2020 will forever be remembered as the year of COVID-19. In the past year, billions of individuals from across the globe have been directly and indirectly affected by the devastating potency of the pandemic. As governments struggle to properly react to the economic and social disruption caused by the severity and novelty of the COVID-19 virus, many wonder about the future of aviation and the road to recovery.
Although there have been a number of restrictions placed on international travel to and from the United States—as well as a number of restrictions, regulations, and recommendations concerning domestic travel between states—one of the most prominent drivers of change to the aviation sector has been the consumer. In the months following the first spike of COVID-19 cases in the United States, total traveler throughput recorded by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) saw passenger volume in American airports down more than 90% compared to the throughput in 2019.
With consumer confidence in air travel at one of its lowest points in decades, TSA’s plans for FY 2021 will be part and parcel to the industry’s recovery effort.
In June 2020, TSA published its Administrator’s Intent 2.0 (AI 2.0) which considered the agency’s “lessons learned” from the response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the TSA’s updated long-term strategy following an evaluation of the agency’s progress since 2018. The document, which was constructed from months of feedback from TSA representatives and individuals from the Transportation Systems Sector, identifies three major goals in FY 2021:
- improving TSA efforts by strengthening operations through adaptable detection capabilities, intelligence-driven operations, and enhanced vetting procedures;
- accelerating the innovation process in order to rapidly counter changing threats facing the transportation system; and
- committing to a diverse, inclusive, and transparent work environment for TSA employees.
The first of TSA’s major goals for FY 2021 is the improvement of the agency’s security and intelligence capabilities. Specific objectives the agency hopes to pursue in FY 2021 include the alignment of canine explosive threat detection capabilities, the operational capability to mitigate risk from unmanned aircraft systems, the enhancement of information sharing with frontline operators and transportation partners, the modernization of vetting and credentialing capabilities through biometric enhancements and more comprehensive data use, the advancement of global transportation security standards through sophisticated cybersecurity and electronic systems, and the promotion of security partnerships across surface transportation systems.
TSA’s second major goal for FY 2021 is the acceleration of the innovation process. In the presence of a complex and dynamic environment, TSA wishes to mature its decision-making, swiftly find innovative solutions, and collaborate with key stakeholders in the aviation industry. Specific objectives include increasing the speed of decision-making processes through better business methods and technologies, reducing the time spent fielding solutions so that the procurement process is continuously refreshed, advancing the agency’s capability to incorporate artificial intelligence and identity management, researching and piloting remote screening and contactless transportation security equipment, adopting business methods that have been proven to be successful in driving innovation in the private sector, aligning the agency’s organizational structure to enhance strategic planning and funding models, and improving the Insider Threat Program.
The third and final major goal for FY 2021 is the commitment to the employees at TSA. Specific objectives include recruiting and hiring capable and diverse individuals, establishing transparent communication channels across the agency, expanding training and career progression initiatives, and developing modern systems and infrastructure through human capital information technology systems and cloud data collection.
In addition to its dedication to the aforementioned goals, the TSA is also committed to partnering with industry stakeholders. In 2019, the TSA awarded over $500 million in small business awards. At the TSA Industry Day, held virtually in November, TSA officials repeatedly stressed the agency’s desire to continue the robust cooperation with stakeholders in the private sector, emphasizing the important role that partners in the industry can play through their contributions to the innovative technology refresh. In an effort to promote a safe environment for its passengers and employees, TSA has directed its focus toward biometrics technologies, touchless CAT technologies, and advanced imaging technologies that reduce contact between parties while maintaining effective security practices.
Promising developments in the creation, testing, and distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine, as well as the steady implementation of best practices to minimize the risk of COVID-19 in airports around the country, have already led to an increase in passenger volume leading up to the New Year. While TSA has emphasized its commitment to quickly adapting to the changes presented by COVID-19, it has also stressed the importance of creating long-term security stability and hopes that any advances in technologies or practices that address the current demands of the pandemic will remain relevant to the security of the traveling public in the United States well into the future.