Posts in the category "TSA":

Check your suitcase for Chihuahuas

On the TSA Blog each Friday you’ll find a report on the firearms, weapons and other prohibited – and often really strange – things found at airport checkpoints and in checked bags.

TSA MEM

This week, for example, the TSA found 55 firearms at airport checkpoints. 51 of those firearms were loaded and 13 had rounds chambered.

The fact that so many people just ‘forget’ they’ve got a gun, especially a loaded gun, in their carry-on is always alarming. But Friday’s report that TSA officers at New York’s LaGuardia Airport found a chihuahua inside a checked bag is mostly amusing.

According to the TSA, officers found the dog inside the suitcase while they were resolving a checked baggage alarm. TSA had the airline track down the suitcase owner, who said she had no idea the dog was in there and that the dog – a 7 year old chihuahua – must have climbed into the suitcase as it was being packed.

Bets? How many firearms will TSA find at airports?

ATL GUNS

Each Friday, before I close my office and head to Happy Hour, I check the TSA Blog for the Week in Review posting of the number of firearms (loaded and unloaded) and other prohibited items (inert explosives, big knives, anti-tank weapons, etc.) discovered at airport checkpoints.

You should too.

The blog (and TSA’s Instagram account) offers an informal course on the wide variety of items TSA deems too dangerous to be allowed on airplanes, yet which travelers continue to bring to airports.

TSA find _ Keychain is actually a punching weapon prohibited on planes by TSA

The numbers don’t spike on particular holidays or on Mondays but the tally of firearms, especially, keeps going up.

On June 4, 2014, for example, TSA reported that 18 firearms were discovered in carry-on bags around the country, breaking the previous record of 13 found in one day, set in 2013.

In early November, another record was broken. With two months still to go in the year, the number of firearms discovered at checkpoints had reached 1,855.

That blew 2014’s tally past the overall 2013 total of 1,813. By the close of business on December 15, this year’s tally had grown to 2,097.

“I think the rate is increasing because more and more people are carrying [weapons] throughout the country. It can actually be difficult for people who carry all the time because the gun becomes an extension of them, just like their cell phone and wallet,” said Jeff Price, author of Practical Aviation Security.

“Oops, I forgot that was in there,” is the most common explanation given by passengers found with firearms in a carry-on bag. But there are people, like the guy nabbed this week at JFK Airport with parts of a disassembled .22 caliber firearm hidden inside a PlayStation 2 console, who certainly know what they’re toting. “Some of these people are just tools trying to get one over on TSA and the system, but there are also those who may be affiliated with terrorist groups that decide to test the system to see what they can get through,” said Price.

TSA_GiantScissors

Thanks to ever-more-sophisticated technology, TSA is confident it is catching 100 percent of all the firearms coming through checkpoints. But Todd Curtis, founder of AirSafe.com, pegs the find rate at closer to 90 percent.

“The technology TSA has isn’t perfect,” said Curtis, “But in most cases, if someone is dense enough to try to take a weapon through the checkpoint they’ll be caught.”

Whenever TSA does spot a firearm in a carry-on bag at a checkpoint, the screening process stops until law enforcement responds and retrieves the weapon. And it’s local laws, not the TSA, that determine if any criminal charges are filed against a passenger.

Criminal charges or not, passengers found with firearms at airport checkpoints are subject to civil penalties, ranging from $1,500 up to $11,000. In 2013, TSA assessed nearly $1.7 million in civil penalties for firearms discovered in carry-on bags nationwide.

What happens to the firearms also depends on local laws. While local law enforcement allows TSA to photograph firearms (and other prohibited items) discovered at checkpoints, “TSA doesn’t take possession of any firearms,” said TSA spokesman Ross Feinstein, “Local law enforcement might confiscate the weapon as evidence or give it back the passenger to return it to their home or to put it in their vehicle.”

Beyond firearms, of course, TSA officers encounter an extremely wide variety of other prohibited items at airport checkpoints, including machetes, hatchets, swords, giant scissors, brass knuckles, cannonballs, bear repellant and, this past October, an unloaded cannon.

“Maybe someone has a lucky inert grenade they brought back from some war, or a nice cane was given to them and they forgot that the thing is actually a sword,” said Price, “It’s the people that are carrying stuff like chainsaws that make me wonder.”

(This story first appeared on the Runway Girl Network in a slightly different version.)

Heading to the airport? Where’s your gun?

ATL GUNS

The numbers seem a bit boggling: despite the fact that firearms, ammunition, firearm parts, and realistic replicas of firearms are prohibited in carry-on baggage, an increasing number of passengers continue to show up at airport checkpoints with these items.

In fact, according to the Transportation Security Administration, at the end of the day on November 4, 1,855 firearms had been found at airport checkpoints. 1,471 (79 percent) were loaded.

That number exceeded the 2013 total – 1,813 – by 42. And it’s just November.

Here are the airports where the most firearms have been found in carry-on bags: Dallas/Fort Worth International (DFW) – 104 Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International (ATL) – 90 Phoenix Sky Harbor International (PHX) – 66 Houston George Bush Intercontinental (IAH) – 62 Denver International (DEN) – 61 .

Of course, this hasn’t stopped people from bringing guns to the airport in their carry-on bags…

TSA

Are TSA PreCheck centers easy-access?

TSA PreCheck Enrollment Center at IND Airport - courtesy TSA

 

No balloons fell from the ceiling last week when the U.S. Department of Homeland Security celebrated the fact that over 500,000 travelers have handed over personal data – and $85 – to join the Transportation Security Administration’s expedited airport screening program since the first public enrollment center opened at Indianapolis International Airport in December 2013.

Today, the Global Gateway Alliance, a group that advocates for improvements at the New York metropolitan area airports, released a report offering TSA advice on how to push the PreCheck enrollment numbers higher.

There are currently about 300 PreCheck application sites nationwide processing, altogether, more than four thousand new applications a day. Twenty-eight of those sites are in airports (LAX and ATL each have two), with many others co-located at pre-existing sites in strip malls, office and industrial parks, and a few chiropractic offices contracted to do credentialing for airport and railroad workers and for truck drivers hauling hazardous materials to and from port facilities.

The range of off-airport sites “makes it easier for the traveling public to apply for TSA PreCheck,” said TSA’s Feinstein. But putting enrollment centers “in places where people actually congregate, which can be conveniently accessed, would raise awareness and participation the program,” the GGA suggests.

In the New York area, the TSA currently has enrollment centers at Terminal C at LaGuardia and in Terminal 4 at JFK. GGA’s report urges TSA to expand throughout area airport terminals “to reach travelers at the point when they are most likely to be thinking about airport security.”

Have you applied for the PreCheck program? How did it go?

(My story about TSA Precheck centers first appeared on USA TODAY).

Sign-ups for TSA PreCheck occur in unusual places

TSA PreCheck Enrollment Center at IND Airport - courtesy TSA

Have you signed up for TSA’s PreCheck program yet? If you do, you may be in for a surprise when you go to the application center to get fingerprinted and have your documents reviewed. Some of the sites are in strange places – as I found out when researching this story for my At the Airport column on USA TODAY.

 

The Transportation Security Administration is dialing down its program of “free samples” for passage through PreCheck lanes at airports.

Soon the only way to way to guarantee the buzz that comes with keeping your shoes on and your laptop and 3-1-1 baggie in your carry-on at the checkpoint will be to pay for it.

You can do that now through one of the Trusted Traveler Programs offered by U.S. Customs and Border Protection or by paying TSA $85 and visiting a designated application center for fingerprinting and document review.

That’s where things can get interesting.

In 2013, TSA adjusted its contract with MorphoTrustUSA to include the operation of what is now more than 300 (and counting) PreCheck application sites. Twenty-eight of those sites are currently in airports (LAX and ATL each have two) but for efficiency, many of the other PreCheck processing sites are in locations where Morpho was already doing credentialing for transportation workers at airports and railroads, and for truck drivers who haul hazardous materials and access port docks.

Penny Watermeier works for a travel management company in Omaha and was sent to an office in a suburban complex to complete her TSA PreCheck application.

“There were three other people there when I went,” said Watermeier, “Two were doing blood samples for the railroad and there was one other PreCheck candidate. I was in and out of the facility in less than 15 minutes and received my known traveler number within 10 days.”

Declaring the process “seamless and painless,” Watermeier also took the opportunity to do some shopping at Costco, which was across the street.

There was no Costco in sight when Bill Chandler and his wife drove from their home, an hour south of the Tallahassee Regional Airport in Florida, to Valdosta, Ga., to complete the TSA PreCheck process.

“We knew a good restaurant in Valdosta, so being retired, we decided to take a two hour drive, do whatever TSA needed and have lunch and come home,” he said via e-mail.

They imagined a nice day trip, but once they pulled up to the address Google maps directed them to, “We could hardly believe what we saw. We thought it was a scam,” said Chandler.

The couple backed out, drove around, checked their coordinates, and determined they were indeed in the right place.

“We walked in and a child was wailing in a back room. My wife went back and checked to see if the child was OK and I got in line with truck drivers getting permits to haul hazardous materials.”

While a bit unconventional, it was no scam.

“The process was easy and the lady was nice and we promptly received our TSA PreCheck approval in the mail,” said Chandler.

A study of sites listed on the Department of Homeland Security Enrollment Center Locator reveals other convenient, but seemingly non-traditional sign-up locations.

In both Knoxville and Johnson City, Tenn., the enrollment center is inside The UPS Store.

Helpful directions for the enrollment center at the River Wall Mall in South Charleston, W.Va., alert drivers to the fact that the mall entrance is “between Burger King and Krispy Kreme Doughnuts” and that they’ll pass a Mattress Warehouse before arriving at the front door.

In Moline, Ill., travelers and truckers mingle with patients in the waiting room of Birdsell Chiropractic & Acupuncture Clinic.

“We were already doing drug screening and physicals for truck drivers and after sending in some billing we were approached about doing fingerprinting for hazmat and TSA PreCheck,” said company owner Melissa Birdsell in a phone interview between patients.

Because Moline is just a few miles from Davenport, Iowa – the home of a major chiropractic school – the area is densely populated with chiropractors. “So this is a soft way of meeting people in the community, getting some new patients and is better than doing free spinal screenings in the malls,” said Birdsell.

The opportunity to get his company’s services in front of thousands of potential new customers is also what made Mark Hultquist, owner of Computer Renaissance in St. Cloud, Minn., say yes when MorphoTrust came calling in 2008.

“They were moving to computerized fingerprint instead of the old style of fingerprinting with ink and probably approached us because we were a computer store and would be familiar with that technology,” said Hultquist.

Above the fee his company receives for processing PreCheck and other applications, “these programs bring more than 2,000 people a year through our door who would not otherwise even know we exist.”

That cross-promotion of services also works to the advantage of the South Lafourche Library in Cut Off, La., which is located in a former Walmart building that also houses the parish government office that processes PreCheck and other programs used by many of the offshore oil and gas workers that work out of the nearby port.

Although the Enrollment Center Locator points applicants to the library, “our job is to help people and give information, so we’re happy to redirect them to the correct office,” said librarian Katina Gaudet. “But sometimes people who come in here for directions also go home with a library card.”

Since December 2013, when TSA began allowing passengers to passengers to enroll in TSA PreCheck for a fee, close to 475,000 people have signed up, with an additional 4,000 people joining each day, according to the TSA.

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