TSA administrator speaks at Auburn, addressing nation’s ongoing travel threats and offering holiday travel tips

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On the first official day of the holiday travel season, the administrator of the Transportation Security Administration, David P. Pekoske, addressed his agency’s focus on the nation’s ongoing travel threats since 2001 and also offered holiday travel tips in a Friday event at Auburn University. 

“I think the threat is more significant now than it was back then [in the early 2000s], and it’s actually harder for us to address because it’s a more distributed threat,” said Pekoske, referring to the increase of online radicalization of individuals. “… You should see as the threat changes we change our procedures and we change some of our focus areas a little bit to be able to match that.” 

Pekoske said the public can rest assured that the TSA is working hard to keep them safe, especially with an expected larger crowd of holiday air travelers.

“This year’s traffic is going to be between 4 and 5 percent greater than last year,” he said. “…So, there will be peaks every once in a while, but I would just advise people just to give themselves a little bit more time. It’s going to take longer to park. It’s probably going to take a little bit longer to get through security.  But just know that every single one of my men and women that man the screening check points, they’re going to work as hard as they possibly can to get you through screening safely and securely.” 

Pekoske was at Auburn as part of the McCrary Institute for Cyber and Critical Infrastructure Security’s Leaders on the Plains series. He participated in a question-and-answer session that was moderated by Frank Cilluffo, director of the Institute at Auburn and member of the Homeland Security Advisory Council. During his visit to Auburn, Pekoske was accompanied by U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers of Alabama’s third congressional district–also the ranking member of the Committee on Homeland Security–who provided the introduction to the public event.

Pekoske offered several tips for those who will be flying this holiday season. He said travelers can visit the TSA’s website, TSA.gov, for several answers to travel-related questions. He also suggested following the TSA’s Twitter account.

“It’s fully operational during core hours, all the way until 10 p.m., and we can get you a response,” Pekoske said. “Literally, if you’re standing in a cue line, you will oftentimes get a response back before you hit the first screener in the line.”

Pekoske also suggested that air travelers consider enrolling in one of the trusted travel programs such as Global Entry.  

“If you do some international travel, Global Entry is a really good choice, and that’s $100 for five years.  Or TSA Pre-Check, if you do primarily domestic travel. TSA Pre-Check is $85. If you have Global Entry, you automatically have Pre-Check, so just factor that in, too,” he said, adding “I just think it’s really beneficial for travelers to have that ease of access because if you’re in one of those trusted traveler programs, you have to do fewer things.”

Another tip is to pack wisely.

“You know what you need to take out of your bags, based on your own experience, so kind of put those things at the top,” he said. “Listen to the officers. They’ll be providing instructions. Just pay careful attention to them. As you approach the first person in line, you know, have your passport and your driver’s license ready.”

While at Auburn, Pekoske noted the importance for growing partnerships among the TSA and the world of academia.

“Basically, what we’re trying to ensure that we always do is to be able to tap into the best and brightest minds,” he said.

The TSA is also focused on considering the latest in technology.

“We are exploring facial recognition, and we’re doing it in partnership with U.S. Customs and Border Protection who is also exploring the technology,” Pekoske said. “We find in our initial testing that facial recognition is more accurate. So, for us, from a security perspective, that’s the most important thing.”

Following Pekoske’s Friday talk, he also visited with Auburn’s Canine Performance Sciences, or CPS, program in the College of Veterinary Medicine. That program conducts research and development to enhance the use of dogs for detection, including how to breed and raise the very best dogs for detection tasks. The dogs produced by CPS go through rigorous testing, conditioning and training to become Vapor Wake® dogs.

Vapor Wake, or VW, is an Auburn University patented method for detecting person-borne explosives by dogs trained to sample odors from the aerodynamic wakes of moving persons (vapor trail) and track an explosive odor to its source. An essential part of becoming a certified VW dog involves being able to concentrate on detecting target odors amidst the distractions of crowded, noisy and smelly urban venues such as mass transit, sports stadiums and concert/event arenas.

“Auburn has a world-renowned program for K-9 detection,” Pekoske said. “The vapor wake K-9 program, it’s known throughout the world. People have a lot of respect for it, and I’m very aware of that program, for sure. I just want to see more myself and see how we can further strengthen that partnership with Auburn University given their leadership in this area.”

Pekoske was confirmed by the U.S. Senate in August 2017 as the TSA’s seventh administrator. In that role, he leads a workforce of approximately 60,000 employees, including the Federal Air Marshal Service, and is responsible for security operations at nearly 450 airports and surface transportation systems such as railroads, ports, mass transit and pipelines.

Before joining the TSA, Pekoske retired as the 26th vice commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard. As the vice commandant, Pekoske was second in command, also serving as chief operating officer and component acquisition executive of the U.S. Coast Guard. He is a recognized expert in crisis management, strategic planning, innovation and port and maritime security.

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