The TSA was recently the subject of an unflattering study by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) -- more on that later -- but it doesn't take an expert or a longitudinal study for us to know that the TSA has some issues. If you have gone through airport security in the past few years, you know as well as any expert that it can be a complete mess.
On a recent trip, I flew out of Gate 45 in Terminal B in Newark, and it took a full hour to get through security. If I did a diagram of what happened during that hour, you wouldn't believe it. The scene looked like a run on a bank, with every person fending for themselves; the average preschool class is better organized and more professionally managed.
On that single pass through the airport, I saw:
- Agents milling around doing nothing
- Agents at the front of the line yelling conflicting information from those at the back of the line
- Supervisors rushing around doing baggage checks instead of supervising staff
- Some lines moving quickly and others barely moving at all, based simply on how hard the specific agents cared to work
- Lines and machines opening and closing while folks were still in them, with no real directions offered to those left stranded
- Lines within lines, with more than a dozen people waiting to get through one backscatter scanner after their bags had gone through, while a fully operational regular magnetic scanner was marked with Caution tape -- except for a brief window when children were allowed to go through
- Bags lying around with no owners in sight (they'd been waylaid for several minutes after sending their bags/shoes/laptops through the X-ray machines)
- Travelers left to their own devices when trying to figure out which line to get into
- Families being separated for no good reason
- Actions by agents that seemed more intended to reinforce their authority than actually to make things work, with lots of orders being shouted but no order being imposed
- Overall very few signs of a systematic or professional approach to something as supposedly critical as national security
All told, it took the TSA about an hour to get perhaps a couple hundred people through security. Seriously, our local ShopRite checkout folks can get me and five bags of groceries through a line as fast as the TSA got me and one half-empty carry-on through the scanners.
When we finally got to the gate, the airline gate agents were sympathetic, understanding and fully on our side. "What the heck is going on out there?!?" one asked incredulously. Doing such a bad job that you leave behind flabbergasted travelers and airline employees alike is business as usual for the TSA at the Newark airport: "This happens all the time," said the gate agent. It does appear to be a pretty regular occurrence; check out the complaints at TSAStatus.net.
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The GAO (and Even the TSA) Agree
The GAO did a study of the TSA's processes for reviewing employee misconduct (including offenses from failing to screen passengers to large-scale theft operations), and found them wanting. The GAO brief TSA Could Strengthen Oversight of Allegations of Employee Misconduct outlines its findings and recommendations. In short, the GAO found that, while reportable employee incidents rose more than 25 percent in the preceding year, including absenteeism, sleeping on work hours, theft and inconsistent screening of passengers, the TSA's processes for dealing with those incidents is extremely lacking. The GAO made four recommendations regarding the reporting and adjudication process for these incidents.
The TSA agreed, stating that the agency "concurs with GAO's recommendations to ensure that the agency establishes a process to verify that TSA staff at airports are in compliance, and is already working to implement these recommendations."
The report not only confirms the agency's poor traveler approval ratings, but also provides further evidence that this is a system in which it is very difficult to have any confidence, particularly when it counts. Seriously, if the 20 - 30 agents we saw can't manage three or four security lines that serve only seven gates in Newark, with people and luggage piling up all around them and tempers flaring throughout, it is hard to believe that they are being particularly effective at their actual mission.
Finally, getting a bit more personal (perhaps at my peril), too many TSA agents seem to hate either their jobs, the public or both. Don't think so? Check out the comments on this article from PeterGreenberg.com, in particular those from people who identify themselves as DHS or TSA employees. The amplifying social media factor notwithstanding, it is a bit stunning that these folks would go public with that kind of invective, complete with name-calling and profanity, with the name of their employer on full display.
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Of course, you will run into plenty of good agents and plenty of good supervisors, but the big picture is not a rosy one. And it's not like effective, efficient security is impossible. On recent trips through Lithuania and the Netherlands, I encountered security checkpoints that were efficient, thorough, professional and, perhaps most importantly, somewhat intimidating and no-nonsense, which would make a potential terrorist think twice about trying to sneak something onto a plane. Compared to Newark, where you wonder if you will get through the line at all because of the staff goofing off, in Amsterdam you are instead making darn sure you are not goofing off. It's a big difference.
Lest we think it is because these airports are small that things seem more efficient, it's not the case; in 2012, Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport handled 51 million passengers to Newark's 33.9 million. They're just doing a better job.
A highly publicized element of the GAO report was the TSA's ongoing problem with criminality in its ranks, including one employee who stole upwards of $80,000 of passenger property. When I think back to my experience in Terminal B in Newark, and look over the list of conditions I observed as laid out above, it is little wonder to me that an employee could pull something like that off. With chaos in your own ranks, including supervisors doing jobs other than supervising, something that should be impossible to do -- ripping off laptops in a federal security zone -- becomes almost easy.
Notwithstanding all of the above, the one thing that strikes me as almost miraculously undeveloped after more than a decade in existence is the TSA's use of modern crowd control techniques. It's one thing if the old customs halls still look like they're stuck in the 1970s, but the TSA is new and tremendously well funded, so there isn't really any excuse not to employ modern tactics other than lack of organizational will. Simple things like decent signage, load balance among multiple checkpoints, and clear and obvious lanes for traveler traffic are hit or miss on a national basis.
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What We Want (and Deserve)
In addition to the GAO's four somewhat inside-baseball recommendations, here are my four suggestions for how to improve the TSA from a traveler's perspective. After all, we're the ones paying for it.
1. Consistent use of modern crowd control methods. Look at any Disney theme park -- these days the lines there look shorter and go faster than they did a decade ago, even while accommodating way more people. Tons of research and actual implementation can be found on this topic, and much of it is designed to increase security, not just move people faster. The TSA needs to do its homework in this regard, system-wide.
For example, line wait times at any decent amusement park are well managed and clear. Similarly, most good subway systems indicate when the next train is due, and many U.S. highways show time estimates for upcoming exits. Similar tactics could certainly be employed at the airports secured by the TSA. Clear monitoring of processing times would be a good start, while making appropriate adjustments inside the security zone, such as opening any idle machines and alerting staff to bottlenecks so they can adjust. Additionally, airports with multiple checkpoints could have screens listing average wait times at each checkpoint, so that travelers can choose the shortest ones and the lines will be more balanced.
2. A professional but serious environment. The bluster, posturing and sometimes shaming behavior now found at too many security checkpoints needs to be replaced with a professional, serious attitude focused on mission, not emotion and conflict. When the people in charge project the intent of the whole operation, then everyone knows why they are there, what to do and how to behave. When the people in charge are goofing off, ignoring issues or engaging in power trips, then the whole thing collapses. What should be a confidence-inspiring experience becomes an us vs. them scenario, the mission gets completely lost and no one actually feels more safe. Some airport security staffs are doing a good job on this front, but it is clearly a systemic issue.
3. Sensible, efficient and workable policies with respect to individuals with special needs. Beyond thefts, the worst reports of TSA abuses tend to focus on these folks who can't always fend for themselves given the cattle-prodding nature of the current process -- such as the elderly, families, the disabled and non-English speakers.
4. Oversight and supervision that would eliminate theft, criminality and unprofessionalism. The TSA has resorted to hidden cameras and stings to catch its own thieves, but in truth a few better-placed and better-trained supervisors would likely help this issue tremendously. If the TSA says it can get millions of us through security without us doing anything illegal, certainly it can police its own staff. Doctor, heal thyself.
Are you seeing a different TSA than I am, or is your experience similar? How about overseas? Let us know in the comments below, or vote in our poll.