What Does a TSA Transportation Security Officer Do?

Learn About the Salary, Required Skills, & More

Image by Theresa Chiechi © The Balance 2019 

If you've been in an airport recently, you're probably keenly aware of the security precautions the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) takes to ensure U.S. air travelers and traffic are safe. ​Key to these efforts is the work of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).

The TSA's transportation security officers (TSOs) screen passengers, baggage, and cargo at airports to prevent anything potentially dangerous from coming onto planes. They screen nearly two million passengers per day in airports across the country, according to the DHS.

TSA Officer Duties & Responsibilities

The job generally requires the ability to perform the following duties:

  • Screening airport passengers, cargo, and bags for prohibited and dangerous objects and materials
  • Maintaining efficient passenger traffic flows through airport security checkpoints
  • Monitoring airport security measures
  • Reporting potential security vulnerabilities and weaknesses at the airport

TSOs are the nation's first line of defense against threats to air traffic. Working in conjunction with other federal law enforcement partners, including Federal Air Marshals, the officers help keep potentially dangerous people and items off of airplanes.

TSA Officer Salary

A TSO's salary can vary depending on location and experience.

  • Median Annual Salary: $41,860 ($19.95 per hour)
  • Top 10% Annual Salary: $49,200 ($23.65 per hour)
  • Bottom 10% Annual Salary: $34,650 ($16.66 per hour)

The TSA offers a robust retirement package, as well as paid sick leave, insurance, transportation subsidies to help offset commuting costs, and other benefits. All part-time TSOs receive the same benefits as full-time employees.

Education, Training, & Certification

To be eligible for a TSO position, candidates must be at least 18 years old at the time of application and a U.S. citizen. Males who are born after Dec. 31, 1959, must also be registered with the Selective Service System. TSO candidates must also go through a lengthy hiring process, which includes a background check, as well as criminal and credit history checks.

  • Education: Candidates must have a high school diploma, GED, or equivalent certificate. No college education is required for this position. The Transportation Security Administration is looking for candidates who can learn and understand the concepts of aviation security processes and procedures, as well as the underlying theories behind them.
  • Training: Once hired, TSOs must attend a training program at one of several locations around the United States. They must also participate in ongoing training and testing to keep up with new policies and procedures.

    TSA Officer Skills & Competencies

    To be successful in this role, you’ll generally need the following skills and qualities:

    • Technical skills: TSOs must be able to learn to use security instruments and equipment for screening.
    • Physical strength: TSOs must lift suitcases and other objects, bend, and stay on their feet for long periods of time.
    • Interpersonal skills: TSOs need to be able to maintain a calm, polite, and professional demeanor during potentially stressful encounters with passengers. Teamwork with coworkers is also important.
    • Communication skills: TSOs must effectively and efficiently relay information to passengers and coworkers.
    • Critical-thinking skills: TSOs must be able to think critically and independently to respond appropriately to a variety of security-related situations.

    Job Outlook

    The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that employment in this field will grow 3 percent through 2026, which is slower than the overall employment growth of 7 percent for all occupations in the country.

    Work Environment

    According to the TSA, transportation security officers may work in any of more than 450 locations around the United States. They work in airports at security checkpoints and airplane cargo screening areas.

    TSOs are usually on their feet for the majority of their shifts. They're also constantly interacting with highly diverse groups of people and using technologies such as x-ray machines, body scanners, and hand-wand metal detectors.

    The job can come with a considerable amount of stress and pressure since it involves protecting people's lives. TSOs must also deal with difficult people and situations on a regular basis.

    Work Schedule

    TSA transportation security officers may work full-time or part-time hours. Their shift times can vary throughout the hours that the airport is open, and often include early morning, late night, overnight, weekend, and holiday hours. The TSA notes that shifts are not always flexible and vary from airport to airport.

    TSOs usually experience greater flexibility in their schedules and shifts as they advance in seniority.

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    How to Get the Job

    Apply

    Visit USAJobs.gov to find open positions in your area.

    Complete the Hiring Process

    The TSO hiring process is complex and usually takes several months to complete. Generally, you must pass all of the following to get a job offer:

    • English language proficiency test
    • Object recognition skills test
    • Structured interview
    • Color vision test
    • Fingerprint screening
    • Medical exam
    • Drug test
    • Credit check
    • Criminal history check