Five Steps to Fix the TSA

You haven't heard me talk much about the TSA lately and the nationwide fervor over the agency has seemingly died down. One reason is Pre✓, a "trusted traveler" program that allows passengers who submit to background checks to bypass the excessive and theatrical security screenings most casual travelers still endure at U.S. airports.  Another reason is a change in technology that has made full body scanners less obtrusive from a privacy-rights perspective.

But the agency is still full of holes. Last week in a story about the TSA allowing a bomb to slip through at Newark Airport, I shared about an extremely rude agent I recently encountered. Aside from basic competence, professionalism remains a huge issue in the agency. Theatre remains a problem as well--as if two 3.5oz bottles can do less damage than one 4oz bottle. And now the TSA is using sequester to threaten a further diminution of service (yet they still found the funding for $50mn in new uniforms).

Enter Christopher Elliott, consumer advocate and frequent flyer hater (who seemed a little sad that I never contacted him when I was thrown off the United flight). One thing I'll give Elliott credit for is that he is not a TSA shill. He has helped to keep the agency accountable and notes in a recent column that until the following occurs, he will not let up his vigilance--

Decommission all full-body scanners. The technology is unproven and potentially dangerous. The expense can't be justified to the American taxpayer.

Fix the screening process. Every airline passenger should be checked in a way that is non-invasive, doesn't involve harmful radiation and respects their civil rights and the U.S. Constitution. We know the current system doesn't do that. Let's find something that does.

Kill VIPR. The TSA's Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response team, which patrols roads, NFL games and political conventions, needs to be shuttered now. No one asked for these ad hoc teams of TSA agents and no one will miss them.

Restructure the agency. The TSA needs to trim its $8-billion-a-year budget by eliminating a vast layer of ineffective middle management and reducing the size of its force, which is often referred to as "Thousands Standing Around."

Retrain TSA's workforce. Frontline TSA agents like to see themselves as the last line of defense against terrorism. They aren't. Rather, they are the face of the federal government, and at the moment, it's not a good one. Agents need basic customer-service training, and they need to be aware of the civil rights and disabilities concerns of passengers.

All excellent points. While I would love to see full body scanners immediately decommissioned, the VIPR teams disbanded, and half the white collar staff of the agency axed, the last point is most important from a practical perspective.

Talk to many TSA employees and they really do believe they are the public's "last line of defense" against terrorism. Many also cling to the false notion that they are pseudo law-enforcement officers. They are neither: they are clerks.

And that is not a dig against TSA screeners, it is simply a reality. I would strip them of their badges and retrain them with heavy emphasis on customer service. Until the TSA mindset changes, I'd rather have (present day) Moscow-style security.

The five-step roadmap above is a reasonable one, but it will not be easy. With politicians on both sides of the aisle pandering to the "security-first" constituency, it is only by remaining vocal that we can slowly tame an agency that remains out of control.


PK March 20, 2013 at 11:56 am

It's a sign that our government is broken, perhaps beyond repair, in that our airports can't implement a common scenario even the Russians have figured out: International transit. Cordon off a section of the airport and reserve it for international flights. Foreigners using the USA as a transfer point wouldn't need to apply for expensive transit visas. It would drive billions of dollars in air traffic to the USA in one fell swoop.

Why doesn't it happen? Because the money goes to middle management, new uniforms, and other cronies.

@PK: I agree completely. And it really is possible. So sad that we so underestimate our potential.

Chris March 20, 2013 at 06:14 pm

@PK: Agreed on the transiting factor, though it's not quite as easy as cordoning off a section of the airport. The US is just now getting onboard with automatically re-checking baggage (which will be a major step in the right direction), but even once that's done you still need a way of getting those transiting passengers back to the right aircraft to leave. Not insurmountable, but I'll point out that the Germans essentially built an extra story onto their newest concourse at FRA to make it work well. Unfortunately, because of the way that airlines and airports operate, it'll take a major US carrier to really push for this in one of its hubs to make it happen. Maybe when they build T6 at O'Hare?

@Matthew: In response to your opening, I'm worried that this is exactly what Pre-Check was intended to do: buy off vocal frequent flyers by giving them pre-9/11 security to let the furor over their ridiculous procedures die down. Got to keep the TSA's feet to the fire... or at least the X-rays.

Joe March 21, 2013 at 08:24 am

No, the US needs to follow the Israeli method. Security at Ben-Gurion is top-notch.

JM March 21, 2013 at 10:19 am

@Matthew: Your five points may be well and good but TSA agents are one of the faces of federal government and at the same time do see themselves as the last line of defense against terrorism. Do you know why? It is because we made them that way! We tasked them to ensure our safety. Safety is their first priority. I need them to be suspicious of anybody who is capable of harming everybody. I want them to be nice AFTER making sure you're not one of those bomb-carrying lunatics. I don't know which part of Moscow you enter/exit from but none of them see customer service as their first priority. Safety is their first priority too.

@PK: The statement that the government is broken is too vast and is never true for the other side especially since we would not allow it, but it will ALWAYS have opportunities for improvement. If we don't need middle management, who will do documentations? Scrap the uniforms so they can all come in shorts and a t-shirt.. hmm.. I think not.

I wonder how long will it take to see change...

@JM: No human can ensure our safety--the whole TSA organization is an apparatus built on fear mongering. I don't want to live in a society in which we are "suspicious of anybody who is capable of harming everybody" because we all can harm others. There is a cost/benefit analysis to everything and I am also willing to bet that anyone truly determined to get a bomb onboard an airplane will succeed. It's not like the TSA has been able to stop bombs before...

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