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Originally published January 28, 2014 at 10:02 AM | Page modified January 29, 2014 at 2:34 PM

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The outlook for U.S. airports: More guns, faster security

TSA keeps finding more and more (forbidden) firearms in passengers’ carry-on luggage.

The New York Times

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The TSA Blog, a chatty official newsletter run by a small group of Transportation Security Administration employees, offers a nice window into what is most likely ahead in air travel.

For one thing, expect to find more fellow travelers packing more than bags for the airport this year, as more guns than ever are turning up at TSA checkpoints. In 2013, we had another record year. Last year, 1,813 firearms (1,477 of them loaded) were found in passengers’ carry-on bags at TSA checkpoints.

“There was a 16.5 percent increase (257) in firearm discoveries from last year’s total of 1,556,” the TSA Blog reports. The tone is evenhanded, and seems calculated to avoid giving unnecessary offense to the national gun lobby and the growing “right-to-carry” movement, while at the same time stressing that, hey, passengers are not allowed to bring guns onto airplanes in their carry-on bags. (Penalties vary depending on state and local gun laws, ranging from simple admonishment, the most common penalty, to arrest.)

If you’re keeping score, the TSA at the Atlanta airport found the most guns last year: 111. Following in the top five were Dallas-Fort Worth (96); the splendidly named George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston (68); the soothingly named Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport (66); and plain old Denver International (55). Of course, the official tallies reflect only those guns screeners found at the checkpoints. It’s anybody’s guess how many firearms might be slipping through.

This year, we’re off to a less booming start for guns, however. As of Friday, 100 guns had been found starting Jan. 1 at the checkpoints, according to the TSA tally. During the same period last year, the total was 112.

Note, though, that in an eight-day period this month, about 30,000 flights — essentially one full day’s worth of commercial flight schedules in the United States — were canceled because of bad weather and other airline complications. So put an asterisk next to this January’s tally.

“TSA had a busy year in 2013, screening 638,705,790 passengers (more than 1,700,000 per day), which is 1,123,668 more passengers than last year,” the TSA reports, with admirable precision.

PreCheck popular

After a slow start, the individual enrollment option for the agency’s popular PreCheck expedited-security program is now operating in a handful of locations, the most recent one at the Washington-Dulles airport. Yet there continues to be confusion about PreCheck, mainly because of the agency’s push to get 25 percent of travelers using it by the end of 2013. (That goal was met and exceeded, the TSA says.)

To meet the goal, the agency began randomly assigning travelers to the fast-pass lanes who had not previously been designated as PreCheck-certified by participating airlines or through other existing methods.

This year, there will be far more emphasis on that formal application process, through which travelers can report to new enrollment centers, pay $85, get fingerprinted, and hope to be approved. The TSA had said it expected to have 200 of these centers open during 2013, but by the end of the year only a handful were. Openings are accelerating, though, and the TSA now says it will have 300 operating by the end of 2014.

More business travel

Security aside, what else can we expect to see this year?

Well, more robust business travel spending, for one thing. According to a recent forecast by the Global Business Travel Association, total business travel spending in the United States will increase this year by 6.6 percent, to $289.8 billion (after a 3.8 percent increase last year). That increase is being propelled, the association says, “by a whopping 12.5 percent increase in spending on international outbound travel.”

Meanwhile, on a smaller but also optimistic note, Southwest Airlines seems to have put to rest those persistent rumors that it might follow the other major airlines and charge for checked bags this year. During a recent earnings call with stock market analysts, Gary C. Kelly, the airline’s chief executive, suggested that Southwest was doing just fine without nickel-and-diming passengers for checking luggage. “We don’t need the bag fees and don’t want them,” Kelly said.

Another small but hopeful development comes from the Loews hotel chain, which rebelled last week against the far-too-common practice of high-end hotels charging guests for Wi-Fi access in rooms. The service is now free at each of Loews’ 19 hotels in North America, said the company, which described itself as the first hotel chain in the luxury segment to offer free Wi-Fi.

Let’s hope that trend spreads in 2014.

Besides the five-star hotels, the big and expensive convention hotels also typically charge for Internet connections. So the Loews move might provide some extra leverage for meeting planners to negotiate free Wi-Fi as part of the package. The convention and meetings business is also on a resurgence, with a 1.7 percent increase in the number of events and a 6.5 percent increase in spending, to $124.5 billion expected this year.

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