Watchdog: More can be done to protect public areas in airports

Department of Homeland of Security will discuss airport security in future meetings

ORLANDO, Fla. – A government watchdog agency has found airports nationwide have enhanced security in public areas such as ticket counters, baggage claims, and restaurants in recent years.

But the U.S. Government Accountability Office believes more should be done to protect patrons before they pass through airport security checkpoints.

The GAO examined security procedures in public areas of six airports including Orlando International Airport and Orlando Sanford International Airport.

The study was conducted to assess actions taken by the Transportation Security Administration following two fatal shootings that occurred in public areas of airports.

A gunman killed a TSA officer in a terminal of Los Angeles International Airport in 2013.

In 2017, a passenger retrieved a gun from his luggage in the baggage claim at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport and opened fire, killing five people and injuring six.

To address incident planning and the security of public areas in airports, Congress passed the 2015 Gerardo Hernandez Act, named after the TSA employee killed in Los Angeles, and the 2018 TSA Modernization Act.

According to the GAO study, it can be difficult for TSA to monitor airport public areas due to a large number of people passing through during peak hours.

However, the GAO found TSA and its partners have taken numerous measures to secure public areas including:

  • Duress alarms installed at TSA screening checkpoints so officers can silently alert law enforcement to problems.
  • Many airports have begun linking those alarms to surveillance cameras.
  • An active shooter training video that is required viewing for all TSA employees. The agency also coordinates active shooter training drills.
  • Enhanced law enforcement patrols and canine teams deployed throughout public areas to provide a visible deterrent against potential attacks.
  • Establishment of Airport Operations Centers where federal, state and local law enforcement can monitor real-time security incidents.
  • An active shooter detection system installed at the airport in Charleston, South Carolina, that uses sensors to pinpoint the location of a shooter using sound and muzzle flashes.

As part of the TSA Modernization Act, the agency established a public area working group to work with stakeholders such as airport operators and law enforcement.

The working group met twice in 2019 with no specific plans to continue its collaboration, according to the GAO report.

The GAO recommended that TSA develop a plan for future stakeholder engagement to ensure best practices remain relevant and emerging threats are identified, the report states.

In response to the watchdog’s recommendation, U.S. Department of Homeland Security Acting Director W. William Russell informed the GAO that working group meetings would be held every two years unless events dictate that TSA should increase the frequency of those meetings, the report shows.

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