Aviation security programs: TSA should clarify compliance program guidelines and address user concerns about its data systems

What the GAO found

The Department of Homeland Security’s Transportation Security Administration (TSA) conducted approximately 28,000 inspections in 2021 to identify violations and improve security at domestic airports and passenger airlines. If the TSA identifies a violation, it can take enforcement action ranging from counseling to civil penalties.

The TSA allows airports and air carriers to develop an action plan that invests their own resources to remedy violations instead of a civil penalty. The plans partner the TSA with airports and airlines to identify the root cause of a breach. Most airport and airline officials that GAO spoke to like having action plans as an option. However, TSA guidelines are unclear as to when plans are appropriate to use, such as for systemic violations. Developing and sharing additional guidance could help the TSA and its partners use their resources more effectively.

Transportation Security Administration inspector performing airport equipment inspection

In March 2021, the TSA moved to a new IT platform that inspectors must use to record information from their compliance work. Inspectors from each of the five field offices visited by GAO said challenges using this platform had affected their ability to capture compliance data. For example, some of these inspectors said that the TSA did not sufficiently consult or train users when it began moving data to the new platform. As a result, inspectors said they could not change required key data fields, such as updating contact points or adding new regulated entities. The TSA is addressing some issues, but hasn’t fully assessed user concerns, such as the need for better communication. Assessing concerns could help the TSA maximize its data system.

The TSA plans to transition nine more data systems to its new platform, but hasn’t developed a broad set of lessons learned from staff experiences during transitions from other systems. Developing lessons learned will help the TSA better ensure that it mitigates past challenges in future transitions.

Why GAO Did This Study

The constant threats to passenger aviation require continuous and effective security programs. Since 2020, more than one billion passengers have traveled on flights within the United States. The TSA is responsible for securing the country’s air transportation system by ensuring that air carriers and airport operators comply with security requirements.

The GAO was asked to review the TSA’s efforts to implement security programs. This report examines (1) how TSA inspections are designed to improve aviation security compliance, (2) how the TSA addressed known instances of non-compliance from fiscal years 2017 through 2021, and (3 ) how difficult the TSA has been in transitioning to new data compliance. platform and the steps taken to address it. The GAO reviewed TSA documentation for its inspections and investigations and observed TSA compliance personnel at five selected airport field offices based on location and number of passengers on board aircraft in 2019 The GAO also interviewed TSA officials and representatives of these five airport operators as well as the eight largest passenger airlines.

Ryan H. Bowman