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TSA Ready for Holiday Travel Surge Despite Reports of Staffing Concerns

TSA said in a statement on November 17 that it “does not anticipate that the federal employee vaccine mandate will in any way impact the agency’s ability to staff for Thanksgiving travel”.

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) expects to screen about 20 million passengers during the Thanksgiving holiday, which runs from Friday, Nov. 19, through Sunday, Nov. 28. 

“We anticipate that travel may be very close to pre-pandemic levels this holiday, and we are staffed and prepared for the holiday travelers. We have deployed technologies that enhance detection capabilities and reduce physical contact, and it’s equally important that passengers are prepared with travel tips for the most efficient checkpoint experience,” said TSA Administrator David Pekoske. “With overall vaccination rates improving nationwide and greater confidence in healthy travel, there will be more people traveling so plan ahead, remain vigilant and practice kindness.”

Pekoske’s comments come amidst reports that TSA is facing a hiring crisis exacerbated by the November 22 federal employee COVID-19 vaccination mandate. Many Transportation Security Officers remain unvaccinated and there is a concern that some of these, especially those employed part-time, will leave TSA and look for a job elsewhere rather than get the vaccine.

The American Federation of Government Employees, the union representing 45,000 TSA officers nationwide, has called on the Biden Administration to change the vaccination deadline for federal employees to January 4 with a deadline of January 18 to be fully vaccinated. This extension is equivalent to the new deadline set for federal contractors.

But TSA said in a statement on November 17 that it “does not anticipate that the federal employee vaccine mandate will in any way impact the agency’s ability to staff for Thanksgiving travel”.

Similar reports could be found ahead of this year’s summer travel season and TSA was able to allay those fears. Thanksgiving however has historically seen the biggest increase in the number of travelers coming through TSA security checkpoints during the year and 2021 is expected to see a continuation of that trend. A lot will of course depend on how next week’s weather pans out across the country.

TSA has been on a year-long recruitment drive and its most recent hiring events to assist individuals interested in applying for a job as a Transportation Security Officer have been held at Gerald R. Ford International Airport in Michigan, and at the DoubleTree by Hilton Tampa Airport Westshore hotel in Florida.

Airlines are also on a hiring drive ahead of the holidays. American Airlines, for example, aims to mitigate staffing issues by hiring 4,000 new employees for the holidays and bringing back 1,800 flight attendants from leave this month.

Travelers can help reduce the impact on TSA checkpoints by traveling smart and, where possible, avoiding the busiest days. Typically, the busiest days during the Thanksgiving travel period are the Tuesday and Wednesday prior to Thanksgiving and the Sunday afterward. The highest travel day in TSA’s history was the Sunday after Thanksgiving of 2019 (pre-pandemic), when nearly 2.9 million individuals were screened at TSA security checkpoints nationwide. Travel volume this year is not expected to reach pre-pandemic levels, but it is expected to be notably higher in the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving.

The best way to ensure a smooth trip through the security screening process is to arrive early and be prepared. Travelers are encouraged to allow time to park their cars or return rental cars, check their bags with their airline, and get their boarding passes before heading to the security checkpoint. TSA recommends travelers getting to the terminal with plenty of time before their scheduled flight.

“I recommend that travelers pay attention to the guidance that the TSA officers are providing at the checkpoint,” Pekoske added. “They may be directing you to a shorter line or guiding you around someone who is moving slowly. And they may be giving you some advice that will lessen the likelihood that you’ll need a pat-down.”

TSA also offers various tips to help travelers arrive fully prepared. And if you are traveling with Thanksgiving food, it is worth remembering that if it’s a solid item, then it can go through a checkpoint. However, if you can spill it, spread it, spray it, pump it or pour it, and it’s larger than 3.4 ounces, then it should go in a checked bag. Food items often need some additional security screening, so TSA recommends placing those items in a clear plastic bag or other container when packing them at home and then removing those items from your carry-on bag and placing them in a bin for screening at the checkpoint.

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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