The head of the Transportation Security Administration in Minnesota said Tuesday that while his workers are ready for the Thanksgiving rush, it's been challenging to hire more employees as air travel rebounds to pre-pandemic levels.

"It seems to be getting busier all the time," said Marty Robinson, TSA's federal security director for Minnesota, at a news conference at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. "We're getting back to normal."

But TSA staffing is struggling to keep up. he federal agency employs more than 600 at MSP. But when asked how many he'd like to have working, Robinson demurred and said: "More."

"We're in better shape this Thanksgiving than last as far as hiring goes, but we are still not where I want to be," he told the Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC) on Monday.

The TSA expects Wednesday and Sunday to be the busiest travel days at MSP this Thanksgiving, especially from 4 to 6 a.m. and 2 to 5 p.m. To help bolster employee ranks, additional security officers from TSA's national deployment force will be working in the Twin Cities during the holiday, along with three additional canine teams to sniff out possible explosives.

Two new lanes have been added at the south checkpoint in Terminal 1, and Delta Air Lines has contributed screening equipment there to help move employees and others through the lines more quickly.

Robinson said it's especially difficult to hire workers in Minnesota, which has a historically low jobless rate. He said it typically takes six months to a year to fully train security officers.

Moreover, it's unclear whether Congress will adopt a budget that would bring the agency's pay in line with those working for other federal agencies. According to the TSA, security screeners would see an average 30% increase in base pay as a result.

"The general feeling is that if this does not go through, it will be difficult to recruit new employees and retain current ones," Robinson said.

Neal Gosman, secretary/treasurer of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 899, which represents TSA employees at MSP, agrees.

The lack of pay equity "is a morale issue," Gosman said. "We are doing the best we can, but generally screeners feel overworked."

Robinson said he's also concerned about the impact that a wave of COVID-19, flu and the respiratory virus RSV might have on the local TSA workforce this holiday season. "This is something that will greatly affect staffing if it happens," he said.

Recent news that Sun Country Airlines will add more than a dozen new routes next year will present TSA with more staffing challenges at Terminal 2, Robinson said. Only one of the two checkpoints at Terminal 2 is now open.

Robinson told MAC officials that passengers attempting to clear security with guns has been a growing problem across the United States. So far this year, more than 6,000 guns — 87% of them loaded — have been detected in carry-on bags by TSA screeners nationwide.

"It's very disturbing, although not so much here in Minnesota," he said.

In the meantime, Robinson assured travelers that they can bring food in their carry-on luggage — including a fully cooked turkey. However, he added, "If you can spill it, spread it or pump it, it has to be in your checked bags."