Standing at Pittsburgh International Airport’s security checkpoint, TSA agent Barbara Guerra is always scanning the crowd of travelers.
But she’s not always able to physically see what she’s looking for.
Guerra is one of about 30 TSA passenger support specialists working to assist passengers in need of special help at PIT. In her role, she’s found it’s not always evident when a traveler needs a helping hand.
“You never know what kind of help a person may need,” she said.
As part of the Transportation Security Administration’s “TSA Cares” Program, passenger support specialists work to assist travelers with disabilities and medical conditions, as well as others in need of extra support going through security screening.
TSA agents can opt to become specialists by taking an online course that covers training on medical and emotional conditions and medical devices, along with cultural awareness.
Nearly three years into the role, Guerra has helped passengers with a variety of special circumstances: non-English speakers, individuals wearing medical devices including casts and pacemakers, war veterans diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, people flying with personal religious objects—and even those who simply are flying for the first time.
“Each situation is different,” she said. “Sometimes, we’re here to help guide someone who is anxious about the process. And we’re also assisting travelers with medical and emotional needs.”
Born and raised in Poland, Guerra moved to Pittsburgh about 15 years ago and has been working for the TSA at PIT for five years. As a non-native herself, she’s had the chance to assist foreign visitors, including recently, a passenger from Ukraine.
“She missed her flight and wasn’t able to communicate with anyone,” Guerra said. “Being from Poland, our languages were similar, so I was able to speak with her. I gave her my phone to use and we were able to get in touch with her family.”
Stephane Griffin, a PIT-based TSA agent for four years, also draws from past experience to provide passenger support.
“I have a background in social work and therapeutic staff support,” Griffin said. “I can tell if a traveler or a family are struggling and I’m able to render my service to make their experience easier.”
Her motto when helping travelers?
“No problem, we’ve got this,” Griffin often tells them.
“I’m here to help. I use humor a lot and find other things to push them through and get them to the other side and on their plane.”
For Ava Basalyga, a PIT TSA agent for 18 years, being a support specialist means easing a traveler’s worries.
“I try to make every passenger feel like they are getting the special ‘red carpet treatment,’” Basalyga said, adding that, as a mother herself, she’s always looking to assist families.
“I can always recognize when someone needs a little bit of help. I want to be sure they all know we’re here for them.”
Usually, passengers request assistance ahead of time. The TSA website lists contact information for its TSA Cares Program and recommends travelers call 72 hours before their flights.
If not, passengers can seek immediate assistance when they arrive at the airport.