SALT LAKE CITY — As air travel plummeted amid the pandemic last year, one troubling number continued to rise.
The number of guns detected at Salt Lake City International Airport's security checkpoints.
Now, as more people are again taking to the skies, the Transportation Security Administration is asking Utahns to keep their firearms out of their carry-on luggage.
As of May 17, TSA officers have discovered 50 firearms in travelers' carry-on luggage so far this year, said TSA spokeswoman Lorie Dankers. On May 3, TSA agents discovered two firearms in one day.
"(It's a situation where) people have the gun thrown in the bottom of their bag, which oftentimes is loaded and there's often one in the chamber. We don't want to see that at the security checkpoint. We have to make a law enforcement notification, that traveler is going to have contact with law enforcement, they're going to check to see what they know about you and what they can find out about you," she explained.
"You're going to probably lose your gun and all these things that really could be avoided if you just go ahead and take your firearm, unload it, put it in a hard-sided case, lock it up and stick it in your checked baggage, then pick it up at your destination."
She noted that at this same point in 2020, TSA officers had flagged 33 firearms, and in 2019, the number was 29. Each of the weapons was discovered during the routine screening of carry-on property at airport security checkpoints, with the vast majority of those firearms found loaded with ammunition, she added.
The number of firearms found by TSA has climbed from 73 guns in 2018 to 85 in the following year, with 71 found last year even with the number of passenger screenings down 61% from 2019, according to a news release.
Last year, Salt Lake City International Airport ranked 10th nationally for the number of firearm discoveries, she said.
Dankers said anytime a TSA officer spots an image of a handgun on the X-ray screen, agents immediately stop all screening and notify the Salt Lake City Police Department Airport Division, which responds to the security checkpoint. A law enforcement officer takes control of the firearm and removes the passenger and the weapon from the checkpoint, she explained.
"Guns have never been allowed in carry-on luggage. They're not allowed in the cabin of the aircraft and everybody understands why, so pay attention to what you're doing," she said. "Make sure that you don't bring things you're not supposed to bring to the checkpoint because you might find yourself face to face with a law enforcement officer and lose possession of your gun."
Even if a traveler has a concealed weapons permit, firearms are never permitted in carry-on luggage, she said. In addition to potential criminal citations, travelers face civil penalties of up to $10,000 for bringing firearms to the security checkpoint, she noted.
TSA and airport officials want travelers to know that firearms can be transported on a commercial aircraft only if they are unloaded, packed in a locked, hard-sided case and placed in checked baggage. At the airport during the check-in process, passengers should declare the firearm, ammunition and any firearm parts at the airline ticket counter, Dankers said.
Travelers are flying again
This year, more people are expected to make air travel plans throughout the United States, according to the Transportation Security Administration. In Utah, the TSA and Salt Lake City International Airport advise travelers to be aware of protocols that are meant to improve their travel experience.
"The TSA security checkpoint experience will always be the same because those are standardized procedures that we have in place at every airport," explained TSA spokeswoman Lorie Dankers. "The number of people traveling each day has recovered, we're not in a pandemic environment at the airport anymore. In terms of the number of people we're seeing, we're almost back to those 2019 levels, we're on that trajectory, we expect to be screening 2 million people per day by Memorial Day."
Nationwide, TSA officers are screening an average of 1.5 million people per day — up from last year, but still down from 2019 levels of approximately 2.5 million people per day during the summer months, she said. Officials expect that due to the increased number of fully vaccinated people along with pent-up travel demand, the number of travelers this summer will likely steadily increase — which will mirror the national trend.
Even with increased vaccination levels, safety protocols will continue for the foreseeable future, Dankers said.
"We're not in a position right now at TSA to confirm whether or not someone is vaccinated. And that's why the mask mandate is in place still," she said. "So regardless of your vaccination status, you don't need to bring a card or proof of anything, it's not going to make a difference."
She noted that all airlines will also require passengers to wear masks during flights. As for what to expect when traveling from state to state, she advised travelers to research the prevailing rules for any desired destination since they can vary widely from one state to the next.
TSA is hiring
To bolster security efforts in Utah, the TSA is announcing its latest hiring push to bring on new officers to work at Salt Lake City International Airport and other airports around the state.
"We're hiring now, because of the consistent travel and the uptick that we're seeing in the passenger volumes that's going on right now," said Matt Davis, TSA federal security director for Utah. "We want to be as prepared as possible and we want to make sure that we have adequate staffing down on all the checkpoints so we can run as effectively and efficiently as possible."
He said there are full- and part-time positions currently available with starting wages at $16.51 per hour that include an incentive of $500 upon starting with the agency and another $500 after a year of service. To qualify for the recruitment incentive, the employee must come onboard by Sept. 30, he said.
"We also have opportunities for promotion and growth throughout the organization," he said. "You can start at six months looking for promotional opportunities that can take you to the next pay (levels)."
All positions, both full and part-time, are eligible for full federal employee benefits from day one, he said. The agency is looking to hire 40 to 50 new officers throughout the course of the summer, he said.
Currently, the TSA employs approximately 450 officers statewide, with roughly 375 working at Salt Lake City International Airport, he said.