Pre-Pandemic Travel at Some Airports Exacerbates TSA Challenges

  • Thousands of loaded firearms, assaults reported at checkpoints
  • Lawmakers push to boost compensation for security officers

More than 100 U.S. airports surpassed pre-pandemic passenger volumes last week, a government official said in the latest sign air travel is recovering even as Covid-19 variants fuel new waves of infection across the country.

The U.S. is seeing a “historical recovery in passenger demand,” Darby LaJoye, the Transportation Security Administration’s executive assistant administrator for security operations, told a House panel Tuesday. He added that 117 airports exceeded 2019 passenger volumes last week.

Overall passenger numbers continue to lag well behind pre-pandemic levels. TSA screened about 2.1 million people a day over the past week, 21% below the equivalent same week in 2019, the agency said.

Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Travelers in protective masks wait to go through security at Ronald Reagan National Airport in Arlington, Va. on May 25, 2021 as airline trips ramp up after lows during the Covid pandemic.

TSA must act now to address staffing shortages and increase employee pay before an eventual rebound in international travel, said Rep. Carlos Gimenez (Fla.), the top Republican on the the House Homeland Security Committee’s Transportation & Maritime Security panel during a hearing on summer travel.

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, who oversees TSA, last month ordered the agency to create a better compensation plan for its employees and expand their bargaining rights.

LaJoye said the agency has been working on “understanding the costs” and plans to report to the secretary by early September. Some lawmakers expressed frustration with the timeline.

“These frontline workers are not being compensated to the levels and the degree of the importance of their job,” Rep. Donald Payne Jr. (D-N.J.) said.

Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), chair of the full Homeland Security Committee, said TSA officials should let lawmakers know what the “impediments” are so they can work on a solution.

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Assaults, Firearms

Several Democrats on the panel questioned LaJoye on whether TSA officers have sufficient protections in light of a spike in assaults on security personnel.

TSA has recorded more than 85 physical assaults on security officers since the beginning of the pandemic, LaJoye said. Pressed by subcommittee Chair Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-N.J.), LaJoye also committed to getting information from officers about how often they face verbal abuse from travelers.

A “dramatic increase” in in-flight incidents has also accompanied the pandemic, with more than 3,600 disturbances, LaJoye said.

Michael Ondocin, executive assistant administrator for law enforcement and the Federal Air Marshal Service, said staffing is adequate to handle air incidents now but may need help in the coming years as marshals retire.

Lawmakers also sought answers on how TSA responds when a passenger has a firearm in their carry-on bag, in violation of federal rules. Security officers have detected more than 2,800 firearms at checkpoints this year, 85% of which were loaded.

Law enforcement officers immediately get involved in such incidents, and criminal charges depend on jurisdiction and aggravating factors, including whether a gun is loaded, LaJoye said.

With assistance from Alan Levin

To contact the reporter on this story: Ellen M. Gilmer in Washington at egilmer@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Sarah Babbage at sbabbage@bgov.com; Robin Meszoly at rmeszoly@bgov.com

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