TSA heads into 20th anniversary with new challenge: Unruly passengers

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA), which marks its 20th anniversary next month, is facing a new challenge with the recent surge in unruly airline passengers. 

David Pekoske, the head of the TSA, said in an interview with The Hill that the agency is stepping up efforts to curtail the spike in disturbances on airplanes and in airports as more Americans return to travel and as the U.S. prepares to welcome international travelers again.

“We’re seeing that in screen check points, we see it in flights, and you’ve seen passenger recordings of instances that have happened in flights. Those are a great concern both to the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] and to TSA and we have worked very closely together, used each of our authorities and each of the tools that we have to try to bring those disturbances ideally down to zero,” Pekoske said. 

“As a passenger, I don’t want anybody acting out on a flight that I’m on, and I can understand why every other passenger feels the same way,” he added. 

The FAA says there have been nearly 4,500 unruly passenger reports and 3,274 mask-related incidents reported in the past year. The TSA gets involved when an unruly passenger threatens the security of an aircraft, such as charging the cockpit door. 

A JetBlue passenger recently attempted to storm the cockpit and attacked a flight attendant in the process. Separately, an American Airlines passenger last month climbed out of the emergency hatch and onto the plane’s wing when it was on the tarmac at Miami International Airport.

The rise in such incidents has come mostly during the COVID-19 pandemic as airports and airlines enforce mask mandates and many Americans resume air travel for the first time since the coronavirus took hold in March 2020. 

The federal mask mandate for all transportation services has been in place since February and has since been extended through January. President Biden announced last month that the TSA will double the fines on passengers who refuse to wear masks. 

“I would say there’s tough environments almost everywhere in the country it seems. We also read about them in grocery store lines for example and things like that,” Pekoske said when asked his response to people who feel unsafe flying right now with the tense environments seen on planes and in airports. 

He said gate agents are pivotal to identifying issues before the plane leaves the airport. 

“Now we’re doing a very good job of identifying people who might cause a problem on an aircraft and not letting them board, so they’re similarly feeling the results of their actions, but they’re doing the exact right thing. A problem on the ground is far preferable than a problem in the air,” Pekoske said. 

“I think the employees and workers, government and nongovernment, in the aviation systems deserve a lot of credit for ensuring that we had a safe and secure summer,” he added. 

Ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday, Pekoske said the TSA is publicizing that “if you do conduct yourself in this manner, there are penalties and there’s accountability to be taken as a result of that.” 

Two Senate Democrats in September urged the Justice Department and FAA to do more to criminally prosecute unruly airline passengers and said that civil fines alone are “not a sufficient deterrent.” 

Pekoske said the TSA would want to be part of the discussions if there is legislation on the topic. 

“In the meantime, we’re going to do everything we can within the existing tools that we have to try to bring this behavior more under control,” he said. “I just think it’s critically important for us to continue to keep the pressure on there to have people behave in a manner that we expect them to.”

Enforcement efforts by the feds have yielded little results when it comes to paying fines. Data provided to The Hill in July found that only two people had agreed to pay fines to the TSA among more than 2,400 incidents of noncompliance with the federal mask mandate at that point. 

Pekoske, in testimony before the House Homeland Security Committee last week in advance of the agency’s 20th anniversary to examine the progress made over the past two decades, said the agency is looking to speed up the screening process in the coming years. 

With 20 years of experience, the agency is preparing to make security at U.S. airports quicker within the next five years, Pekoske said. 

“Pretty much at every major element of our screening process, there are technology enhancements either in place, will soon be in place, or will be in place in three to five years that will improve security substantially and also greatly enhance the passenger experience going through,” he said. 

So-called trusted travelers, meaning people with global entry and pre-check at airports, generally wait five minutes or less in screening. The TSA thinks they could decrease that time more, Pekoske said, and then they can focus on passengers who could need extra security. 

“The idea here is we want to focus our resources on the passengers that we don’t know much about or the passengers that we know something about that causes us a little bit of a concern. For the vast majority of the people we know enough about to know we don’t have any concerns, [we will] continue to expedite that process of screening but at the same time maintain our security standards overall,” he said. 

Pekoske has served as the head of the TSA since being unanimously confirmed for a five-year term by the Senate in August 2017. He said upcoming changes for air travel include identity verification to eliminate boarding passes, new X-ray technology so people don’t have to take items out of their carry-on bags and improved security machines. 

“I would say what passengers will notice the most in the next, let’s say, three to seven years, to kind of get in between in that time frame, is they will see consistently improved technology across the system. That starts when we verify their identity,” he said. 

He said overall the challenges moving forward are not dissimilar to the challenges the TSA has had since it was first formed in November 2001 in response to the Sept. 11 attacks. It became part of the Department of Homeland Security in March 2003. 

“The key thing for TSA to continue to do, and do exceptionally well like we have, is to make sure we are responsive to the threat as it changes,” he said. “And that requires good intelligence information and a built-in agility within the agency to respond to what that new information shows, in terms of changes we might need to make in our procedures or changes we might need to make to our technology base.”

Tags Coronavirus Joe Biden TSA
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