The Administrator of the TSA is using his time in Sioux Falls to better understand the needs of America’s smaller airports. The Transportation Safety Administration’s leader has been on the job for only a few months. He says he hopes to gain local perspective as he works to make air travel safer.
Sioux Falls Regional Airport’s executive director Dan Letellier takes a select few on a behind-the-scenes tour.
"As you can see from right next door, it’s a very tight, claustrophobic environment," Letellier says. "Here they’ll have much more room to work with. They’ll have more…just a much more relaxed and more efficient operation here.
He speaks with TSA Administrator Peter Neffenger and United States Senator John Thune as they stand steps away from the airport’s screening checkpoint.
"The folks that the airport contracts with here to do the screening functions do a really good job. I get a chance to use this airport on a regular basis, but there’s always room for improvement," Thune says. "And we want to make sure that, even for a smaller airport like Sioux Falls where we don’t have the problems that exist in some of the bigger airports, we want to do everything we can to ensure that we stay on top of our game."
The security professionals in Sioux Falls are contracted for the job. Neffenger says they are not some of the thousands of TSA federal employees.
“We haven’t seen any difference in ability to do the job whether you’re talking federal or contract worker. It all depends upon how well they’re trained,” Neffenger says. “I think the best thing we can do is ensure consistent training across the organization, whether it’s a contract worker or a federal worker.”
The beep of the boarding pass scanning rings above the din at the screening checkpoint. Security workers check IDs against boarding passes. They tell passengers to remove their shoes, show liquids in quart-sized plastic bags, and take everything out of their pockets. Neffenger says these procedures may seem arbitrary, but each has a purpose and contributes to overall safety.
At the end of his tour, Neffenger hops in the TSA line with his boarding pass.
“My bag gets screened. I get screened. And every now and then I get pulled into standard screening – and occasionally I’ll put myself through standard screening because I want to see how the process is working, and it gives me an opportunity to talk to other passengers in line and just informally ask their opinion,” Neffenger says.
Neffenger says he wants TSA workers to focus on their primary mission: security. He says preventing distractions from that task is what keeps the skies safe.
"We live in a time where you have terror groups like ISIL trying to inspire people to take action – so-called lone actors or lone wolfs, people have referred to them as – and I think we have to be much more vigilant of the potential for that," Neffenger says. "Active shooter situations are always a challenge, and they’re a huge challenge in an airport environment because you have a lot of people milling about. You have people in baggage claim areas. You have people outside the sterile areas of the airport."
The president appointed Neffenger this spring and the US Senate confirmed him in June. During his confirmation hearings, classified information on in-houses security tests leaked to the public revealing holes in security measures. Neffenger says TSA leaders must discover vulnerabilities so they can minimize risk for passengers and people who work for airlines and at airports.
Admiral Neffenger spent more than 30 years in the US Coast Guard before taking the job as the new leader of the TSA. Thune chairs the Commerce Committee which oversees the TSA.