A monkey, a missed meal and guns

Some of the guns found at airport checkpoints Aug 5-11

I’m on fill-in duty this week on the Today in the Sky blog over at USA TODAY and having fun working up a variety of both serious and off-beat stories relating to airports and airlines.

Monday’s line-up:

An update on the “monkey on a plane” story that was all over the news last week;

A story about British Airways replacing a second meal service with tiny chocolate bars and other small snacks on some longhaul flights between London and the east coast;

And a look at the new record set by TSA for most firearms found at airport checkpoints in one week.

How to fix the TSA


Thanks to modern inventions such as ATMS, self-checkout lanes in grocery stores and you-pump gas stations, modern day citizens don’t stand in line very often.

And when they do, it is often willingly at a place like Disney World where a thrilling ride or a charming come-to-life cartoon character is the reward.

That makes waiting in line at airport security checkpoints all the worse.

And fixing the current problems all the more challenging.

I outlined some of the solutions being proposed in a story this week for NBC News, starting with the TSA’s own ten-point list of fixes:

1. Maximizing the use of overtime for TSA officers
2. Hiring more TSA officers, including another 768 this year
3. Additional K-9 teams
4. Allowing Federal Security Directors at airports to use more flexibility in training TSA staff for screening
5. Developing specific plans to cut down on wait times at some of the nation’s busiest airports
6. Reducing carry-on luggage (size and number)
7. Asking airlines for help in non-security tasks
8. Doing more research and development into technology that will increase passenger flow through security
9. Encourage travelers to sign up for TSA PreCheck
10. Working with Congress to get additional resources for the TSA

Some of these ideas are already being put into action and some – like the suggestion that airlines stop charging for checked bags – are getting pushback from airlines, which last year made $3.8 billion from checked bag fees.

Some airports have said they want to opt out of TSA and hire private contractors – who may or may not be better and faster – for checkpoint duties, but that process takes at least a year and, in the end, TSA still oversees the checkpoint operations.

Another idea being discussed is a reservation system for the security lines, much like Disney’s FastPass, which allows park visitors to reserve times for attractions and entertainment.

One airport — in Canada — says it’s already using a similar system with success.

Montreal-Pierre Elliot Trudeau International uses a SecurXpress program that sends passengers a text message containing an appointment time for going through a designated security line.

This helps the airport “modulate traffic at peak times and makes the whole process more seamless for everyone,” said YUL spokesman François-Nicolas Asselin, and is currently being used by up to 500 passengers a day.

Checkpoint reservation systems, and policies that allow families with small children and passengers in danger of missing their flights to move to the front of the line, could help ease tensions on airport security lines, said Richard Larson, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who’s sometimes known as “Dr. Queue.”

But he says the circus entertainers, therapy ponies, live music and free snacks some airports are offering to those waiting in long checkpoints lines could backfire.

SAN DIEGO, APRIL, 29, 2016: Members of the Fern Street Circus perform at the San Diego International Airport. Photo: Gary Payne

SAN DIEGO, APRIL, 29, 2016: Members of the Fern Street Circus perform at the San Diego International Airport. Photo: Gary Payne

“It works for Disney in the amusement parks,” said Larson. But passengers who miss flights due to long checkpoint lines may end up being more furious “because they’ll feel like they were being distracted from what’s really important — getting on the plane.”

TSA’s 2015 gun tally

For the Runway Girl Network, I put together a year-end review of the guns, weapons and assorted odd items discovered by TSA at airport checkpoints during 2015.


In 2014, the TSA reported that it had discovered 2,122 firearms in the carry-on bags of passengers. That was an average of six firearms per day and was a 22 percent increase over the number of firearms (1,813) found in 2013.

TSA’s official 2015 Year in Review is due out any minute, but my unofficial tally taken from the weekly reports on the TSA Blog adds up to 2,495 firearms found at airport checkpoints this past year – which is yet another new record.

Of course, prohibited items found by Transportation Security Officers in carry-on bags and on passengers passing through security checkpoints aren’t limited to firearms.

Last year TSA found, 40 pounds of marijuana in one man’s bag at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, a meat slicer at Southwest Florida International Airport and a knife concealed inside a souvenir replica of the Eiffel Tower, found at Oakland International Airport.

Meat Slicer found in a carry-on bag at Southwest Florida International Airiport_edited

And, in the same week in March that the TSA found 55 firearms (51 loaded; 13 with a round chambered) and 13 stun guns, a Chihuahua was discovered inside a checked bag at New York’s LaGuardia Airport.

How did that happen?

“Apparently, the dog climbed in while its owner was packing her suitcase. TSA worked with the airline to identify the owner, and the two were happily reunited,” the TSA reported.

Knife concealed in an Eiffel Tower replica - found at Oakland Airport_edited

Chihauhua found in carry-on bag at LaGuardia Airport_edited

REAL ID act may cause issues for air travelers



What’s in your wallet?

If you plan on traveling any time next year, the question is a pertinent one. Travelers with driver’s licenses from New York, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Louisiana, American Samoa or another state or territory the Department of Homeland Security deems not-compliant with the federal REAL ID act may soon be barred from using theirs as legal identification at the airport.

Up in the air, however, is whether “soon” means early or late 2016 — or a year or more.

DHS has already completed three separate phases of its REAL ID enforcement plan, which covers access to nuclear plants and a wide array of federally protected facilities. However, the next phase adds commercial aircraft to the agency’s access list, and will take place sometime after the turn of the calendar year.

The exact rollout date will be announced soon, said DHS spokeswoman Amanda DeGroff adding that the agency will “ensure that the traveling public has ample notice before any changes are made that could possibly affect their travel planning.”

Until then, DeGroff said the Transportation Security Administration will continue to accept state-issued driver’s licenses and identification cards from all states.

This means some travelers may be in for an unpleasant surprise at airports  next year.

While almost two dozen states issue driver’s licenses that are compliant with the law, numerous others have raised privacy and cost concerns. They, along with some independent advocacy groups, actively oppose the measure.

Some states, like Oklahoma, have laws on their books that explicitly prohibit complying with REAL ID; meanwhile, about two dozen non-complaint states have been granted extensions.

Turned away?

It’s unlikely the rule will take effect January 1, given the hurdles to compliance and the broad opposition.

“We expect that New Yorkers with standard-issue licenses will have more than a year notice before any change is implemented,” said Casey McNulty, a spokesman for the Empire State’s Department of Motor Vehicles. “New York has also applied for an extension to the law.”

When the final phase does ultimately take effect, travelers age 18 and over from states that remain non-compliant will need to a secondary or alternate form of identification. These include a U.S. passport or passport card, or one of the documents TSA’s authorized ID list, to pass through airport security checkpoints.

Travelers who do a little planning shouldn’t have a problem getting on their planes, but “rushes on passports will likely result in delays in getting applications processed,” noted Andrew Meehan, policy director of advocacy group Keeping Identities Safe and a Real ID supporter.

Still, “airports in noncompliant states will likely see long lines as travelers unaware of the changes will be turned away.”

(My story about the potential issues for air travelers due to the Real ID act first appeared on CNBC)

What will the new TSA chief change at airports?


What is the new head of the Transportation Security Administration going to do now that he’s been on the job for four weeks?

Withing 60 days he’s going to make sure all airport screeners are retrained so they can better detect explosives and spot weapons. And he’s going to try to get more passengers to enroll in the agency’s expedited security checkpoint program, called pre-check.

He’d also like to get rid of boarding passes and someday replace them with biometric technology.

Peter Neffenger, the new TSA administrator, went before the House Homeland Security Committee on Wednesday and said it was a “huge concern” that the agency’s officers failed to identify bombs, weapons and other security threats 96 percent of the time during recent undercover testing.

“It greatly disturbs me to know that we had that failure rate at the checkpoint,” he said, and to fix that, the agency will “train out those failures.”

Neffenger also told the panel he wants to increase the use of explosive-detection dogs for passenger screening, expand enrollments in the Pre-check program and phase out “managed inclusion.”

TSA PreCheck Enrollment Center at IND Airport - courtesy TSA

Neffenger said that likes the idea that biometrics – individual characteristics such as fingerprints or facial characteristics for personal identification – might someday mean that “you are your boarding pass.”