Twice as many guns were found at airport security checkpoints last year than in 2019, despite the drop in passengers.
WASHINGTON (CN) — The acting head of the Transportation Security Administration told Congress Wednesday that even with reduced traffic during the coronavirus pandemic, more people attempted to pass firearms through airport checkpoints in 2020 than the year before.
Darby LaJoye, a senior TSA official who performs the duties of administrator, told members of a House Appropriations subcommittee that the number of firearms per million passengers detected at checkpoints last year was double the level recorded in 2019, and most of those weapons were fully loaded.
In the last week of April 2020 alone, LaJoye said, TSA agents stopped 120 guns from making it aboard aircrafts. In just one day, there were 32 firearms found on passengers going through checkpoints.
“This is a public safety concern because as I pointed out, 80% of them are loaded, they’re often just thrown at the bottom of a bag,” he said. “The excuse we generally get the most often is they simply forgot it was in there.”
During the hearing on the TSA’s budget and operations, LaJoye emphasized the agency was not only focused on regulatory enforcement – it can impose thousands in fines for those who forget their Glock in their carry-on luggage – but also education. Part of that effort involves studying varying state and local regulations for those transporting firearms between jurisdictions.
Repeat offenders were exceedingly low, he said, making officials think the issue is partially due to travelers returning to the normality of security after the early months of the Covid-19 crisis.
That new normal includes wearing masks on all modes of transportation. LaJoye said TSA is enforcing Centers for Disease Control and Prevention rules for wearing masks in airports and on airplanes as well as on trains and buses. About 2,000 noncompliance incidents have happened since the mask mandate was implemented in February, with about 90% of them occurring onboard aircraft. The mandate was recently extended until September.
“There have been arrests that have been made and we have enforced civil penalties for especially egregious cases,” LaJoye said. “That continues to remain a challenge for us.”
Congresswoman Lucille Roybal-Allard, a California Democrat, pointed to staffing challenges for TSA in light of the Covid-19 pandemic. Many were concerned that although airport traffic had decreased significantly, it is still 50% higher than in April of 2019. She questioned what that increase meant for the TSA’s ability to staff security checkpoints.
LaJoye said that throughout the pandemic, the TSA has prioritized security even as staffing and funding have dwindled. He said that strategy will continue this summer during an expected ramp-up in travel.
He also said attracting talent has been an issue for the agency. Bringing people into larger rooms to do TSA assessments was an initial operational challenge, he said, but in the last 120 days the agency has hired 2,500 more officers.
Over the next eight weeks, it expects to hire another 1,600 — which would place its staffing level on par with the 2019 workforce, LaJoye said.
Congressman Pete Aguilar, another California Democrat, noted a 2019 report from the Office of the Inspector General that outlined improvements TSA should take in improving its employee retention rate. LaJoye said the situation is getting better and he fully supports many of those recommendations, such as exit interviews with officers.
“If you look at, you know, the employee engagement index … we’ve seen almost a 12-point improvement in the last four years,” he said. “And when we talk to the workforce, what we typically hear is the importance of pay.”