The House Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security has met, virtually, to discuss the Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) operations during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond. Darby LaJoye, the senior official performing the duties of the administrator at TSA responded to questions.
COVID-19 has had a direct impact on TSA. To date, 16 TSA personnel and one screening contractor have passed away after contracting COVID-19 while performing their duties. Anyone who has traveled within the last year would also have seen first hand the changes that have taken place at TSA checkpoints, such as enhanced cleaning, use of masks and screens, and the deployment of low or no touch advanced screening technology.
LaJoye thanked the TSA workforce for their extensive efforts in keeping travelers safe and secure in unprecedented conditions. He also thanked the subcommittee and Congress for “generous appropriations” in Fiscal Year 2021, which were $144.2 million above the previous year. “We are putting these funds to good use and they are helping us advance our security priorities, including the deployment of Computed Tomography, or CT, and Credential Authentication Technology, or CAT,” said LaJoye. “These technologies are critical because they enhance our detection capabilities at the checkpoint and promote a touchless screening process. Because of the reduction in air travel, we were able to deploy this technology faster than expected. I am pleased to announce we have now deployed over 300 CT systems at 142 locations.”
TSA will now execute the next phase of its CT deployment and the procurement of 242 additional mid-sized systems. TSA has also deployed 1053 CAT units at 121 locations to date and is planning to procure 1,001 additional units in the coming months.
“We believe CAT is a game changing technology that provides a secure, more touchless and seamless customer experience and we are working to ensure that every federalized airport, from our largest to our smallest, will receive it soon,” said LaJoye.
He added that TSA is also currently evaluating biometric technologies and monitoring the evolution of digital credentials, like mobile driver’s licenses and digital passports.
LaJoye also addressed the matter of increased firearm detection rates. “Even with a substantial decrease in volume in 2020, officers detected twice as many firearms per million passengers than in 2019, and unfortunately, the vast majority of these weapons were fully loaded. We are working to address this alarming increase through training, our regulatory enforcement, and by helping educate the public on how to properly travel with their firearm in checked baggage.”
As to the reasons why detection rates have risen, LaJoye said: “Suddenly, a lot of people have not been used to traveling. You know, frankly, they may not be as informed on how to properly, you know, transport a firearm.
“But just for perspective, you know, just the last week of April, we had 120 firearms we stopped at our checkpoints from getting on board an aircraft. And in one day alone, 32 of them. They’re often just thrown in the bottom of a bag. The excuse we generally get most often is they simply forgot it was in there. And so what we’ve been focusing on is not only our regulatory enforcement responsibilities to make sure that we are pursuing progressive enforcement actions against anybody who would illegally bring a firearm to a checkpoint, but also how can we help educate the traveling public how to properly declare a firearm for checked baggage? And how can we direct them to state and local jurisdictions? Because different states, different cities have different laws in place with respect to firearms.
“So one of the things we did, we developed a glossy on how to properly educate the traveling public. And our federal security directors all around the country are working very closely with our state and local partners to get this to gun clubs. We’re working very closely with U.S. attorneys to make sure that in especially egregious cases, we can bring prosecutions for some of these individuals.
“The number of repeat offenders is exceedingly low, so we really do think that education can go a long way towards mitigating these numbers. But it continues to be a concern. We work very, very closely with our airport partners and, you know, in this regard, and I think it’s going to be a continued focus from a public safety perspective.”
Subcommittee Chair, Representative Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Calif.) asked LaJoye whether the current TSA workforce has sufficient staffing to cope with rising passenger volume.
Lajoye responded that in the last 120 days since January, TSA has hired approximately 2,500 officers and anticipate hiring another 1600 more over the next eight weeks. When the additional officers are taken into account, this puts staffing levels more or less where they were in 2019, before the pandemic reduced air traffic movements.
In addition, Lajoye said TSA will continue to hire through the summer and into early fall so that it is well-positioned for the next holiday season and also for next summer as well.
And that workforce stands to be well protected against COVID-19 with LaJoye calling vaccination a “game changer”. Currently, 60 percent of TSA employees have received their first shot and a full 40 percent have been fully vaccinated.
LaJoye revealed that TSA has had about 2000 total incidents involving noncompliance of wearing a mask, but 90 percent of that is happening onboard the aircraft. “We remind passengers, ‘place the mask on’, but where we have one too many egregious violations, there have been arrests and civil penalties.”
Ranking member and Representative Chuck Fleischmann (R-Tenn.) asked LaJoye to explain the reasoning for the further extension to REAL ID compliance.
LaJoye said it was an acknowledgement that the country has been going through so much with COVID-19 that DMV offices were simply closed. He also revealed that only about 45 percent of the traveling public has a compliant REAL ID according to the latest TSA analysis. “We really need that number to be closer to 90 percent without it resulting in a fairly substantial operational impact on airports. And so, by extending it to May of ’23, we really think we’re providing ample opportunity for states to recover and for-for travelers to get the opportunity to go and get that REAL ID-compliant ID card.”
Representative Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) wondered if TSA could provide surplus screening equipment under the law to local jails, local facilities, and potentially other countries that might not have the equipment?
“Most of our equipment is fully deployed at airports,” said LaJoye. “But, as we continue to deploy CT more, it will free up surplus equipment. We have had, you know, very good and fulsome conversations with the State Department, because there may be a number of opportunities for us in our capacity development efforts in so many places around the world to work across the inter-agency for how we could in fact donate equipment, especially to much of the developing world.”
Representative David E. Price (D-N.C.) voiced concern about the increasing domestic terrorism threat, citing events at the Capitol, which in some cases spilled over into airports. LaJoye said that through a close working relationship with the FBI and Capitol Police, he is confident that TSA has the information it needs to ensure protection on board an aircraft and to protect members of Congress when traveling through an airport.
LaJoye also said TSA is looking to build on its work with small businesses. “Through DHS, S&T, we’re working very closely with a number of venture capital firms to find ways to solicit support from small businesses, and determine how we can put our requirements out there to small businesses. How can we help develop their processes to meet the government’s needs?”
Price also highlighted the importance of surface transportation security and LaJoye spoke of the need to secure industrial control systems.
“There is a much less rigid regulatory framework in place for surface. So we really do prioritize enhancing our cyber abilities because we know a number of these operators focus pretty extensively on industrial control systems. So our ability to provide expert cyber assessments for the industry is really, really important.”
The discretionary request for Fiscal ’22 provides $52 billion for DHS, which is approximately equal to the Fiscal ’21 inactive level. It further supports work in key areas like research, innovation and transportation security technologies. LaJoye was not able to provide a great deal of insight into how the budget will be spent at TSA at this early stage, but his comments indicate a continued focus on new and emerging technologies, small business development, and training and incentives for the TSA workforce.