A Discussion with Michael Higdon of A19 Strategies and TJ Schulz of the ACC

Airplane seat

What does a Biden administration and a new Congress mean for TSA and aviation security? AGX sat down with Michael Higdon of A19 Strategies and TJ Schulz of the Airport Consultants Council (ACC) to find out.

AGX: Happy Holidays to both of you and thanks for taking the time.  Let’s jump right in.  What are the issues a Biden administration may have to deal with in the areas of aviation security, travel facilitation, etc?

TJ Schulz: Given Biden’s focus on COVID-19 response, one of the biggest questions could be around the issue of standards for how airlines and airports are dealing with COVID, i.e. how they approach social distancing, testing for elevated temperatures, sanitization protocols, mask wearing, etc.  Today there are no national guidelines, much less regulations for airports and airlines, so every airport and every airline is approaching it a little differently.  There’s a school of thought that says the more consistency there is, the faster passengers are going to feel comfortable flying again.

Higdon: I agree, it is little like the Wild West right now with different municipal jurisdictions, airlines, and airports instituting different policies in search of what will assure the public and meet evolving health and safety standards.  If Biden wants to pursue a national approach, ultimately the key question will be who pays for it? The airlines and the airports don’t necessarily have the resources to make massive overhauls especially absent another COVID-19 federal stimulus funding infusion.

AGX: Speaking of money, do you have insight on how the stimulus proposals being considered in Congress may impact aviation?

Higdon: In the current “compromise” $908 billion stimulus package that is on the table, airlines are outlined to receive around $17 billion in support.  Airports would receive around $4 billion – significantly less than the $13 billion they have been advocating for.  And these amounts are largely to stabilize operations and workforce.

TJ Schulz: Getting a stimulus package passed is priority one, two, and three for the aviation sector.  The challenge is Republicans in the Senate have major concerns about the deficit and are reluctant to sign on to another huge stimulus package, but they also risk the economy going into a major tailspin.

AGX: Beyond COVID and the stimulus package, do you think a Biden administration means significant changes for TSA itself?

Higdon: To the extent there are changes, I think they will initially relate to the TSA labor force, e.g. hazard pay, and in general, seeking to improve TSO salary and benefits, including collective bargaining rights.  Again, the big question will be how to pay for those things.  Congress has shown no appetite to increase the 9/11 Security Fee and as TJ mentioned, the Senate is increasingly loath to embrace more deficit spending.

TJ Schulz:  On the security technology side, I think you will see less push back from OMB on TSA budget requests than you’ve seen in the current administration.   And, if the economy is not growing in six months, you could see support for an infrastructure spending package that could include aviation security related spending.

AGX: Michael – you get the bonus round.  What do you see as the top five technology questions facing TSA in 2021?

Higdon: Here’s my top five …

  1. What will be the budget and EBSP (electronic baggage screening program) funding impact of the 9/11 Security Fee revenue decline?
  2. Will COVID-19 accelerate TSA adoption of biometrics at the checkpoint?
  3. The first acquisition increment of Checkpoint CT under the CPSS standard is scheduled for  Q2/Q3 FY21. Given its significance, can TSA effectively execute this critical procurement?
  4. The FY21 TSA Presidential Budget Request only seeks funding for 30 full-size checkpoint CTs.  Will Congress continue to provide additional funding to speed recapitalization and installation?  If so, how much and for what sort of configuration of CTs?
  5. Besides CTs and credential authentication technology, what other technologies will TSA acquire or require to improve passenger and TSO safety, while raising the level of security and personal privacy?

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