Holiday Travel: TSA Administrator Talks Changes

As travelers head out for the holiday, TSA Administrator John Pistole talks about changes at the airport.

KAZU News Director Krista Almanzan recently spoke with the Administrator of the Transportation Security Administration John Pistole when he visited the Naval Postgraduate School's Center for Homeland Defense and Security.  The  interview follows.  


KA: Right now we're entering the busy time of year where people are traveling.  And for many people this may be the only time of year where they encounter the TSA.  So when we are thinking year on year, from last year to this year, are there any changes that people will notice?

John Pistole: One of the changes that people will notice if they’re traveling with children, twelve and under, is that we have adopted new policies for how we screen children twelve in under, which includes allowing them to keep their shoes on, which is a major thing for some families as they try to get the shoes back on and everything. And then we do a different type of screening for them to try to work with the parents or guardians much more so to help resolve any alarms that may happen to ensure that we can expedite their screening as much as possible.

We’re also working at five airports now on what we call a TSA PreCheck program with certain frequent fliers, right now with Delta and American, who volunteer to share information from the airlines with TSA.  That we can make prescreening decisions about them that they are lower risk.   And so yesterday (December 14th)  we announced in Las Vegas that McCarren airport as being the next airport, and then after the first of the year LAX and Minneapolis Saint Paul.  Basically what this means is for those individuals and also those who sign up through Customs Border Protection Global Entry Program that they will be given the high likelihood of expedited physical screening.  So there would be a dedicated lane for them to go to. They would be allowed to keep their shoes on, keep their belt on, keep a light jacket on, keep their laptop in their briefcase, and keep their liquids and aerosol gels in their bag, and go through an expedited physical screening because we’ve done pre-screening on the front end.  So those are some of the things that people may see this year as they travel. 

KA: I think we’ve all heard those stories of a parent worried about their child being excessively screen. And it seems every year, we hear stories about someone with a medical device, like an insulin pump, who seems to be excessively screened.  Now there are some New York lawmakers who have called for a passenger advocate at every airport.  Is that an idea that you’re open to?

John Pistole: Oh absolutely.  Any time we can help educate and work with the traveling public that’s a good thing for security.  And so Senator Schumer has called for this type of set up.  We actually have it in several of the largest airports, but this would be an expansion of that program where it would allow passengers with special needs circumstances where they may need some additional time or some additional personal assistance to do that.  So we will be rolling out an 800 number after the first of the year that people can call and give us a heads up and say hey, I’ll be travelling at this date and time, at this airport, could I have some additional assistance.  So yes, we are committed to doing that.

KA: Another area of traveler concern has been the body scanners.  When the TSA started using the body scanners, travelers raised questions about privacy and health effects. Has the TSA done anything to address those?

John Pistole: We have had an number of scientific studies done outside of the TSA to assress the safety issues with one type of advanced imaging technology, the body scanners that we have.  And all those have found that the amount of radiation that a person receives walking through is about the same amount as naturally occurring radiation for example if you are flying at elevation of two to three minutes exposure, so on a cross country flight you received a lot of naturally occurring radiation.  And the machines are set in a way that the can’t exceed a very, very minimal dose, which is well below the standards set.  That being said there are still some who have concerns, so we are still looking at ways to reassure those folks with those concerns.

KA: And you’ve also made some recent changes in terms of privacy?

John Pistole: Yes so we’ve also introduced a new privacy filter if you will, called automatic target recognition, so as a passenger goes through, steps out of the imaging technology machine, they can turn and look at the image.   It’s just a generic outline of a person for every body, and they can see if there are any areas of alarm or anomaly.  And so it completely addresses concerns of privacy concerns I believe that people have raised because there’s no image of you as a person.  It’s the same generic outline for every person, which some people may be flattered by and some people may be disappointed by, but it’s the same outline for every person.