How a simple statistic helped reshape TSA’s image during the pandemic

Nov 23, 2021

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As it celebrates its 20th anniversary, the Transportation Security Administration has taken on a new and unanticipated role: It has become the airline industry’s foremost data-point provider.

Each morning by 9 a.m. Eastern time, the agency posts the number of people (including airline crew members) who cleared security the previous day, referred to as “throughput.” The practice began in March 2020, soon after the coronavirus pandemic began to affect travel.

The number is posted on the TSA website and is also tweeted by various TSA communications staff members, including Lisa Farbstein, the agency’s spokesperson for the Northeast region.

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The number began to draw widespread attention “in the earliest days of the pandemic [when] there was a huge drop in throughput, starting in March 2020,” Farbstein said.  “As that started, we were getting more and more inquiries. So we made the decision to post it.”

The number quickly became important because it is reported quickly and because it provides an accurate number for a key economic activity — air travel.

Throughput “has become a bellwether for the nation and its recovery,” Farbstein said. “We know that economists, financial analysts and a host of others click there regularly because they let us know if it gets posted a little late or if they want even more details.”

TSA administrator David Pekoske “was a huge advocate,” Farbstein said. “He wanted to be as transparent as possible: He wanted to see a lot of statistics on the page.”

Some TSA throughput daily numbers have become key landmarks during the pandemic. For instance, on April 13, 2020, the number shrank to 87,534, which turned out to be its pandemic low.

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What struck Farbstein at the time was that “on an average weekday prior to the pandemic, airports like JFK or LAX would see volume of 100,000 by themselves, and nationwide you had less than what one airport would do – that was quite eye-opening.”

The last time the entire U.S. averaged fewer than 100,000 passengers a day was in 1954, according to trade group Airlines for America.

Another key day in the pandemic recovery came on Sunday, Oct. 18, 2020, when the TSA reported a throughput of 1,031,505 travelers, the first time over 1 million since March 2020. On Friday, June 11, 2021, the TSA screened 2,028,961 people, marking the first time more than 2 million were screened since March 2020.

On the Sunday after Thanksgiving, the agency expects to screen 2.4 million people, which would be the highest total of the year, but below the level on Sunday, Dec. 1, 2019, the TSA’s busiest air travel day ever, when 2.9 million people were screened.

Last week, on Oct. 19, TSA recognized the 20th anniversary of its creation with a ceremony at Reagan National Airport (DCA). The agency was formed in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

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Over the past two decades, “TSA’s screening process evolved from its origins in which the pat-down was the major element in screening to be the agency that deploys technology and pilots emerging tech for improvements in security that also reduce physical contact between officers and passengers,” the agency said in a press release.

Going into its second decade, in the early 2010s, the TSA frequently made news when passengers claimed they had been strip-searched or otherwise mistreated by TSA agents and subject to intrusive body scanner searches.  But the scanner technology changed and the charges diminished, making the throughput count the principal subject of TSA news.

From the first, the TSA has provided comparative numbers in its throughput posting. Besides the previous day’s total, the agency posts the total for the same day in 2019, and now in 2020 as well. Wisely, “same day” generally is not the exact same date a year and two years earlier, but rather the date correlating to the day of the week. This is because the volume of air travel is heavily influenced by the day of the week, so that Monday and Friday are the typically the heaviest travel days.

The TSA has seven regional spokespeople, all with Twitter accounts. In the days before Halloween, Farbstein used humorous tweets to make points about security. On Oct. 28, she tweeted, “Know why skeletons are so calm? Because nothing gets under their skin! Traveling for Halloween? Costumes may result in a pat-down if they have bulky, metallic, or sequined items affixed to them. Best to wait until you’re through the @TSA security process to put on your costume.”

Farbstein, previously the media relations director for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority and a former newspaper reporter, said, “I try to provide information that can be informational, and some of the snark is an attempt to get people to talk about it so that they are more likely to be prepared at a checkpoint.”

Featured photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images.

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