Acting TSA Administrator Darby LaJoye told lawmakers Tuesday that the agency has faced “tremendous challenges” in the COVID-19 era as he testified before the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Transportation and Maritime Security on security trends, staffing, and TSA infrastructure updates.
He thanked the Transportation Security Administration workforce, noting that on Thursday, July 1, TSA screened 2,147,090 people, which is slightly more than the 2,088,760 travelers screened on Thursday of the Fourth of July weekend in 2019. LaJoye said that daily airport passenger volumes are finally nearing, and occasionally exceeding, pre-pandemic levels as more people are getting vaccinated and travel restrictions are easing around the world.
LaJoye said TSA anticipated this increase, hence the concerted recruitment effort this past winter to hire the support needed to handle these increasing volumes throughout the remainder of the year. “We also took additional measures such as converting part-time employees to full-time, increasing employee overtime, and adjusting shifts to support airline schedules. TSA is also utilizing several monetary incentives to retain our valued workforce and ensure adequate staffing levels,” he said.
“Those efforts are already paying dividends. Over the July 4th holiday travel period, TSA screened more than 10.1 million passengers, with 98 percent waiting less than 20 minutes in standard lanes and 97 percent waiting less than five minutes in TSA PreCheck® lanes. More importantly, there were no major security incidents impacting the transportation sector.”
The increase in passengers has unfortunately also meant a rise in unruly passengers at TSA checkpoints across the country and onboard aircraft. It is of great concern that these incidents have risen at a much higher rate than would have been expected.
“Since the beginning of the pandemic, there have been over 70 physical assaults on TSA officers and 3,600 inflight disturbances. Before the pandemic, in 2019, there were 1,230 inflight disturbances, which was approximately two incidents per one million passengers screened. Preliminarily, as of early July 2021, there have been 2,838 inflight incidents thus far in 2021, which is approximately 12 incidents per one million passengers screened. This shows a dramatic increase in the number of incidents onboard aircraft, which occur for a variety of reasons, many of which are mask-related, frequently leading to agitated passengers who at times have become violent towards fellow passengers and the flight crew,” LaJoye said, adding that TSA’s industry partners have also reported an increase in assaults across other modes of transportation as well.
TSA also continues to detect firearms on passengers and in carry-on bags at checkpoints at an alarming rate. LaJoye revealed that as of early July, TSA detected 2,807 firearms in 2021, 85 percent of which were loaded. “In 2020, TSA officers discovered a total of 3,257 firearms on passengers or in their carry-on bags at checkpoints, which was approximately 10 firearms per million passengers screened,” he said. “Comparatively, in 2019, the number was about five firearms per million passengers screened.”
Back in May, LaJoye said that the number of repeat offenders is “exceedingly low,” indicating that it is a lack of awareness rather than willful ignorance that is driving the numbers. To increase awareness on the requirements for properly transporting firearms, TSA has enhanced communication and outreach efforts with the public and stakeholders. “In February 2021, TSA published updated Enforcement Sanctions Guidance increasing the suggested civil penalty ranges TSA may impose,” he said. “For first-time violations, TSA can impose a fine of up to $10,000 if the firearm is loaded.”
LaJoye said that air travelers coming to checkpoints for the first time since before the pandemic may see some changes in the security technology they encounter. “Throughout the pandemic, TSA worked in close partnership with DHS Science and Technology to accelerate deployment of state-of-the-art technologies, such as Computed Tomography (CT), Credential Authentication Technology (CAT), and On-Person Screening enhancements. These technologies and enhancements represent significant advancements from current equipment used for identity verification and the screening of accessible property, reduce overall contact during screening, and improve the passenger experience,” he said.
“As of early July 2021, TSA has deployed 300 CT systems at 141 airports and four laboratories, as well as 1,053 CAT units at 119 airports and two laboratories. The continued investment of FY21 appropriated funds supports the procurement and deployment of additional systems CT and CAT systems that will include smaller airports.”
In addition to checkpoint technologies, LaJoye said TSA’s biometric technology pilots have shown the potential for modern identity technology to “enhance security effectiveness, improve operational efficiency, and yield a more streamlined passenger experience in the post-pandemic travel era.”
“Along with biometrics development, digital credentials, such as mobile driver’s licenses and digital passports, are becoming increasingly common,” the administrator said. “To further support the touchless experience at the checkpoint, TSA is actively exploring the integration of a mobile driver’s license and other digital credential authentication capability with CAT-2 to process digital identity information and verify a person’s identity at the airport checkpoint.”