Amid expectations for even higher airline travel this summer than last, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is adding more personnel and bomb sniffing dog teams at airports to enhance security and minimize checkpoint wait times, an agency official told a House panel on Thursday.
TSA will have 50 more passenger screening canine teams in place before the peak travel season in July, Darby LaJoye, executive administrator for Security Operations, told the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Transportation Security. The agency this year has already added more than 600 Transportation Security Officers and plans to have another 1,000 on the front lines by July, he said.
The bomb sniffing dogs are being used as an additional layer of security in the waiting lines at some airport security checkpoints and in some cases they are being used to expedite the screening of some travelers through standard screening lanes, LaJoye said. In these cases, travelers get to pass through the screening process in way that is similar to pre-vetted travelers that are enrolled in the agency’s PreCheck trusted traveler program.
Congress previously directed TSA from sending non-vetted travelers through PreCheck lanes, something the agency was doing through what it called “Managed Inclusion,” which involved using Behavior Detection Officers to single out individuals that didn’t appear to pose a threat to the aviation system and provide them the benefit of expedited screening to help thin overall checkpoint wait times.
Rep. John Katko (R-N.Y.), chairman of the subcommittee, told LaJoye that Managed Inclusion isn’t “risk-based security, it’s just moving people through.” Katko equated TSA’s new practice of canine expedited screening with Managed Inclusion and said legislation is forthcoming to prohibit this.
“It’s a security gap in our minds,” Katko said.
In the fiscal year 2019 budget request, TSA is seeking funding for 1,047 canine teams, which includes 372 for passenger screening operations and 675 for use by state and local partners, LaJoye said.
“With passenger levels rising, TSA believes that PSC (passenger screening canine) teams are a cost effective resource to meet increasing demands and that growth in this capability is important for future years,” LaJoye said in his written statement.
TSA has about 6.4 million travelers enrolled in PreCheck and another 2 million are qualified to use these expedited screening lanes through their participation in U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Global Entry trusted traveler program. Global Entry allows vetted U.S. citizens and citizens from certain countries that have also been vetted to receive expedited processing benefits when arriving in the U.S.
LaJoye said that TSA is working with CBP to expand the number of PreCheck enrollment centers by combining them with CBP’s trusted traveler enrollment centers, and creating a common web portal between the agencies for prospective trusted traveler enrollees. William Russell, the acting director of Homeland Security and Justice Issues at the Government Accountability Office, said TSA’s goal is to have 25 million travelers enrolled in PreCheck by 2020.
LaJoye also mentioned that TSA is working to bring new technologies to airport checkpoints, including computed tomography (CT)-based carry-on baggage scanners to enhance screening and reduce false alarms. TSA expects that the CT systems, coupled with advanced lanes it is evaluating at a number of airports, will increase security and at the same time process travelers more quickly.
Throughout this summer, TSA plans to have 35 of the CT systems under evaluation at airports and various test facilities. If all goes well, the agency hopes to begin buying larger numbers of the systems early in 2019.
Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-N.J.), the ranking member on the panel, asked LaJoye about a New York Times report on Thursday that TSA has created a “secret watchlist” to track certain travelers. LaJoye responded that the list contains fewer than 50 individuals and was established due to an “alarming increase in the number of assaults on our officers.”
LaJoye said that the watchlist gives front line officers awareness that these individuals may be coming to an airport “and they’ve either demonstrated a history of assaulting officers or trying to circumvent some sort of security procedure.” Individuals on the watchlist aren’t subject to additional screening, he said.