Similar to most travelers, we have an interest in the activities of the Transportation Security Administration. We subscribe to their newsletter so we can find out when new items are published on the TSA websitehere. One item that we look at each week is the titled “TSA Week At A Glance” that reports three statistics of interest to us (because our team is composed of frequent flyers who spend a lot of time going through security checkpoints, just like the rest of you). These reports by the TSA cover travel during previous week and include the following categories of information reported from the TSA Security Checkpoints at airports around the nation:
1) Number of artfully concealed prohibited items found at checkpoints
2) Number of firearms found at Checkpoints
3) Number of passengers who were arrested after investigation of suspicious behavior or fraudulent travel documents
We tracked these data from the first week in May, 2010 to the second week in September, 2010 in an attempt of measure the number of “problems” encountered by the TSA during a time period that reflects the “summer travel season. During May, 2010, a total of approximately 62 million flyers passed through the TSA security checkpoints at the airports scattered throughout the United States. We were unable to find a report on the actual passenger totals for each of these months and, instead, made the assumption that if we could use the May total as a reasonable average for the number of passengers flying each month of the summer, then we could conclude that approximately 280 million travelers passed through the TSA checkpoints for the period.
During that 140 day period, 322 firearms were found at checkpoints, 139 passengers were arrested at checkpoints for suspicious behavior or fraudulent travel documents and 71 travelers were arrested for artfully concealed prohibited items. The good news is that only 0.00000115 percent of the travelers were carrying firearms when they entered the security checkpoints. Of course, the number of guns is also the bad news. The distribution of the categories, by week, is shown in the graph below.
We did not attempt to subject the data to a statistical analysis, but it appears that firearms and the number of flyers are linearly related. In other words, you will find more guns at airports when more people are flying. So, if you look at the chart you will see that firearm carrying at airports peaks during the holidays associated with Memorial Day, Independence Day and Labor Day. Somewhat curiously, the data seems to show that an unusual number of people were apprehended for attempting to carry firearms through the TSA security checkpoints during the week that included … Mother’s Day. What a nice present!
Our graph is the stuff of further conversation. Just how many people are there in the United States who have not yet heard that there are security checkpoints at airports? Were the people attempting to carry firearms through security checkpoints terrorists or just plain forgetful? What prohibited items are we talking about here – bombs or bottles of water? And who doesn’t know their travel documents are fraudulent? Next, what about geography? We like to think of things geographically and wonder about the geographical distribution of these statistics? Which airports? What regions? Hopefully someone is paying attention the “where” of these numbers. However, we doubt that the spatial aspects of these numbers will ever see the light of day, since we had such difficulty in gathering the simple data presented.
How These Data Were Obtained
We think it is important that you know that these data are published weekly by the TSA on their website. When we first became interested in these reports earlier this spring, we contacted TSA to see if they would provide us the statistics that they had openly published over the last calendar year. To be honest, we did not know where to start and were directed to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Request Page at the TSA website and filed a simple request for the last year of the statistics published on the TSA website for the TSA Week At A Glance section. We received a speedy reply telling us that we had failed to reasonably describe the information and our request was denied.
Not to be deterred, on May 24, we tried sending an email to the “contact us” section of the TSA website requesting that they provide us the last year’s data that appeared in the TSA Week At A Glance section of their website. After all, why would you need a Freedom Of Information Act request for information that is published on the TSA website every week? We added that we published the blog that you are reading and that we thought these data would help the public appreciate the need for security checkpoints at airports.
Almost a month later on June 23, we received a note indicating that our request had been forwarded to the appropriate group for a response. On July 7, we received a note sent to us on behalf of Sterling Payne (how appropriate, and we are not making up the name) Deputy Assistant Administrator, Office of Strategic Communications and Public Affairs, indicating that he felt that the best way for us to receive the most accurate information would be by filling out (you guessed it) a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. Come on guys, this is information published on your citizen-facing website! There is nothing secret about it, or if there is, we suggest you stop publishing it each week. And anyway, if you don’t have the data, just who does?
As you might have guessed by now, we went the TSA website every week during the summer travel period and faithfully recorded the data in an Excel spreadsheet that allowed us to create the graph displayed above. Don’t ever say we are not determined to find the facts on your behalf.
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