TSA’s Deputy Administrator puts the focus on day-to-day operations

For the agency most visibly on the front lines of security, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) in some ways is the face of the federal government. More than its technology, its people make it tick. As millions of Americans prepare to fly this holiday season, Federal Drive with Tom Temin checked in with TSA’s deputy administrator, Holly Canevari.

Interview Transcript: 

Tom Temin Let’s start with that, deputy. What does the deputy administrator do, especially after your chief of staff?   

Holly Canevari I myself, along with the administrator, we the 60,000 person agency and support them to ensure they have the tools and resources necessary to do our job well.   

Tom Temin But functionally, I mean, day to day, if the administrator is the one that takes the heat and goes to Capitol Hill and so on, you kind of keep the trains running, Correct. Or the planes flying.   

Holly Canevari No pun intended. Correct? Yes. And we are really focused on people, partnerships and technology. So ensuring every day we are focused on all three of those.   

Tom Temin And that we said at the outset that as chief of staff, you were concerned with staff more than the chief side of that. And this idea of partnerships among people. Tell us more about your philosophy in some of the activities you had under that kind of rubric of partnership?   

Holly Canevari Partnerships is critical to TSA and our mission. So we have a number of partners, federal partners, of course, airports, airlines, rail, mass transit, law enforcement, our international partners, pipelines and also labor. So we have quite a few partners in our mission space to ensure the security of the transportation systems.   

Tom Temin And what is your way of going about strengthening those partnerships so that because they can be that connection can be adversarial or it can be, oh, here are they. Here they are.   

Holly Canevari Absolutely having the conversation, bringing in early and talking to each other and finding areas where we can mutually agree and move forward together.   

Tom Temin Well, give us an example. Say airports probably are annoyed, you know, because TSA is always reconfiguring. There’s new technology that comes in, new line management techniques, and they seem easy to say, I’m just going to stick this machine in. Let’s try this way of lines. But it’s huge logistics and infrastructure work that is often carried out by airport staff or their contractors. So there’s interplay there.   

Holly Canevari Correct. And we work with these partners early. So well before construction projects begin, we are meeting talking about configurations and the security setup and how we can work together to ensure efficient and secure experience for the traveling public.   

Tom Temin I mean, what drives airport operators, those are sort of quasi governmental authorities in most cases where even their own lines of authority are kind of hard to untangle.   

Holly Canevari Absolutely. So efficiency, first and foremost, ensuring that providing an efficient, secure experience. So the experience for the traveling public, that really is what drives us both, frankly, to ensure that the traveling public has a good experience and it is a safe experience.   

Tom Temin And I know the TSA as a operating philosophy is always trying to shave time off of the screening process. People may not understand it from the outside, but one second of faster screening or five seconds per individual, you know, adds up to a lot of shorter lines at the end of the day. How do you translate that down to the people that actually are doing the work? If you have a theoretical approach, this is going to be great, but it’s being administered by all sorts of people at all sorts of locations.   

Holly Canevari We work closely with our partners to ensure that we meet our wait time standards. So for the standard line, it’s 30 minutes or less. For the TSA precheck line, it is ten minutes or less. So we do all work together and I think some travelers who maybe haven’t been traveling for quite some time, perhaps pre-pandemic, might not be familiar with some of the new technology that TSA has been working with our partners to put in place. So we are making improvements and some checkpoints have new machines that allow passengers, for example, to scan their own IDs. And also we some airports have our new computed tomography, otherwise known as our CT machines, which produce high quality 3D images that can be rotated up to 360 degrees for a more thorough visual analysis of the carry on bag contents. And that actually will also speed through the process will be less manual bag searches.   

Tom Temin We’re speaking with Holly Canevario. She is the deputy administrator of the Transportation Security Administration. And I want to ask you about labor relations, because they were rough for a long time. And now AFGE is in there. What are they like and how do you how do you effectuate policy and procedural changes when there’s kind of a third element in the in the what was a binary equation of you in the employees? Now you’ve got the union in there.   

Holly Canevari The union has been a great partner. Speaking of partnerships and we are working on a collective bargaining agreement and we are very excited about the path forward. You mentioned our workforce, so we are have implemented our new pay plan here at TSA. And it has been the impact has been tremendous. We have seen historic retention levels at this point. And then we have great staffing really in anticipation of this busy holiday travel season.   

Tom Temin It’s a technical job that they do, the screeners, the people on the on the front line there. And it’s probably the most seen and most encountered federal agency at a personal level for most Americans. How much does human relations skill come into what it is that you are looking for in individuals who want to become TSOs with the understanding that you have some pretty technical sometimes, you know, law enforcement types of activities they also have to do.   

Holly Canevari So we have a very robust training regimen for our transportation security officers to include 200 hours of training and a module on the customer experience. So how they engage with the public is, as you mentioned, we do see well over 2 million passengers a day.   

Tom Temin Yeah. And now we are in a holiday season where Americans are traveling back almost to pre-pandemic levels and the planes are packed, and the airports are going to be packed. What kind of planning, if anything, is it just a matter of having sufficient staffing or what else does TSA do to anticipate Thanksgiving, Christmas season, etc., where you’re going to have mobs?   

Holly Canevari I’d like to talk about the holiday travel volumes because you are right. I think seven out of our top ten heaviest travel days have been in 2023. So aviation travel has fully returned to what it was before the pandemic. The three busiest days during the Thanksgiving travel period are Tuesday and the Wednesday prior to Thanksgiving and the Sunday after. So we are still running our projections, but we are anticipating the busiest Thanksgiving on record for TSA. Wow. To your point. How are we how are we supporting this? And are we ready? Bottom line is, we are absolutely ready for you. All operational checkpoint lanes will be open, staffed and operational to handle the holiday surge. Some local circumstances may cause higher wait times, and we will work diligently with our airline and airport partners to minimize those.   

Tom Temin Let me ask you this. It’s my opinion as a 2 million mile flier that the airlines have completely flubbed their incentives so that everybody’s dragging gigantic and heavy bags of junk on board. That should be down below. And you could put a nice felt hat overhead and not get it mushed to shreds. So that devolves to the operation the TSA has to do. Do you ever wish, by golly, charge people to carry on and figure out how to do good baggage handling?   

Holly Canevari TSA works with our partners pretty well, and I think we have some great holiday tips for those carry on bags.   

Tom Temin Other than don’t bring them.   

Holly Canevari There is you can absolutely bring your carry on bags and you can park, pack smartly.   

Tom Temin That’s it. And don’t bring guns and knives.   

Holly Canevari Correct.   

Tom Temin And kidding aside, we can’t have firearms coming on to planes routinely. Does it ever amaze you? I mean, TSA publishes tweets and pictures and statistics on how many people try it anyway. What is with that? How do you get that across so that people don’t try it?   

Holly Canevari So TSA continues to work with our partners to remind travelers before they arrive at the airport checkpoint that firearms are not permitted in the passenger cabin of the aircraft or an accessible property such as carry on bags or in the secure areas of the airport. We’ve increased civil penalties to nearly $15,000. Passengers and those TSA precheck eligibility for five years and they’re subject to enhanced screening and potential criminal charges depending on the local firearm laws. We’re continuing to explore our authorities in this space. For those that wish to travel with a firearm, they are permitted in checked baggage. They must be unloaded in a locked hard side case along with ammunition. And they must be declared to the airline when checking the bag at the ticket counter. When passengers bring firearms the TSA checkpoints, it leads to longer wait times for others because the TSOs have to stop and contact local law enforcement to resolve the security issue.   

Tom Temin So you’ve been at TSA, a while now through a couple of administrators, It sounds like it’s a place that’s more than just a job for you.   

Holly Canevari Correct. This is really a calling. I truly believe in the mission and the people.  

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