Duane Huelsmann, deputy security director for the TSA, overseeing screening operations across the state of Missouri
Duane Huelsmann grew up near Lambert International Airport, and he watched planes soar and land. He was even in one once, when his soccer team flew to Amsterdam. And at eighteen, just as he was starting college, he got a job as a ramp agent, loading and unloading baggage for a regional airline. Soon that airline was bought by Trans States Airlines, and in a few years, he wound up director of ground operations, overseeing customer service, ticketing, baggage handling, “anything to do with handling an airplane, below wing or above wing.” After 9/11, when the Transportation Security Administration was created, he shifted to security. Huelsmann opened federal screening operations at two terminals at JFK and one at Raleigh-Durham, then came home to St. Louis to do the same here. As deputy security director for the TSA, he now oversees screening operations across the state of Missouri.
What made you want to learn security?
When 9/11 happened, I was in Champaign, Illinois, and the TV in my hotel room wasn’t working. I went downstairs to breakfast, looked up, and saw one of the towers smoking. I had worked at JFK quite a bit, and I’d see those towers every single day. Planes always took off toward the towers and then banked left, and if you were on the right side, you could see them from the air…. Just like that, the tower was gone. It was terrible. I wanted to be part of something that would elevate the security of the industry.
What did you have to master?
All the procedural requirements, from the ground up. How to use a metal detector, how to wand people, how to pat them down. How to handle customers. How to sample different shoes or bags and understand what the alarm would mean if it went off and what the protocol was for resolving it. How to interpret X-ray images—now, with video games, there’s more aptitude for it, but you really had to learn how to get the best view.
Working at a checkpoint has to be stressful. What was the fun part?
Seeing and interacting with so many people. I can’t tell you how many times Ozzie Smith went through. You might be surprised how many celebrities there are that you just might not recognize. It takes a second because they’re out of their element.
What are the biggest security issues?
Just the innocence of things, where they aren’t quite paying attention and they have something in their pocket that ninety-nine times out of a hundred wouldn’t be there, had they just thought ahead. “Sir, do you have anything in your pockets?” “No, I sure don’t.” “Well, I’m running this detector, you sure there’s nothing?” “No, no.” And then you pull out something that could be prohibited or embarrassing, and they are really humble about it: “Oh, gosh, I can’t believe I left that there!”
You might be surprised how many celebrities there are that you just might not recognize. It takes a second because they’re out of their element.
You sure they are not just feigning innocence?
Nearly always, I think it’s genuine. We have situations where we will say, “Sir, is there anything in your bag we might want to be concerned with?” and they will say, “Absolutely not.” “Well, I’m thinking there might be.” And their eyes get as big as they could possibly get. Inevitably, it’s a gun. I really believe they didn’t even think about it being in there. They carry that bag all the time. As many guns as we get, I can’t imagine people intentionally try to bring them through. For me, a gun would be unique, and I’d be aware, but I have friends who hunt, and they have guns, and they’re used to them.
How do you know when to be suspicious?
We have training that illustrates different types of behaviors, and we are taught how to recognize those. A lot of times it’s just nervousness; you can tell they’re really uncomfortable. And again, that doesn’t mean anybody’s done anything wrong. Or we have people sometimes that are doing things that we might not be concerned about from a security perspective—they might have a little marijuana in their bag, for example. If we notice it, we do have to notify the police.
What rules do passengers keep forgetting?
The 3-1-1 rule, where you can take liquids, aerosols, and gels, but they have to be 3.4 ounces and fit in a quart-sized bag. Somebody will throw a big bottle of water in the side of their backpack.
What was your first security job?
When I came to St. Louis, I supervised the C checkpoint, a very, very busy checkpoint, particularly in the morning. I asked if I could have that operation because it was going to be the busiest, and I like to stay busy and work hard. It was really, really crazy—it was great! And I performed well enough that my boss promoted me to manager. I oversaw the checkpoint and handled a lot of projects. We installed baggage screening equipment in the lobby. Passengers would come to us, and we would process the bags through that equipment and then give them to the airline representative. It was effective, but it was brutally inefficient. There had to be a better way.
So you found one?
In 2012, there was a $42 million baggage project that aligned the systems in Terminals 1 and 2. Now, our officers are in a remote location, so when the baggage goes through our equipment, the images are sent to them, and they can determine if it’s a threat or a clear bag. If it’s a threat bag, it gets kicked onto a different belt and goes straight to our screening area. That was implemented in 2014, and we still use it but keep upgrading. The Kansas City airport has a new terminal going up, and it will use the same equipment.
How often does baggage get kicked over to the screening area?
Routinely. People might not have realized that they are carrying what is actually hazardous material. In serious cases, we might have to get the passenger and the airline involved, but most of them, we are able to resolve. There’s something that is a possible threat, and we just want to make sure that it is safe. There are guns—are they packaged properly? Are they unloaded?
A lot of times it’s just nervousness; you can tell they’re really uncomfortable. And again, that doesn’t mean anybody’s done anything wrong. Or we have people sometimes that are doing things that we might not be concerned about from a security perspective—they might have a little marijuana in their bag, for example.
To keep people vigilant, your training has to be tough.
We do covert testing constantly, throughout the state. We’re looking to test the boundaries, so we’re not just going to stick through an item everybody’s going to find. We try to configure things in a way they haven’t seen before. We also use the X-ray images that were a tough find or a really good find.
What is your favorite checkpoint moment?
The day we had some penguins come through Lambert. They waddled right through the metal detector.
Are people crankier these days?
Not really. We have a lot of really, really good passengers, and a lot of them know the process well. We do have moments when things are really busy, but overall, the wait times are very good. If you give yourself just a little extra time to get to the airport, it takes away all that stress. Where you have the frustration is when people are running late. We try to be patient and empathetic; you never know what the person is going through that day, why they are traveling, how things were at home when they left this morning.
Have you ever been frightened at work?
Frightened, no. Concerned, yes. When a customer gets irate, or you find a loaded weapon. But for the most part, the team is ready for that. We train for it, and we have a protocol to follow.
Did people make a lot of nervous jokes right after 9/11? I remember realizing I had better be careful.
Yeah, that really did happen. Most of the people caught themselves doing it. “Oh, gosh, I probably shouldn’t say that, should I? I didn’t mean it!”
What has been the biggest change in security since then?
Technology and security have continued to improve. The body scanners are a great example: They are far more thorough than the walk-through metal detectors. And our X-rays units use computed tomography. That is a huge upgrade.
Is anything gonna save us from taking off our shoes?
I think at some point there will be technology to solve that: a scanner that allows the shoes to be considered. That is definitely something we’d love to see; it would really expedite things.
If you had a magic wand, what else would you change?
Really, the only thing I would ask for is that we would just continually improve. We’ve got an administrator who is really engaged with the technology.
What might come next?
Since COVID, they’ve also been exploring more of a touchless system. If we can do that, it will make the customer more comfortable, and it’s safer for everybody.
… we had some penguins come through Lambert. They waddled right through the metal detector. Added a little levity.
Infectious diseases are not going away anytime soon.
Yeah, that’s just a given.
You are dealing with a lot of the biggest challenges of our time—terrorism, disease, potential craziness and violence, anxiety. Why are you so cheerful?
I love this job. I have learned so much. I love the industry. It’s fascinating to me that I could jump on an airplane and go anywhere in the world—suddenly I’m seeing palm trees or I’m in the mountains. I have huge respect for the aviation industry, and it’s been an honor to be part of it.
What difference do you think the ability to fly has made for all of us?
You look at things that were impossible and, well, they’re possible. Can I go to Paris and see the Eiffel Tower? Set a little money aside, and I can. I really can. Flying expands your time off, because you’re not spending hours driving. And the world’s a much smaller place now, as technology has advanced. Anything you want to know, you can type into a search window. If you want to plan that trip to Paris, you can immerse yourself in it before you even go, and it will make you even hungrier to travel. We did London-Paris-Prague-Berlin for our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary, and all that did was make me want to go more places.
All that we have heard about lost baggage at bigger airports—is that a staffing issue? Do you have enough staff at Lambert?
We’d love to have another fifty people. We’re managing okay now, but the loads continue to climb. The job market has changed significantly as wages continue to elevate. What was a very strong federal job now has competition. The TSA administrator has presented a pay equity plan that is being evaluated by the House and Senate. That will positively impact the screening workforce wages and baggage handling, too.
How do you help travelers stay calm?
Going through the screening checkpoints can be unnerving. If you feel you need help—maybe you have a child with special needs—we have people who can meet you at the airport and help you get through as simply as you can. Sometimes we can bring a family out in advance, so a child on the autism spectrum can see the airport and get used to it. And we might say, “Hey, if you can get here at this time, we will be able to open up this lane for you where it’s really slow and quiet.”
We’re managing okay now, but the loads continue to climb. The job market has changed significantly as wages continue to elevate. What was a very strong federal job now has competition.
What are the biggest challenges to security these days?
There are still people who want to try to change the way we live. That’s the biggest potential security risk, and that’s why our processes are so thorough. Not only screening, but our inspections division as well, inspecting the airports, making sure access points are procedurally compliant and our security posture is performing at the level we expect. You always have people who for whatever reason want to judge how we live and maybe negatively impact that. We are here to make sure that doesn’t happen.