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All Hands on Deck as TSA and CBP Prepare for Busy Holiday Travel Period

Former Federal Security Director at Los Angeles International Airport and now Vice President of K2 Security Screening Group, Keith Jeffries, told Homeland Security Today that TSA plans months in advance for holiday and peak season travel. “It’s an all-hands-on deck approach,” Keith said. 

National and international travel could reach pre-pandemic levels this holiday season, making preparation even more important. 

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has seen an increase in travel throughout this year and anticipates airport security checkpoints nationwide will be very busy this holiday travel season. The season kicks off with Thanksgiving travel, which begins Friday, Nov. 18 and concludes Sunday, Nov. 27.

“We expect to be busier this year than last year at this time, and probably very close to pre-pandemic levels,” said TSA Administrator David Pekoske. “We are prepared to handle the projected increase in travel volumes next week. However, going forward, making the TSA pay levels equal to other federal agencies is critical to our ability in 2023 to recruit, train, equip and retain a highly skilled and professional workforce on the frontlines of transportation security. It is up to Congress to act on the President’s budget request without delay, enabling TSA to address the current pay gap, which is up to 30% compared with other federal employees.”

Travel volumes this year have been notably higher leading up to holiday weekends, and this Thanksgiving travel period, TSA says travel volumes may reach pre-pandemic levels. The three busiest days during the Thanksgiving travel period are typically Tuesday and Wednesday prior to Thanksgiving and Sunday after the holiday. TSA could screen as many as 2.5 million passengers at checkpoints nationwide on Wednesday, Nov. 23, and may surpass 2.5 million passengers on Sunday, Nov. 27.

TSA recorded the heaviest passenger screening volume in its history on the Sunday following Thanksgiving in 2019, where Transportation Security Officers (TSOs) screened nearly 2.9 million passengers at checkpoints nationwide. On that same day in 2021, TSOs screened nearly 2.5 million passengers nationwide.

Thanksgiving is a great warm up to what the Christmas and New Years holiday travel season will be. There is about a two week lull between Thanksgiving and Christmas where a slight decrease in volume may occur. 

Former Federal Security Director at Los Angeles International Airport and now Vice President of K2 Security Screening Group, Keith Jeffries, told Homeland Security Today that TSA plans months in advance for holiday and peak season travel. Airline partners are in daily contact and will provide both forecasted flight and passenger load information to local TSA units to help shape those plans. “It’s an all-hands-on deck approach,” Keith said.  “Overtime sign-up opportunities are at a premium with federal holiday pay at double time. There is maximum use of the K9 teams, Inspectors and even the TSA Human Resource Staff will assist at the checkpoints by moving trays and giving advice to passengers on how to properly divest their personal items as they approach the security checkpoint.

“TSA understands that passengers are trying to get home to their loved ones for the holidays, and the airport, airline and TSA Public Affairs team will coordinate with media outlets to ensure they have the most current advisements to help inform the public.”

Airline, airport, and law enforcement partners usually offer staff and assistance during the holiday or peak season as well. “Having law enforcement officers visible in a busy security checkpoint can have an amazing calming effect on the passengers,” Keith said. “Holiday travel is a partnership that takes everyone – TSA, airline, airport, law enforcement, and concessionaire employees – all working together.” Passengers have a big role to play too. “The most important thing for passengers to know is to pack your patience and give yourself plenty of time (two hours or more) to get through security to make it to your flight,” Keith advised.

Contingency plans are also put in place to react to potential equipment problems, like the failure of x-ray machines at a security checkpoint. “Local TSA will have coordinated well in advance with the local equipment maintenance team for both staff availability and extra parts for security equipment,” Keith told us. “Worst case scenario is that it may take a day or two to get equipment repaired but advance planning usually means this can happen much faster”.   

Both TSA and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) have published top tips to help holiday travel go smoothly as well as a guide to traveling with holiday food and drink. CBP will host a Facebook Live event Monday at 2 p.m. to help make the travel experience easier. During the event, a panel of experts from CBP’s Office of Field Operations will provide live responses to CBP-related travel questions. Subjects will include travel tips on documents, biometrics, mobile applications, and advice on avoiding counterfeits.

And for those feeling bad about the officers working through the holidays, Keith told us that camaraderie and holiday spirit are in abundance at airport checkpoints. “Customer compliments for TSOs usually spike during the holidays as most everyone seems to be in a better mood traveling and working as well.” So if a TSO helps make your holiday happy, be sure to let them know!

We would like to take this opportunity to wish our readers a happy Thanksgiving and safe travels. And THANK YOU for all of your support!

Kylie Bielby
Kylie Bielby has more than 20 years' experience in reporting and editing a wide range of security topics, covering geopolitical and policy analysis to international and country-specific trends and events. Before joining GTSC's Homeland Security Today staff, she was an editor and contributor for Jane's, and a columnist and managing editor for security and counter-terror publications.

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