The leadership of the US Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee is growing increasingly concerned about TSA’s plans to divert hundreds of transportation security officers (TSO) and federal air marshals (FAM) to assist hundreds of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers already stationed at the Southwest border to address a surge of migrants there.

On May 23, they also registered strong opposition to recent reports that the agency plans to divert $232 million from TSA’s FY2019 budget to fund border operations—money Congress intended to fund the acquisition of advanced airport screening equipment and provide compensation to TSA employees who get injured on the job.

TSA has said it plans to send up to 175 FAMs from Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response (VIPR) teams to the border, in additions to 400 TSOs currently conducting screening operations at US airports.

“Deployment of FAMs would significantly diminish operational capacity, and diversion of funds may slow deployment of new computed tomography screening machines,” Commerce Committee chairman Roger Wicker (R-Mississippi) and ranking member Maria Cantwell (D-Washington) wrote in a letter to TSA administrator David Pekoske and acting deputy administrator Patricia Cogswell.

“In addition, the redeployment of hundreds of TSOs at the start of the summer travel season could increase wait times for travelers at airports across the country through the summer and beyond,” they added.

Department of Homeland Security (DHS) acting secretary Kevin McAleenan told lawmakers on the House Homeland Security Committee during a May 22 hearing on the DHS FY2020 budget that the deployment of hundreds of personnel to the Southwest border “will not put the traveling public at risk,” adding that “We’re not going to reduce our security posture in any way.”

He also said a proposed $1.00 increase in the 9/11 passenger security fee in the Department’s FY2020 budget request would cover a greater share of the costs of aviation security, and urged Congress to include the fee hike in its final legislation.

TSA announced May 23 that it projects this summer will be the busiest travel season on record, with 263 million passengers and crew projected to pass through screening lanes nationwide from May 23 through Sept. 3—10 million more passengers than during the year-ago period.

The agency said it is working closely with airline and airport partners to maintain efficient operations, adding that it has increased airport security staffing levels by more than 2,000 officers to meet operational demands; provided a 20% increase in overtime funds to allow greater scheduling flexibility during peak travel periods; and deployed additional canine teams for passenger screening.

“TSA, like all DHS components, is supporting the DHS effort to address the humanitarian and security crisis at the southwest border. TSA is in the process of soliciting volunteers to support this effort while minimizing operational impact,” an agency spokesperson said.

Wicker and Cantwell wrote in their joint letter that a recently-issued Surface Transportation Security Awareness Message encouraging heightened vigilance over the Memorial Day holiday period added to their concerns about the security impact associated with the diversions. They requested the agency submit to the Committee a risk assessment and analysis of the impact to TSA operations and strategy, in addition to a summary of the agency’s outreach and coordination with aviation system stakeholders including airports and airlines.

In a separate letter to Pekoske dated May 22, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut), who also sits on the Commerce Committee, echoed the chairman and ranking member’s concerns about the security and wait-time impacts of the diversions and requested the agency provide him “information regarding how TSA will ensure that there are no disruptions at airports or transportation hubs throughout the US.”

Ben Goldstein, ben.goldstein@aviationweek.com