airports

TSA: 2018 was record-breaking year for guns found at airports

TSA’s Year in Review came out today with the (still somewhat unofficial) final stats on the number of guns TSA officers found in carry-on bags at airport checkpoints last year.

The total for 2018 is a record-setting 4,239 firearms found in carry-on bags at 249 of the more than 400 TSA-controlled airport checkpoints around the country.

That’s up more than 7 percent from the 3,957 firearms TSA officers found in carry-on bags in 2017.

And that averages out to 81.6 firearms a week and 11.6 firearms a day.

The break-down gets more alarming when we look at the stats on the number of guns found to be loaded.

Of the 4,239 firearms found last year, more than 86% (3,656) were loaded (another record) and almost 34% (1,432) of the firearms found had a round chambered.

Why do so many passengers show up at airports with guns?

“I think the biggest reason is that people go buy these things and then completely forget they have them, which is dangerous in its own right,” said aviation security expert Jeff Price, the owner of Leading Edge Strategies, “I imagine when they get the gun, at first they are always aware of it because they feel safer. Then, after a period of time, it works its way to the bottom of the bag and next thing that happens is its discovered at a screening checkpoint.”

Price also suspects that because more people are carrying guns these days and carry those guns in purses and laptops, they are aware they have the guns, “But in the hustle and confusion of preparing for a trip, they forget to take the gun out. “

TSA’s Year in Review also lists the top 10 airports for firearm discoveries in 2018.

Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL) the Top 10 list with 298 firearms found. (253 loaded.) That’s an increase of 53 compared to 2017.

ATL also set the record for the airport with the most firearms discovered in one month: In August 2018, 32 firearms were found at ATL checkpoints.

Here’s the rest of TSA’s Top 10 list of airports for firearms discoveries in 2018:

Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport (DFW): 219 (193 loaded)

Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport (PHX): 129 (120 loaded)

Denver International Airport (DEN): 126 (95 loaded)

Orlando International Airport (MCO): 123 (112 loaded)

George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH): 117 (115 loaded). Some good news here: this is a decrease of 25 compared to 2017.

Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport (FLL): 96 (80 loaded)

Austin-Bergstrom International Airport (AUS): 93 (76 loaded)

Dallas Love Field Airport (DAL): 89 (83 loaded)    

Nashville International Airport (BNA): 86 (80 loaded)

In a year when TSA also screened a record number of travelers (813.8 million; a 5.5 percent increase over 2017), the agency’s officers also found a wide variety of prohibited items and ‘artfully concealed’ objects other than firearms in carry-on bags, including inert grenades, a bottle of lighter fluid, fireworks and knife combs.

TSA’s week in review also notes the loss in 2018 of Curtis “Blogger Bob” Burns, the charmingly corny TSA employee who chronicled the agency’s odd finds on the TSA blog, on Twitter and on Instagram. Burns is featured in quirky videos highlighting TSA Top 10 Most Unusual Finds in 2016 and in 2017.

TSA’s Year in Review promises that a video highlighting 2018’s most unusual finds will be released soon.

Testing, testing: Does this airport terminal work?

Earlier this month, more than 200 ‘fake’ passengers showed up at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.  

They weren’t working a scam. And they weren’t there to protest anything.

Instead, they were there volunteering to help Sea-Tac airport test the operational readiness of a satellite terminal undergoing its first major expansion and modernization in 45 years.

Happy to be spending their Saturday morning at the airport, 3-year-old Ari Weinstein and his 6-year-old brother, Micah, were toting tiny rolling suitcases for the day’s pretend flight.

“We thought it would be fun to check-out the new airport addition and see how easy it was for kids,” said the boys’ dad, Ben Weinstein, a Boeing engineer, “I’m also curious to see how the latest airport design works with new airplanes.”

72-year-old Vicki Lockwood and her 93-year-old mom, Ruby Griffin, had signed up to be testers too.   

“I wanted to see what was happening so I can tell my friends at the senior center what it’s all about,” said Griffin.

Travel agent Rufo Calvo volunteered as a tester so he could get an early look at the new terminal area and tell his clients what to expect. And Toffee Coleman, who travels four or times a month for her job in marketing and sales, was curious to find out what the expanded terminal would offer for business travelers. “I hope it measures up to the central terminal in terms of ease of use, amenities and accessibility,” she said.  

Opening day for the first phase of Sea-Tac airport’s expanded North Satellite was less than two weeks away. The bathrooms, drinking fountains, food concessions and visual paging systems weren’t quite ready, but this “passenger-flow simulation” was testing the journey between the main terminal and the expanded satellite as well as the process of boarding and deplaning a flight at one of the new gates.

“We’ll also be asking the volunteers if the temperature in the terminal is comfortable and if they can hear the overhead announcements clearly,” said Charles Goedken, Sea-Tac’s senior manager for Operational Readiness, Activation and Transition, or ORAT, which is the system of best practices many airports use from the design stage forward to make sure a new airport or new terminal is ready for opening day.

“What you try to do is to start working early with the planning and construction team so that when the airport or the facility is open everyone knows what to do,” said Lance Lyttle, the managing director of Sea-Tac Airport, “You don’t want to find issues on opening day; you want to find them before opening day.”

Lyttle was with Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport and Houston’s William P. Hobby Airport when each opened new terminals and says no airport wants to relive the opening glitches experienced by Heathrow and Denver airports.  

In the early 1990s, the high-profile failure of an expensive, computerized baggage-handling system delayed the opening of Denver International Airport by 16 months and increased the construction budget by millions of dollars.

After that, “DEN returned to manual baggage systems,” said Denver International Airport spokeswoman Alex Renteria.

In 2008, the grand opening of Terminal 5 at Heathrow Airport’s turned to mush thanks to a cascading series of staffing and baggage-handling problems that forced British Airways to suspend luggage check-in and cancel more than 200 flights over four days. Thousands of passengers missed their flights and more than 15,000 pieces of luggage were delayed.  

“If you have a failed opening of a facility it lives as part of your reputation forever,” said Sea-Tac Airport’s Lance Lyttle, “People use it as an example. And not in a good way. Heathrow underestimated the value of ORAT. But the next time [the opening of Terminal 2, in 2014] they went overboard and got it right.”

New terminals and terminal upgrade projects are underway at all three New York-area airports and at airports in Istanbul, Singapore, Salt Lake City, San Francisco, New Orleans, Pittsburgh and many other cities and testing is key to those projects.

At Turkey’s new international in Istanbul, which is expected to be fully open by March, 2019, the ORAT (Operational Readiness, Activation and Transition) team reported for duty more than 20 months ago.

“More than 60,000 airport community staff have gone thru a familiarization and training program,” said Stephan Schwolgin, Istanbul Airport’s ORAT project manager, “More than 175 trials have been conducted with nearly 10.000 fake passengers and 7 real aircraft.”

The experience of unbiased, fake passengers is valuable for gathering feedback on everything from wayfinding and flight information display systems to walking distances and the availability of power sockets, said Schwolgin.

On February 6 Finland’s Helsinki Airport will hold a test day with more than 200 fake passengers at the airport’s new central plaza, called Aukio, which will serve both departing and arriving passengers.

“We will test the functionality of services and passenger paths, especially the state-of-the-art security check with a full body scanner,” said Joni Sundelin, Helsinki Airport’s executive director, “The trial day includes testing not only of the passenger flow, signage, restaurants and bathroom facilities, but also services and processes for passengers with reduced mobility.”

During a previous test of a different part of the airport, “There was a funny issue with the toilets,” said Sundelin. “Test passengers were wearing brightly colored vest and when the testers entered the bathroom all the automatic water taps with motion sensors activated. Apparently the sensors were so sensitive they recognized the bright yellow and orange vests moving even from the distance,” said Sundelin.

When testing with fake passengers for San Francisco International Airport’s Boarding Area E, “We learned there was some signage too small or not universal enough,” said Kristi Hogan, Associate Vice President, Transportation for engineering firm AECOM, “No one could find the yoga room.”

For a passenger-flow simulation scheduled for June 6 in advance of the July opening of 9 new gates at SFO’s Terminal 1, volunteers of all ages and abilities will be asked to test the terminal signage; flush toilets and use faucets and automatic hand dryers in the bathrooms; locate flight display boards; test the Wi-Fi and make phone calls on their cell phones.

“We’ll have some fake passengers arrive on the BART train and have others get dropped off at the curb,” said Hogan, “And we’ll also ask them to become arriving passengers and make their way to baggage claim, to taxis or to BART.

Trials and simulations will also soon be underway in advance of the scheduled May 15 opening of the new terminal at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport (MSY)

“These simulations will test everything from parking, ticket counters, security checkpoints, flight monitors, restrooms, gates, concessions, emergency exits, lost and found, and ground transportation,” said MSY spokeswoman Erin Burns.

Emergency response systems, baggage systems, PA systems and everything on the facility maintenance side will also get tested, said Burns, including simultaneous toilet flushes & sink use, seating, power access and severe weather operations.

Employees and fake passengers will performed many of these tests but, with perhaps the Denver and Heathrow terminal debacles in mind, Burns said data on how MSY passengers might experience the facility will also be gathered during sneak peaks events held in the terminal right up to the official opening.

Shutdown over (for now); support for airport workers continues

Funding for all parts of the US government has been reinstated – for three weeks – and TSA, FAA, CBP and other federal employees who have been required to work – without pay – are now expecting paychecks and back pay.

But life for many of these people has been disrupted. And paychecks may not arrive until February 1, or later. That means many airports will continue collecting and distributing community donations of foods and gift cards to these workers.

Seattle-Tacoma Internatoinal Airport will continue collecting donations through Friday, February 1. Here’s the list of what has been donated over the past two weeks:

7,000 diapers

650 donuts

10 crates of fresh fruit

Thousands of dollars-worth of gift cards

Three weeks-worth of hot meals

At Los Angles International Airport, workers will continue to receive free rides on the FlyAway bus and waived or deferred parking fees until paychecks start flowing.

Last Thursday, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said he directed the L.A. Department of Water and Power as well as the city’s Bureau of Sanitation to offer assistance and payment plans for water, power, sewer and trash services. That includes plans that spread payments out over an additional three to four months.

Other airports will continue their support efforts as well.

And on Friday, United Airlines announced a donation of $1 million to Feeding America’s Shutdown Response Fund to support the food banks providing food for families of federal workers who need assistance following their loss of income.

“Even with [Friday’s] announcement, there is continued need among federal employees, in addition to the important programs that Feeding America administers,” said United CEO Oscar Munoz, “We continue to urge our leaders to work in a bipartisan way over the coming weeks to ensure long-term certainty on which our industry and the overall economy depends.”

TSA getting love + shutting checkpoints

As the partial government shutdown slogs on, the Transportation Security Administration says an increasing number of its officers are facing financial difficulties and not showing up for work.

That’s causing longer wait times at some major airports around the country. It’s also forcing some airports to close some checkpoints.

Checkpoint A was closed at Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

And the security checkpoint in Terminal B continues to be shut down at George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston.

TSA officers, air traffic controllers and other federal workers who have been showing up for work at airport may not be getting paychecks, but across the country, they are getting lots of love, food and assistance from airlines, airports, restaurants, community groups and the general public. Here’s a slightly updated version of the story I filed this weekend for CNBC.

At Bellingham International Airport in Washington, about 20 miles from the Canadian border, budget airline Allegiant Air provided pizza for TSA workers on Thursday.

In Las Vegas, Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak not only visited with TSA workers at McCarran International Airport to express his appreciation for their service and commitment to the airport and to the community, he followed up by having hot pizzas delivered.

These, and many other pizza thank-yous, are coming on the heels of last week’s gesture of goodwill from Canadian air traffic controllers who sent more than 300 pizzas to their counterparts in more than 40 airports in the United States. Air traffic controllers in the Canadian city of Edmonton got the (dough) ball rolling.

Of course, TSA and FAA employees working without paychecks can’t live by pizza alone.

At Seattle Tacoma International Airport, donations of non-perishable food and gifts cards are being collected and distributed daily.

Seattle-based Washington Federal is offering interest-free, 90-day loans, with no loan fees or application fees, to TSA, FAA and other federal workers waiting for paychecks in eight western states, including Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, Texas and New Mexico.

“We are proud to step in and help our hard-working neighbors get through this uncertain time and support their financial needs,” said Washington Federal President and Chief Executive Officer Brent J. Beardall in a statement, “We hope other financial institutions will do the same.”

And in San Jose, California, the City Council this week endorsed Mayor Sam Liccardo’s proposal to set up a no-interest short-term loan program for many of the 500 federal employees who have been working at Mineta San Jose International Airport without pay.

The program, which may be funded through airport revenues and administered in partnership with one or more financial institutions, proposes loans equal to monthly take-home pay for FAA air traffic controllers, TSA workers and officers working for Customs and Border Protection (CBP).

“We are going to do everything in our power to keep political dysfunction in Washington from creating service disruptions or safety issues here in San Jose,” said Liccardo. “Mineta San Jose International Airport is vital to our local economy and we need our highly-skilled and trained federal workers there to keep it running smoothly. That’s why we are exploring tools, like these local bridge loans, to help keep these essential workers on the job.”

Meanwhile, across the country, airports continue to gather and distribute donations for federal employees affected by the partial government shutdown.

At Orlando International Airport, there has been overwhelming response to a donation drive headed up by the Airline Management Council. On Thursday the airline tweeted a short video of a room with tables piled high with everything from donated diapers to toilet paper and canned goods.

As the shutdown continues, airlines, airport concessionaires and other groups are stepping up with donations, discounts and support.

“Today we were able to help surprise the Sunport’s @TSA with gift cards to local grocery stores and lots of goodies to fill their break room for a few days – all thanks to the wonderful folks with Indivisible Nob Hill and Resist Tyranny Tuesdays,” Albuquerque International Sunport tweeted, along with photos.

And on Thursday, “It was our turn,” St. Louis Lambert International Airport, said in a tweet, “The #stlairport and @HMSHost provided lunches to all @TSA officers this morning and afternoon. We appreciate your huSTLe and dedication. #ThankyouTSA.”https://twitter.com/flystl/status/1086018922267193344

Happy New Year!

Here’s to safe travels – and lots of adventures – in the New Year.

Before we turn the page, here are some links to some of the airport and travel-related stories I had fun working on this past year.

With more states legalizing pot in 2018, I tackled the topic of flying with marijuana.

With United Airlines, I traveled to Bogota, Columbia to follow Mother’s Day Roses from the farm, onto the airplane and through customs at George Bush Interncontinental Airport.

I spent a day at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport following the journey a checked bag takes once it is checked in at the counter.

And I visited Portland International Airport and talked with airports around the country for a story on the uninvited wildlife – from worms to whales – that shows up at airport, and what airport wilfdife teams do to keep animals away.

Courtesy USDA Wildlife Services
Courtesy Port of Portland

I also tracked down the first airport hotel and put together a short history of airport hotels. 

Restaurant that once served the Oakland Airport Inn. Courtesy Port of Oakland

Suggestions for topics to tackle in the 2019 always welcome!