Kirk Skinner, TSA Federal Security Director
I call Tampa the elephant graveyard of TSA. Our employees come here and they don’t want to leave. They tell TSA workers at other airports, ‘It’s all true. It’s that great here.’
When Kirk Skinner was in 6th grade living in rural New York, he woke up before school one morning with a bump the size of half a baseball on the side of his face. His mother rushed him to the doctor and the doctor sent him straight to Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, New York. There, he spent eight hours under the knife as surgeons removed the large mass.
It turned out to be a benign tumor and he was fine. But spending time in the pediatric cancer ward among terminally ill kids “left an indelible mark,” Skinner said.
“I always had the perception that if it happened once, it could happen again,” Skinner said. And the next time, he may not be as lucky.
Fast forward 50 years: Skinner is now the Federal Security Director overseeing TSA operations at Tampa International, Sarasota Bradenton International and St. Petersburg-Clearwater International airports among other duties dealing with keeping regional transportation safe and secure. He also rides a rumbling Harley-Davidson to work every day, pulls his long hair back in a ponytail and has two earrings.
He balances a fine line between following strict, black-and-white federal security protocols and embracing the flaws, fumbles and colorful quirks he finds in humanity. He preaches servitude but sees himself as somewhat of a rebel. He’s had what anyone would consider a longtime happy marriage and an extremely successful career as a Marine and federal agent, yet will characterize his life as “dysfunctional.” He can be powerfully serious and delightfully funny, and sometimes it’s hard to tell which is which. He often still chokes up when he watches new officers swear the oath.
Whatever Skinner is or has been since arriving in Tampa six years ago, his distinct leadership style has made its mark on TPA’s TSA team, which he believes is among the best in the country. The TPA officers often get praise for their friendliness, efficiency and sensitivity – traits many don’t always associate with the Department of Homeland Security. He has started submitting his Tampa team for national awards, putting them up against bigger airports like LAX.
Skinner credits the federal government shutdown that happened earlier this year as actually raising morale, particularly in Tampa, because it was the first time many of his officers felt cared for and supported by the Tampa Bay community. In early January, TPA partnered with the United Way Suncoast and Feeding Tampa Bay to set up a pop-up food pantry for federal workers so they could have meals, toiletries, baby items, pet food and bill assistance while they were missing paychecks.
“That really went a long way with the officers, knowing that the city and airport thought of them as part of their community,” Skinner said.
Likewise, Skinner has felt fortunate to be a part of the Tampa International Airport during a historic expansion and transitional time, one “we may never see again in our lifetime.” As the Airport grows and sees consecutive years of record passenger numbers, TSA has been there every step of the way in ensuring those passengers are safe and TPA is a secure place. The partnership has never been stronger, he said, and he feels fortunate to work alongside TPA CEO and “national treasure to the aviation industry” Joe Lopano.
“Our local TSA leadership has managed to have really insightful conversations with Joe and [TPA Executive Vice President of Operations and Customer Service] John Tiliacos, and the two of them understand my team’s mission,” Skinner said. “At the same time, we recognize the Airport’s mission.”
Skinner prides himself on having a diverse workforce that respects others’ differences – including his own with the long hair and earrings. It’s made for a very happy and safe place to work and a feeling among the officers that they’re in a special Airport and want to keep it that way.
“I call Tampa the elephant graveyard of TSA,” he said. “Our employees come here and they don’t want to leave. They tell TSA workers at other airports, ‘It’s all true. It’s that great here.’”
Skinner, who retired as a Marine Corps “Mustang” Major after 23 years of active duty in 2000, has been married to his wife Abigail for 35 years. She is, he likes to say, “five years younger and a whole lifetime wiser.” They have three grown children – Raven, William Stowe and Nevada.
In his free time, Skinner loves riding his Harley. He likes the feeling of freedom, the thrill of being unrestrained. He was recently hit by a vehicle, which badly damaged his bike and gave him a good scare, but he walked away unhurt.
“I’m not afraid to die,” he said, “but the Lord decided it wasn’t my time.”