TSA Agent vs. TSA Officer: What’s the Difference?

If you’ve ever needed to fly on an airplane, you’ve likely been screened by a TSA agent. You may have heard them being referred to as a TSA officer or even a transportation security officer. You might be confused about their role and how that will impact you when you go to the airport next. Don’t worry, I’ll explain what the TSA does, the role of a TSO, and common misconceptions about TSA agents in detail.

Is a TSA agent the same as a TSA officer?

A TSA agent is the same as a TSA officer. The terms TSA agent and TSA officer are often used interchangeably. The TSA hires transportation security officers, also known as TSO. These officers are the face of the TSA and they are responsible for providing security at major transportation venues.

TSA officers have a variety of roles. While many people think of the airport as the main place a TSA officer works, they may be unaware of the other places that a TSA screener performs their duties and what duties they perform. We’ll cover each of these in detail.

TSA Agent vs. TSA Officer: What's the Difference?

What Is A TSA Agent?

The TSA is a part of the Department of Homeland Security in the United States. It was created after the terrorist attacks in 2001 as a push to improve safety and security in airports. The TSA united all of the security efforts under one federal agency, rather than relying on private security companies. The private security companies that were utilized before had high turnover rates and poor training.

At the TSA, there is no difference between a TSA agent or a TSA officer. The agents are referred to as Transportation Security Officers or TSO for short. A TSO is also sometimes referred to as a TSA screener.

A TSA agent is responsible for providing security at a variety of venues or important events. They are most often seen at airports, but they are also found operating at subways, railways, and even bridges. The screen on average “2.8 million passengers, 1.4 million check bags, and 5.1 million carry-on bags each day” according to the TSA.

A TSO completes training that lasts for approximately 80 hours at a federal training facility. The officer learns how to interact with the public, give instructions, and follow standard operating procedures.

The TSO is the part of the TSA that interacts directly with the public in a high-security situation. Some of the responsibilities of a TSA agent can include screening bags, checking passengers, and monitoring for suspicious activity.

TSA agents are often mistreated and abused by passengers at airports because of the strict rules and guidelines that they have to follow. The dynamic creates a lot of tension. As a result, many TSO’s lie about their job, stating only that they work for the Department of Homeland Security so that they won’t be subject to mistreatment outside of work.

What Role Does A TSA Officer Have?

TSA officers perform specific duties that revolve around screening for security breaches. They include:

  1. Screening Carry-On Bags
    1. The TSA checks around 5.1 million carry-on bags each day for explosives and other dangerous devices including weapons and ammunition. The TSO checks electronics separately from the carry-on bag to make sure that the electronic devices are not hiding explosives. They also check to make sure liquids, gels, and aerosols follow the correct guidelines put forth by the TSA.
  2. Screening Checked Bags
    1. The TSA screens 1.4 million checked bags on average each day for explosives and other dangerous devices. After they check a bag for dangerous devices and other illegal paraphernalia, they make sure it gets put on the correct flight for the passenger to pick it up at baggage claim when they arrive at their destination.
  3. Operating X-ray Machines and Metal Detectors
    1. The TSO watches passengers as they go through x-ray machines and metal detectors. If the person goes through the machine with no issue, they often can move on through the checkpoint, but sometimes the agent will select a passenger to go through a secondary screening.
    2. Additionally, if a passenger refuses to go through the x-ray machine, they may opt to be manually screened via a pat-down. Some people refuse due to religious or cultural reasons.
  4. Manual Screening of Passengers (Pat-Down)
    1. If a passenger gets selected for a secondary screening or the person sets off the metal detector, they may have to go through a manual screening by a TSA officer. A same-sex TSA agent will be dispatched to manually check that a person isn’t carrying any prohibited items.
    2. A passenger can opt for this type of screening rather than going through an x-ray machine. Some passengers opt to do this due to religious or cultural reasons. All passengers must be screened, however. A passenger must choose to be screened by one method or the other.
  5. Directing Passengers Through Checkpoints
    1. At a checkpoint, TSA agents are stationed to check tickets and direct people to the next place they need to go. They keep a watchful eye over the area they are stationed in to spot any suspicious activity and to make sure passengers are supposed to be there.

Are TSA Agents Law Enforcement Officers?

TSA agents look similar to law enforcement in the way they dress. People often believe that an agent has the same role as a law enforcement officer. However, TSA agents are not law enforcement officers.

TSA officers cannot arrest a passenger. They also do not carry any weapons and are not allowed to use force as a part of their duties. They simply screen for security reasons and if a situation arises, they must contact the local law enforcement.

TSA Agent vs. TSA Officer: What's the Difference?

In the case of a breach of security in an airport, the TSO would contact airport law enforcement to handle the situation. Cases in which they would need to contact the airport police could include:

  • Passengers trying to avoid being screened will be dealt with by law enforcement. All passengers have to be screened, so evading screening will result in being detained by police.
  • Prohibited items being found in screening will lead to a call for police. Prohibited items can include explosives, firearms, knives, drugs, and much more.
  • If a TSO believes there might be an explosive device that needs to be screened by law enforcement, they will call the airport police to look at the device. A specialist will be called in to disarm the explosive if it’s a credible threat.
  • Passengers that look like they are in danger will necessitate a call to the airport police. If the passenger looks like they are being taken against their will or like they are being harmed by someone, the police can intervene and make sure the person is traveling of their own volition and that they are safe.
  • Spotting a child from an Amber alert would necessitate police or other federal authorities to intervene to rescue the child that’s been kidnapped.
  • If a physical altercation breaks out police will be called to break up the fight and defuse the situation. Depending on the situation, the passengers could be arrested.

Common Misconceptions About TSA Agents

There are many common misconceptions about TSA agents, perhaps because many people fear or despise the work that TSA agents do. For whatever reason, people broadly dislike the TSA and this results in a lot of myths and misinformation about the job.

Myth #1 TSA officers only screen people at the airport.

Many TSA officers work at other transportation venues including bridges, subways, and railways. One popular transportation venue the TSA can be found at is Amtrak.

Myth #2 TSA agents still use backscatter machines.

A type of machine called a backscatter machine was used many years ago to assess security risks. The machine was so detailed that a person’s prosthetics and other medical devices could be seen through a passenger’s clothing. People were understandably upset that so much of their body’s detail could be seen through a machine and so the TSA stopped use of the machines.

The TSA now uses a new type of software called Automated Target Recognition. This software provides the agent with an image that is more generic and less specific to the person being screened. This eliminates details about the person’s medical devices and specific body details being captured.

TSA Agent vs. TSA Officer: What's the Difference?

Myth #3 TSA officers get airline perks.

Unfortunately for the TSA agents, they don’t receive any airline perks. They don’t get to fly for a reduced rate, and they don’t get provided with meals. Federal guidelines don’t allow TSA agents to accept gifts either.

Myth #4 The TSA Agent does the same thing all day.

TSA officers are rotated through their jobs throughout the day to prevent them from missing things because they are tired. They are only kept at one station for up to 30 minutes at a time. They will then move to another station and continue rotating throughout their shift.

Myth #5 The TSA officer throws out or keeps confiscated belongings.

The TSA collects the confiscated belongings and then sells them at a government surplus store. The local government then reaps the profits and benefits of the confiscated objects. The objects that they sell include strange things like nunchucks or spears.

Check out more about TSA HERE.

Summary

TSA agent and TSA officer are broader terms that describe the job of Transportation Security Officer or TSO. A TSO is stationed at various important points in an airport or other transportation venue to determine whether there are any security risks.

Related Questions

How Much Training Does A TSA Agent Have To Go Through?

According to the TSA, an agent must go through 80 hours of training at a federal training facility. The agent resides on the property for the entirety of the program and the TSA pays all the agent’s expenses while they go through training.

Does a TSA Agent Have Go Through Any Certifications?

While there aren’t any named certifications a TSA officer has to go through, they do have to pass a rigorous test every year. The test is designed to test a TSO’s ability to detect real-world threats.

How Much Does Being a TSA Agent Pay?

On average, a TSA agent is making about $26 per hour nationwide. Their pay varies on a state-to-state basis, however. Low pay and high stress are often cited reasons why TSA agents quit their job.

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Please note: This blog post is for educational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. Please consult a legal expert to address your specific needs.