A man flying out of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport with a gun in his carry-on passed through a Transport Security Administration screening checkpoint without a problem, and boarded his Delta flight to Tokyo, TSA confirmed in a statement.
TSA’s acknowledgement of the security lapse on Jan. 3 comes as many of the nation’s airports have been plunged into chaos as a result of the longest federal government shutdown in history (as of Tuesday, it was 25 days and counting). The TSA and its workers' union differ over how the shutdown has impacted staffing, and the TSA insists that wasn't the issue with this lapse.
“TSA has determined standard procedures were not followed and a passenger did in fact pass through a standard screening TSA checkpoint with a firearm,” they said in a statement. TSA did not say what kind of gun the man was traveling with, or whether it was loaded - only that he’d forgotten it was in his carry-on luggage, and that he notified authorities in Tokyo after he landed.
Japan’s Transportation Ministry urged TSA to take preventative measures so that similar lapses don’t happen in the future. Japan has very stringent gun control laws.
As increasing numbers of screening agents, who haven’t been paid since Dec. 22, call in sick, travelers have reported hours-long waits at airport security checkpoints. Houston airport in Texas even shutdown one terminal’s TSA checkpoint due to insufficient staffing. Meanwhile, watchdogs have warned that the chaos and low staffing levels could increase the risk of possible security breaches.
TSA, in its statement, rejected the notion that the security lapse had anything to do with the federal shutdown.
"There was not a staffing issue as some are speculating," the agency said, “the perception that this might have occurred as a result of the partial government shutdown would be false.” The agency added that the staffing rate on Jan. 3 this year was the same, if not higher, than it was the same date a year ago, when there was no federal shutdown. NBC reported that the two officers involved have since been fired.
The TSA administrator has reportedly approved $500 awards for each uniformed screening worker “in recognition of their hard work during yet another busy holiday travel season, maintaining the highest of security standards during an extraordinary period.”
Michael Bilello, assistant administrator for TSA’s public affairs, has repeatedly stressed in statements on Twitter that the shutdown is not impacting security – and also explained why he is not releasing information about security staffing rates at particular airports. “Aviation security remains an essential priority, & TSA does not want to create any perception that an adversary could use specific information to determine possible vulnerabilities.”
But organizations representing the interests of TSA agents have offered a less sunny view of the situation. “Every day I’m getting calls from my members about their extreme financial hardships and need for a paycheck. Some of them have already quit and many are considering quitting the federal workforce because of this shutdown,” said Hydrick Thomas, TSA Council President for the American Federation of Government Employees, in a statement last week. “The loss of officers, while we’re already shorthanded, will create a massive security risk for American travelers.”
Cover: Security lines wrapped through the atrium and around the baggage areas and wait times were more than two hours long at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport on Wednesday afternoon in the wake of a snowstorm due to a shortage of TSA screeners. (Bob Andres/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)