure we maximize this technological innovation.

So when you hear me talk about innovation, I’m looking at it in both of those areas, both technologically and process-wise. We have a facility that’s not too far from here at Reagan Airport called the TSIF. Another acronym. Transportation Security Integration Facility. That’s the facility where we test all the equipment that we put at the checkpoints to make sure that it meets the standards that we established and also look at how we integrate some of the new things we’re bringing online with other things. For example, if we bring a new document check system in place, and we have one called credentialing authentication technology or CAT, how does that relate with the ASL process and you have ASLs that basically move bins down through the screening checkpoint.

We’re also looking at potentially putting CT, computed tomography technology in place of the AT machines at the checkpoint. How does that integrate? And so the TSIF’s job is to kind-of look at how all those technologies are integrated. I’ve heard about the checkpoint of the future a lot and I like a lot of that concept.  Particularly, if we get some infrastructure and investment dollars to be able to change the layout at some airports or even build new terminals is can we get an airport security system that’s not a checkpoint per say but has security in a continuum? We would use the best technology we can bring to bear to be able to identify and provide the appropriate level of screening to different passengers coming through. I stand for the proposition that the vast majority of passengers going through our checkpoints are citizens and visitors to our country who want to travel by air and want to get through the process as expeditiously as they can, and we should do whatever we can to enable them to do that. So what I’ve asked the TSIF to do is to work with academia, work with industry, both the airport and the airline industry and also the technology industry that looks at these types of equipment and just mock-up for me what that airport security area of the future might look like.

I’d like to have it, one, to see how the technology works. To see how we might modify our processes going forward, and also to bring key opinion leaders in airport security down there to have them take a look at it. Because, I think the way you wet people’s appetites for more technology insertion is to say, “it could be this. We could be here, if we have the resource will to be able to expend in doing that.”

So just know that we’ve got this kicked off. It’s going to take us several months to get anywhere close to having a mock-up in place, but you will definitely see us reach out to you saying, hey, what do you think? Here’s kind-of what we’re thinking, and have a dialogue going back and forth.

Raising Baseline of Aviation Security

One of the final things I’d like to talk about is this idea of raising the baseline for global aviation security. This process, as Kevin mentioned, was kicked-off by Secretary Kelly when he was the Homeland Security Secretary, and the idea was to look at the 280 last point of departure airports around the globe and just basically raise their security profile so planes that were flying to the United States had a higher level of security. We’ve made a lot of good progress on that. Some of the early measures are now almost completely in place. We’re looking at some follow-up measures that begin to be implemented very shortly, and then there’s another phase that addresses issues like insider threat, which is a concern of mine here domestically as well, and putting preclearance in place at some of these last point of departure airports so passengers can actually clear U.S. customs and clear TSA before they even get into U.S. airspace.

I spoke at the ICAO Global Aviation Security Symposium in Montreal last month, and one of the things that I said to the audience was, listen, you know, from my perspective we have a plan for global aviation security. We’ve got a plan led by the United States to raise the bar for global aviation security around the globe. I intend to push that as aggressively as I can because I’m looking at the threat and I’m seeing some gaps in our overall capability and want to be able to address those as expeditiously as I can. Here’s a key thing to know about me, I have said to my staff and they were already doing this largely already but I just reemphasized it, we’re looking at ways to improve security. I think it’s TSAs job to describe the security outcome that we want to achieve and then invite industry in to take a look at that outcome and tell us “given that outcome, here are ways that we can achieve it.” Rather than us in TSA headquarters prescribing a series of actions that industry takes, I would rather have industry thinking about what actions they’ll take to achieve the outcome, and then we can have a dialogue back and forth on that.

And with respect to the threat, I think it’s important that key members of industry that have the proper levels of security clearance see what that threat is. I’ve asked my team to make sure that we open the door as widely as we can to protect the information that we have, and mostly that’s towards sources and uses, but make sure our industry partners really see some of the threat information that we’re seeing so they can put in context some of the security outcomes that we want to achieve. And I’m looking forward to making a lot of progress on that because I think it’s good for the traveling public around the globe for sure, and in fact, right after this meeting I’ve got a meeting over in headquarters with some of our global partners on this very topic.

Closing

So let me conclude by emphasizing that as TSA evolves to meet the threat, it is vital, absolutely imperative, in fact everybody that pays our salaries expects us to work closely with one another to raise the baseline and foster innovation, to make safety, make flying secure for everyone. I thank you for inviting me to speak with you this morning, and above all, I really thank you for your partnership. I have been, as I said earlier, I’ve been really, really happy with the levels of partnership I’ve seen.

I pledge to do whatever I can as the TSA Administrator to be a great partner with you. Just an offer to you, if you ever see that we’re not, let me know because that would not be consistent with what I’ve asked my team to do, or if there’s something I’m doing that you think, ah, that’s not a great partnership, let me know, and I’d be happy to have that conversation with you. And I’m not, trust me, I’m not somebody who’s going to have a conversation that’s one-sided with anyone. You know your airports much better than I know your airports, and I acknowledge that. My job is macro level transportation security, and as Kevin said, I want to pledge to the president and to the members of the Senate that confirmed me in this position, I’m one not here to do a one-and-done in this job. I will stay as long as I’m allowed to stay in this position because I think consistency is very important in TSA.

I’m actually the 13th administrator in 16 years if you count those who were acting, and actually the seventh Senate-confirmed administrator, so I’m looking to really make an impact on transportation security overall. And I’ve never done a job in my life where I said I’m just going to do what’s needed to get the job done. I’m not made up that way. I want to do the very best job that I can, but the only way I can do the best job is to make sure that we have a great partnership going forward. So I think the foundation is there, and I appreciate Kevin and Chris’ work in leading that for ACI-NA and the opportunity to speak with all of you today. So with that, I’d be happy to answer any questions you have. Thanks.