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TSA’s Record Year for Firearm Detections Saw Multiple Accomplishments

“The deployment of new technology to airports will certainly help TSA protect the nation’s transportation systems,” Jeffries told us. “However, it is estimated that it may take 12-15 years before all the original x-ray machines purchased and installed 20 years ago are replaced by advanced CT technology.” 

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) remained vigilant to myriad threats in 2022 and reached a new record in firearm interceptions by Transportation Security Officers (TSOs) at checkpoints. Altogether, TSOs stopped 6,542 firearms at airport checkpoints last year and 88% were loaded. TSA is increasing penalties and extending the loss of TSA PreCheck eligibility for up to five years to help ensure 2023 does not surpass 2022’s record. 

The five U.S. airports with the most TSA firearm discoveries include Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, which topped the list with 448 firearm finds. Dallas Fort Worth International Airport came in second with 385 followed by Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport with 298; Nashville International Airport with 213 and Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport with 196. Orlando International Airport; Denver International Airport; Austin-Bergstrom International Airport; Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport and Tampa International Airport round out the Top 10. 

Some airports saw a lower total than 2021, indicating that the message not to bring guns to the checkpoint may be getting through, at least in some areas. For example, TSOs in Chicago stopped 85 handguns at Chicago O’Hare International Airport security checkpoints in 2022, and 38 at Chicago Midway International Airport, a decrease for both airports from 2021. Elsewhere, TSOs stopped 21 handguns at Milwaukee Mitchell International Airport security checkpoints in 2022, a decrease from the 23 guns caught in 2021. TSOs at Kentucky airports discovered a total of 116 firearms in travelers’ carry-on luggage in 2022, a slight decrease from the 2021 total of 119. North Carolina airports discovered a total of 250 firearms in travelers’ carry-on luggage in 2022, down slightly from the total of 254 found in 2021. Despite the statewide decrease in firearms, Charlotte Douglas International and Asheville Regional airports both saw all-time highs for firearm detections at their security checkpoints last year. TSOs at the five Los Angeles-area airports detected 142 firearms in travelers’ carry-on luggage in 2022, two less than in 2021. And while Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport led the country with the number of firearms stopped,  it saw a decrease of more than 11 percent from 2021. Most of the decreases recorded are small, however, and TSA will be mindful that it needs to do more to deter travelers from bringing guns to the checkpoint. The increased penalties announced at the end of last year will go some way to making travelers think twice.

“Responsible firearm owners should always know where their gun is located,” said Keith Jeffries Former Federal Security Director at Los Angeles International Airport and now Vice President of K2 Security Screening Group. “The most common response from air travelers whose guns are detected at security checkpoints is, “I forgot it was in my bag.” I am very glad to see that violators will now lose their TSA PreCheck eligibility for up to five years.” 

The agency recently provided a list of some of its accomplishments last year. In 2022, TSA provided airport screening at or near pre-pandemic travel volumes despite multiple instances of challenging weather conditions; enhanced cybersecurity resilience of critical transportation infrastructure with performance-based security directives and continued to test and deploy new technologies that significantly improve security effectiveness, efficiency and the passenger experience throughout the transportation system. TSA also supported Operation Allies Welcome with the safe transport of over 90,000 people from Afghanistan to the U.S. 

“I am incredibly proud of our dedicated TSA employees who perform the critical task of securing our nation’s transportation systems each day,” said TSA Administrator David Pekoske. “We had a very successful year that ended with the enactment of the FY 2023 Omnibus Appropriations Bill, which included funding to bring TSA employee compensation to a level commensurate with other federal employees, in addition to funding to expand collective bargaining rights for our non-supervisory screening workforce. For years, our employees have not been paid fairly, and securing pay parity was necessary from an operational standpoint as we continue to see increasing travel volumes, and will also help our ability to recruit and hire new employees and retain the talent we have.”

2022 marked 20 years of federalized security as more than 400 airports nationwide reached this milestone anniversary. TSA continues to roll out new technology to stay one step ahead of the threats and enhance the passenger experience. TSA deployed 534 Credential Authentication Technology (CAT) units and added 243 Computed Tomography (CT) X-ray scanners at airport checkpoints. In addition to the provisions for TSA employees, the FY23 Omnibus Bill, which President Biden signed into law in December 2022, will enable technology deployments to continue across the agency’s nearly 2,400 security checkpoint lanes to raise the bar on identity verification and security efficiency, accommodate future improvements in liquids screening and take initial steps for screening at speed.

“The deployment of new technology to airports will certainly help TSA protect the nation’s transportation systems,” Jeffries told us. “However, it is estimated that it may take 12-15 years before all the original x-ray machines purchased and installed 20 years ago are replaced by advanced CT technology.” 

TSA implemented other enhanced screening technology throughout 2022, improving the Advanced Imaging Technology (AIT) units in airport checkpoints with a software update that enhances accuracy and efficiency. Through a partnership with Apple, TSA also continued to test the acceptance of mobile driver’s licenses to enable a more seamless airport security experience for travelers in participating states including Arizona, Maryland and Colorado.

In addition, TSA has partnered with Airports Council International (ACI) – Europe to begin piloting open architecture airport security technology. Open architecture offers agility in technology development, adoption and updates, promoting competition and improving security and the traveler experience.

TSA published its Innovation Doctrine to highlight how the agency embeds innovation into its business processes. Additionally, TSA issued an Identity Management Roadmap, outlining a cohesive identity management approach that enhances standards, improves data sharing and privacy protocols across systems and expands collaboration efforts among stakeholders to improve the traveler experience.

In today’s world, physical threats are no longer the only concern of transportation hubs and travelers. Last year, TSA worked with industry partners to revise previous rail and pipeline Security Directives and issue performance-based pipeline Security Directives to enhance cybersecurity resilience for the nation’s critical pipelines and rail systems. Performance-based criteria recognizes the diversity of organizations and systems that exist throughout the transportation sector and seeks to incorporate practices that strengthen those systems against attack. Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, TSA continues to lead cybersecurity efforts as a sector risk management agency for transportation.

In March 2022, TSA recognized its Federal Air Marshal Service (FAMS) for 60 years of protecting domestic and international flights and providing a visible security presence for surface transportation modes. The FAMS was initially founded as part of the Federal Aviation Administration in 1962 in response to increased international airline hijacking incidents, and transitioned to TSA after its establishment following the 9/11 attacks.

During 2022, TSA trained and deployed more than 1,000 explosives detection canine teams at airports and mass-transit facilities to support large-scale events such as Super Bowl LVI, the Kentucky Derby, Indy 500 and enhance security operations at airports and surface transportation systems nationwide.

TSA is ever mindful of the insider threat, and executed a multimedia insider threat awareness campaign in 2022, increasing workforce knowledge of potential risk indicators of an insider threat and reporting streams. 

“Insider threats were at the top of my list of concerns when I served as a Federal Security Director (FSD), as I’m sure it is for most FSD’s throughout the country,” said Jeffries. “It must remain a priority.”  

The agency has also expanded TSA office and program membership within the TSA Insider Risk Mitigation Hub and increased external domestic and international transportation stakeholder and partner outreach efforts. TSA insider threat mitigation also saw the deployment of a case management system and threat data analytics in 2022.

Travel volumes returned to pre-pandemic levels in 2022, with TSOs screening 736 million passengers, averaging over two million passengers per day. On average, 99.4% of passengers waited less than 30 minutes at airport security checkpoints, while 99.4% of passengers in TSA PreCheck lanes waited less than 10 minutes. 

Seven new airlines joined the popular TSA PreCheck expedited screening program and over 3.3 million people enrolled, bringing the total number of active TSA PreCheck members to more than 14 million. The agency also reduced the initial enrollment cost to $78 and renewal cost to $70. In February, TSA opened its first TSA PreCheck lanes outside of the U.S. making its debut in Nassau, Bahamas.

In 2022, the TSA Contact Center answered 1.9 million traveler calls and email messages; AskTSA responded directly to 2.2 million traveler questions, typically within two minutes, over social media and introduced a new feature enabling airline passengers to text AskTSA (275-872) with security-related questions. The TSA Cares helpline provided assistance to 46,000 travelers with disabilities, medical conditions and other special circumstances. 

TSA conducted over 500 domestic response plan exercises; provided self-defense training for airline employees; offered truck, port and rail workers online options to securely renew credentials and increased intelligence sharing with surface and aviation partners.

TSA introduced its virtual Mission Hall: In November 2022, TSA launched a virtual tour of TSA’s Mission Hall, which is located at TSA headquarters. The exhibit is a collection of historical archives and artifacts documenting the agency’s establishment, its evolution and critical events in transportation security.

TSA hired more than 10,000 new TSOs and opened its new TSA Academy West adjacent to Harry Reid International Airport (LAS) in Las Vegas. The new training academy graduated over 1,000 TSOs while others were trained at the TSA Academy East in Glynco, Ga. TSA offered a hiring bonus for TSO positions in some areas of the country where it is hard to recruit applicants and provided an opportunity for candidates to onboard as Security Support Assistants (SSA) within just a few weeks. The SSA position allows candidates to quickly obtain employment at TSA to perform non-screening duties in support of checkpoint operations, while they complete the TSO hiring process.

The new compensation plan that Pekoske highlighted will begin in July 2023 and recognizes the critical role TSA employees play in protecting the nation’s transportation systems. 

“The pay compensation plan signed into law by President Biden is long overdue and means a great deal to every TSA employee,” Jeffries told us.

The FY23 Omnibus Bill also included funding to support implementation of an expanded labor framework, including broad collective bargaining rights for the non-supervisory screening workforce. On December 30, 2022, Administrator Pekoske signed a new Determination on Transportation Security Officers and Collective Bargaining that sets forth this new labor framework. The spending bill also included funding for continued Merit Systems Protection Board rights for TSOs. The agency first established these rights for TSOs in September 2021.

2022 saw TSA hire its first ever executive officer to lead diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility initiatives for the agency. The Chief Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility (DEIA) Officer is responsible for designing, developing, and recommending a diversity management strategy that aligns with and contributes directly to TSA’s mission and strategic goals.  

“The importance of diversity cannot be overstated. TSA’s uniformed workforce is one of the most diverse in government,” Jeffries said. “The hiring of the first-ever executive officer to lead equity, inclusion and accessibility initiatives reflects the TSA’s commitment to improving diversity at all levels of the agency.”

With traveler volumes continuing to increase and threats diversifying, TSA and its workforce remain vigilant to prevent transportation being targeted.

“The TSA remains the tip of the spear when it comes to protecting the homeland,” said Steve Karoly, Executive Vice President at K2 Security Screening Group and former Acting Assistant Administrator for the TSA Office of Requirements and Capabilities Analysis. “The agency’s 2022 accomplishments, and there are many more than those listed above, highlight the critically important need to constantly invest in its people and new technologies, while also maintaining the balance between security effectiveness and efficiency.”

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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