Posted December 13, 2021 at 7:00pm

Add to the rising number of unruly passengers prosecuted by the Federal Aviation Administration this year another dubious trend: More passengers being caught trying to bring firearms through TSA checkpoints.

Transportation Security Administrator David Pekoske said Monday his agency has intercepted more than 5,700 guns this year, an all-time high, “and we aren’t even done with the calendar year just yet.” 

The previous high was 4,400 in 2019, he said. Most of the weapons detected, he added, were loaded, and how TSA handles those cases varies according to state and local gun laws.

Pekoske speculated that there were more people carrying firearms in the country, saying, “Generally, what we see in our checkpoints in terms of what people carry into the checkpoints reflects what’s going on in the country.” 

On Thursday, for example, TSA officers at Norfolk International Airport caught a Virginia Beach, Va., resident with a 9mm handgun loaded with six bullets. 

On Wednesday, they detected a loaded 9mm firearm in a man’s carry-on at Boston Logan International Airport. And on Dec. 2, TSA officers stopped a passenger from carrying his loaded 9mm handgun onto a flight from Charleston, W.Va.

Those who bring a firearm into a checkpoint face a civil penalty of “thousands of dollars,” Pekoske said, and many of those who try to do so are referred to local law enforcement.  

Travelers who need to transport a firearm, he said, must work through air carriers and put it in checked baggage “appropriately safeguarded and declared.” 

Behaving badly

Pekoske’s figure is yet another data point in a year when a higher number of air passengers behaved badly: As of Dec. 7, airlines had reported 5,553 unruly passengers and 3,998 mask-related incidents; initiated investigations on 1,017 cases; and initiated 292 enforcement cases, according to the FAA. 

Pekoske said the TSA tracks behavior both at checkpoints and onboard aircraft and “both are up, way up, compared to what they have been historically.”

He said the TSA prosecutes “if a passenger goes above verbal abuse into physical abuse.” 

Pekoske reported the rise in guns at checkpoints during a press event on holiday travel at which he and officials for airlines and airports said they expect holiday travel to be close to pre-pandemic levels — a travel recovery level that has surpassed airlines’ original expectations.

He said 2.45 million passengers passed through airport security checkpoints on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, which is traditionally the busiest travel day of the year, and 2.1 million travelers went through checkpoints on Sunday, Dec. 12 — just 11 percent less than 2019 levels.

The return of passengers has been a pleasant surprise, said Nicholas Calio, the CEO of Airlines for America, a trade group representing major U.S. airlines.

“If you had asked last spring, in March for example, do we think we’d be back at the levels we were that came this summer … the answer for most people would have been no,” Calio said.

He said travel has not fully recovered — business and international travel, for example, are still far behind — but “we’re moving up a lot faster than we thought.”

Calio said it’s unclear if the COVID-19 omicron variant and fears of it will suppress travel. 

“We think we may be seeing it in terms of some booking slowing down, but we won’t know until things progress, probably in the next week or 10 days,” he said. 

Calio and Kevin M. Burke, CEO of Airports Council International-North America, said the number of unruly-passenger incidents is small in comparison to the number of flights taking off.

“We think there’s a lot of pent-up demand,” Calio said. “Everybody is anxious to fly again. Virtual’s great, but it’s not face to face.”

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