Transportation Security Administration Administrator Peter Neffenger is touting a new training academy for airport security personnel as his agency tries to rebound from embarrassing revelations about failed security tests.
Neffenger said in an interview with The Hill that the new facility, which cost $12 million and is located near Brunswick, Ga., will help the TSA to better train new hires and veteran members of its more than 40,000-member workforce in one place.
"Before when you came into TSA, you trained at one of 75 to 80 airports around the country," he said of the new training facility, which opened in January. "You trained largely in a classroom looking at pictures of what you might doing."
With the new facility, Neffenger said the TSA would "get someone who is a little closer to being a finished performer when they show up" at the end of training sessions.
The new TSA training academy is located at an existing Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Glynn County, Ga., where mock airport facilities were built to train TSA workers in situations that will better mirror their experiences at U.S. security checkpoints.
Neffenger said new hires who report to the facility, which holds up to 192 trainees, will go through a two-week course that includes "hands-on practicums" on equipment that is used at operational TSA checkpoints.
He said trainees will also be taught about the history of the TSA and the importance of its mission to protect airline passengers.
"The purpose is to engage you in a sense of belonging to something important," Neffenger said.
The TSA has been under fire with lawmakers since a report from the the Homeland Security Department’s inspector general documented a series of undercover sting operations in which agents tried to pass through security with prohibited items; much of its findings remain classified.
The undercover agents made it through security in nearly all the tests — 67 of 70 — including one instance in which a TSA screener failed to find a fake bomb even after the undercover agent set off a magnetometer. The screener reportedly let the agent through with the fake bomb taped to his back, having missed it during a pat-down.
Neffenger vowed to make "necessary changes" to improve the agency after the failed bomb tests when he took over as TSA chief last summer.
He said this week as he was preparing to visit the southeast Georgia training facility for the first time that the release of the report about the failures has allowed him to have a "fuller conversation" with lawmakers about the TSA needs. Still, he said he wishes there would have been a different starting point for the discussion.
"I would have liked it if the report did not become public because it took on a tenor that went beyond the findings, but it allowed us to have an open and honest conversation," he said of talks with members of committees that oversee the TSA in Congress.
"When you have a loss of confidence, you have to acknowledge it," Neffenger said. "You don't run from it."
Neffenger, who is a retired Coast Guard vice admiral, compared the new training academy to some of the facilities he encountered when he was started out in the service.
He said TSA agents would benefit from knowing their classmates were performing similar missions at other airports around the country when they moved on from their training sessions at the new facility.
Funding for the new TSA academy was included in the massive government spending bill, known as the omnibus, that was passed by Congress at the end of 2015. The facility is staffed by 40 permanent trainers and a rotation of about 40 TSA agents who come in from the field to teach classes to new hires.
Neffenger said he hopes to see a reduction in the turnover among the TSA's workforce as the academy training takes hold.
"We have a higher than I'd like to see attrition rate," he said.
Neffenger said he is confident the new academy will be a contributor to the "strong excellence of this organization."
He said he has found there was a "disproportionate focus" on moving people through airport security lines quickly before he took over the agency in 2015.
"We were focusing on moving people through rather than stopping people who shouldn't get through," Neffenger said.
"It's not that I don't care about cues," he continued. "It's just not the screeners' job to worry about cues. That's up the food chain ... I said to them, focus on your mission."
Neffenger said he was looking forward to visiting the new hires who are already training at the new academy this week.
"I want to see the facility now that's been built out," he said. "I always like to meet with people who are on the front lines."