Aviation Security Programs: TSA Should Clarify Compliance Program Guidance and Address User Concerns with Its Data Systems

GAO-22-105063 Published: Sep 27, 2022. Publicly Released: Sep 27, 2022.
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Fast Facts

TSA conducted about 28,000 inspections of U.S. airports and passenger airline operations in 2021.

When a violation is found during an inspection, airports and air carriers can avoid civil penalties by investing their own resources as part of an action plan to find the root cause of a violation. But, TSA guidance is unclear about when these plans are appropriate.

In addition, TSA inspectors at 5 field offices we visited said flaws in a new data platform used to record their work—such as an inability to edit key fields—hindered their efforts to ensure compliance with required aviation security programs.

Our recommendations address these issues.

Example of an Air Carrier Correcting a Security Violation through a TSA Action Plan

A barrier, computer, and doors with text explaining their security features.

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Highlights

What GAO Found

The Department of Homeland Security's Transportation Security Administration (TSA) conducted about 28,000 inspections in 2021 to identify violations and improve security for domestic airports and passenger air carriers. If TSA identifies a violation, it can take enforcement actions ranging from counseling to civil penalties.

TSA allows airports and air carriers to develop an action plan that invests their own resources to address violations in lieu of a civil penalty. The plans partner TSA with airports and air carriers to identify the root cause of a violation. Most of the airport and air carrier officials GAO spoke with like having action plans as an option. However, TSA guidance is not clear as to when the plans are appropriate to use, such as for systemic violations. Developing and sharing additional guidance could help TSA and its partners more efficiently use their resources.

Transportation Security Administration Inspector Conducting Inspection of Airport Equipment

Transportation Security Administration Inspector Conducting Inspection of Airport Equipment

In March 2021, TSA transitioned to a new computer platform that inspectors are to use to record information from their compliance work. Inspectors at each of the five field offices GAO visited said challenges using this platform have affected their ability to capture compliance data. For example, some of these inspectors said TSA did not adequately consult with or train users when it began transitioning data to the new platform. As a result, inspectors said they cannot edit required key data fields, such as updating points of contact or adding new regulated entities. TSA is addressing some issues, but has not fully assessed user concerns, such as the need for better communication. Assessing concerns could help TSA maximize its data system.

TSA plans to transition nine more data systems to its new platform, but has not developed a broad set of lessons learned of staff's experiences from other systems' transitions. Developing lessons learned will help TSA better ensure it mitigates past challenges during future transitions.

Why GAO Did This Study

Constant threats to passenger aviation require continuous and effective security programs. Since 2020, over 1 billion passengers traveled on flights within the United States. TSA is responsible for securing the nation's aviation transportation system by ensuring air carriers and airport operators comply with security requirements.

GAO was asked to review TSA's efforts to implement security programs. This report examines (1) how TSA inspections are designed to improve aviation security compliance, (2) how TSA addressed known instances of noncompliance from fiscal years 2017 through 2021, and (3) the extent TSA has experienced challenges transitioning to a new data compliance platform and steps taken to address them. GAO reviewed TSA documentation for its inspections and investigations and observed TSA compliance staff in five airport field offices selected based on location and the number of passengers on board aircraft in 2019. GAO also interviewed TSA officials and representatives from those five airport operators as well as the eight largest passenger air carriers.

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Recommendations

GAO is recommending that TSA (1) develop guidance for when an action plan may be effective in resolving noncompliance, (2) assess stakeholder concerns about transitioning to a new compliance platform, and (3) develop lessons learned from other systems' transitions. The Department of Homeland Security concurred with all three recommendations.

 

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Transportation Security Administration The TSA Administrator should, in consultation with its inspectors as well as with airports and air carriers, provide further guidance for inspectors and regulated entities indicating when an action plan may be an effective method for resolving a compliance violation. (Recommendation 1)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Transportation Security Administration The TSA Administrator should ensure the Information Technology and Compliance offices conduct an assessment to identify and address user concerns as PARIS transitions to the new platform. (Recommendation 2)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Transportation Security Administration The Administrator of TSA should ensure the Information Technology office identify, document, and share lessons learned from the agency's experiences transitioning the PARIS, LInKS, and GRADS data systems to a new platform in advance of future transitions. (Recommendation 3)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

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