TSA Plan for Best Practices Working Group Could Improve Airport Security, Says GAO

A Government Accountability Office (GAO) review has found that the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) could potentially improve the security of public areas at airports by developing a plan for a TSA working group on best practices.

Airport public areas, like ticket counters and baggage claims, are vulnerable to attack because people can often enter them without screening. For example, in 2017, 5 people were killed at a Florida baggage claim, and prior to this, in 2013, a TSA officer was killed at a security checkpoint in Los Angeles. These attacks prompted new laws and security improvements.

TSA has taken several actions to better address airport security in public areas, including strengthening and mandating active shooter training drills and installing duress alarms at screening checkpoints, among other things. TSA has also updated guidance for reporting suspicious behavior and revised directives identifying responsibilities for local law enforcement coverage of passenger screening checkpoints and nearby public areas, among other actions.

Other aviation stakeholders, such as airport operators, have also acted to address public area security, including establish attack prevention training, processes and infrastructure, sharing information, and enhancing law enforcement operations.

Such a challenging and wide ranging security environment demands close cooperation between TSA and aviation stakeholders. Some action has been taken in this area but gaps remain.

In 2017, TSA issued the Public Area Security National Framework, in coordination with various aviation security stakeholders. The framework categorized 11 best practices and non-binding recommendations for improving security of public areas, including sharing information and preventing attacks. Aviation security stakeholders have also implemented various actions consistent with these best practices, including establishing airport operations centers and deploying enhanced law enforcement teams to serve as a visible deterrent in airport public areas.

More recently, in response to the TSA Modernization Act, TSA established a public area security working group in March 2019 to engage with stakeholders such as airport operators and industry associations and update and validate the best practices cited in the 2017 framework.

TSA conducted two conference calls—March 2019 and June 2019—with the working group members to update, discuss, and validate the existing best practices. The working group consists of security stakeholders from both aviation and surface transportation modes and includes several of the same stakeholders who participated in the 2017 public area security summits to develop the 2017 Public Area Framework and associated recommended best practices.

GAO found that while engaging with TSA during the March 2019 and June 2019 conference calls, industry stakeholders identified ways for enhancing the security of airport public areas by 1) utilizing various technologies, such as public address notification systems throughout airports, to better communicate instructions during and after security incidents occur in the public area, and 2) establishing clearer guidance and protocols for resuming business operations after a security incident, such as rescreening passengers and positively identifying lost baggage in the terminal area. Moreover, stakeholders cited the growing concerns about the emergence of unmanned aircraft systems, such as drones, which pose risks to securing airport public areas.

In late October 2019, in accordance with the TSA Modernization Act, TSA issued a report listing best practices and recommendations to secure transportation public areas. This report summarizes the working group’s effort to review and update prior best practices cited in the 2017 Public Area Framework as well as identify current challenges. For example, the updated report provides specific tools and resources for enhancing situational awareness, such as resource guides providing informational materials, fact sheets, research reports, and online training videos.

But GAO’s review found TSA has not developed a plan for how this working group will operate, such as how often it will meet, or what the member responsibilities are.

According to the October 2019 updated report, TSA intends to engage with stakeholders on a periodic basis to affirm partnerships. However, GAO’s February 11 report notes that “TSA has not yet clearly defined roles and responsibilities for stakeholders or how frequently to engage with them, such as on a quarterly, semiannual, or annual basis.” The TSA Modernization Act requires TSA to periodically share best practices for protecting transportation public areas, and both the 2017 Public Area Framework and updated report from the working group emphasize the importance of continuing partnerships efforts and identifying solutions to improve public area security.

TSA officials told GAO that they expect to better determine future plans for stakeholder engagement sometime after TSA issues its mandated report on the public area security working group to Congress in March 2020. However they added that they currently have no specific plans outlined regarding the process or frequency with which they will engage stakeholders in the future on public area security best practices.

GOA therefore recommends that TSA develop a plan outlining roles and responsibilities for members of the Public Area Security Working Group, the mechanisms for collaborating, and the frequency of the working group meetings.

The Department of Homeland Security agreed with GAO’s recommendation and stated that TSA will develop guidelines for the working group by June 30, 2020.

Download the full report at GAO

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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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