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The head of the Transportation Security Administration had just landed at the Brussels Airport when terrorists set off their bombs there last month. Peter Neffenger was still on the plane when the blast occurred. But as he tells NPR's Brian Naylor, it have him eyewitness view of the importance of the TSA.
BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: Neffenger was on his way to meet with his European security counterparts at the time of the Brussels attack. Seeing the immediate aftermath, he says, reminded him why, in his words, we do what we do.
PETER NEFFENGER: You could see the front of the airport that was destroyed. You could see the concern on the faces of the response people as well as the confusion on the faces of the people who had been in the airport. And it tells me that we don't want that to happen here and that the things that we're doing here are really important.
NAYLOR: The Brussels attacks led to what Neffenger calls a dramatic increase in the security presence at U.S. airports. Law enforcement officers are more visible, and there are more dogs.
NEFFENGER: You'll see explosive-sniffing canines moving through. Those have been the case for some time, but we've increased that presence, increased the randomness of that and increased the random checking of people and bags in the public side of the airport.
NAYLOR: The bombs at the Brussels Airport were outside the security checkpoints, but in the airport ticketing area, where many people had gathered. Neffenger says there was already a lot more patrolling of public spaces at U.S. airports than in Brussels. But he still worries about those kinds of soft targets.
NEFFENGER: I have a lot of concern about lots of people gathering in public areas. We've been working very diligently on improving the efficiency of our checkpoints while, at the same time, making sure we don't fail to catch things that shouldn't get through.
NAYLOR: Long and slow moving security lines have become a fixture at many airports this spring. In part, it's because air travel is projected at record-high levels and part because TSA reduced staffing, figuring they'd need fewer screeners once the pre-check program caught on. It gives passengers expedited screening for a fee, but many fewer than hoped for had signed up. So now Neffenger is scrambling to hire more officers.
NEFFENGER: We're hiring at an accelerated pace. I'm running eight concurrent training classes at our TSA Academy. And that's putting about 200 new officers out each week. Those individuals are being sent to the highest-volume airports.
NAYLOR: But Neffenger cautions passengers should plan on arriving at the airport extra early, especially during peak travel this summer. Neffenger says he cares about long lines, but Brussels serves as a reminder that, as he put it, we have to do our job. Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.
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