The US Transportation Security Administration, which is charged with keeping the nation’s airports free of terrorists and ensuring safe passage for 1.8 million air travellers a day, is perpetually in the crosshairs of critics complaining either that the agency is doing too little to protect the public or that its initiatives unnecessarily disrupt the free movement of law-abiding travellers.
It’s a tough balance to strike. You can’t please everyone all the time, and the benchmark for success – at least as measured by headlines and public opinion – tends to move around a lot. For the most part, experts believe US airports are becoming friendlier, more efficient and more secure, but the TSA often finds itself managing high-profile public relations drama over its methods.
If a would-be terrorist attempts to blow up a Detroit-bound flight with explosives concealed in his underpants, the public becomes more accepting of intrusive security efforts to thwart future attacks. But if a TSA agent is insensitive to a wounded marine at a security checkpoint, then the agency takes flack for being rude.
In March, TSA Administrator John Pistole was under fire for revising the list of prohibited carry-on items to permit knives 6cm or shorter on airplanes. The relaxed policy drew wrath from several critics, including Laura Glading, president of the Association of Professional Flight Attendants (APFA), the labor union representing American Airlines flight attendants.
Glading told Bloomberg that allowing knives on planes is “insanity”. APFA members, of course, vividly recall that terrorists used box cutters to overwhelm passengers and flight crew to hijack commercial airplanes in the 9/11 attacks. Box cutters remain on the prohibited items list – along with ice axes and meat cleavers – but to Glading and many others, a knife is a knife.
The TSA later suspended a decision on allowing knives on board. But the conflict underscores the ongoing challenge the TSA faces as it attempts even incremental policy changes it believes will improve security or the passenger experience for lawful travellers. The administration has suffered its share of black eyes since its founding in the wake of the 9/11 attacks in 2001 that brought down four commercial airplanes. But TSA leaders insist security has never been better at U.S. airports and the passenger experience is definitely returning to something resembling pre-9/11 days.
“We truly have returned their travel experience to a pre-9/11 experience while at the same time applying new and innovative security processes that give us significantly better security,” says Chris McLaughlin, who has been the TSA’s assistant administrator for security operations since July 2011.
“Our mission every day is to facilitate the free movement for those 99.999 percent of people that are just trying to get home while remaining vigilant for that very small percentage of people that represent a threat to aviation,” McLaughlin says, noting that the vast majority of travellers make it through airport security lines in less than 20 minutes and that direct contact between TSA agents and travellers is minimal and declining.
The TSA does not share data on how many passengers experience a checkpoint pat-down. Such figures are protected for security reasons.
“We recognize that if security is a burden to people, it will impact their willingness to fly,” he says. “And we recognize that this industry is vital to the overall success of the U.S. economy. And we’re committed to protecting that success.”
SECURITY STRONG; EFFICIENCY LACKING?
In general, industry experts believe airport security is more effective than ever. “I think that we can all agree that the industry has never been more secure,” said Tony Tyler, chief executive of the International Air Transport Association (IATA), in a March speech. But he challenged the notion that this level of security has been achieved with minimal imposition on passengers.
“We cannot accept 100 percent risk. And any regulation that completely eliminated risk would shut the industry down – an equally unacceptable solution,” Tyler said. “A pragmatic approach is needed to balance the two. But I am not sure that we have achieved a common understanding with regulators on defining where that balance should be. That worries me greatly.”
He added, “…if we don’t find that balance soon, we will lose the goodwill of our passengers and shippers, clog our airports, slow world trade, and bring down the level of security that we have worked so hard to build up.”
A 2012 Global Passenger Survey conducted by IATA showed 37 percent of travellers most resent long waits in security lines. The second most frustrating element of the security screening process is having to remove belts and shoes, the survey showed. Responses from North American travellers were roughly consistent with the global results.
Half of global air travellers felt like they were adequately informed about security procedures. The satisfaction rate was highest in North American, where the survey showed 66 percent of travellers were satisfied.
Other experts believe that slowly, but surely, a sense of sense of decorum is finally returning to US airports. In February, Rick Seaney, chief executive of FareCompare, which tracks airfares and follows industry developments, issued a blog post cheering several ways airport security has become more palatable to travellers.
“We understand the mission – safety in the skies – while yearning for an easier experience. Fortunately, there is some good news on that front,” Seaney wrote.
First on his list was the removal from airports of full-body scanners, which peak beneath a traveller’s clothes in search of contraband. The machines have been especially controversial, with critics complaining that they violate travellers’ privacy even though the image they yield is basically anonymous and seen only by a TSA agent who cannot see the actual traveler being screened. The machines will be replaced with scanners that do not yield a full-body image.
SECURITY WITH A LIGHTER TOUCH
Seaney also noted the requirement of etiquette classes for TSA screeners. “….mostly they teach old-fashioned concepts like listening, empathy, keeping calm,” he wrote.
In 2011, the TSA started putting officers through courses to teach them to work with travellers without being confrontational. In January of this year, the TSA launched a program that trains officers to help customers who need special assistance getting through security checkpoints. About 3,000 officers have signed up for the classes. Meanwhile, the TSA also sends staff to airports to evaluate interactions between security agents and the public.
“We’re doing a lot of things to improve the feel of security at our airports across the country,” McLaughlin says, adding that the steps also advance the TSA’s primary objective, which is to stop attacks. “The calmer the checkpoint, the more readily the bad guy stands out,” he says.
But despite the efforts of TSA leaders to make airport security faster and less intrusive, incidents happen. In March, the administration took heat when agents were accused of “humiliating” a marine who had lost both his legs. The soldier claimed TSA agents in Phoenix forced him to remove his prosthetic legs as part of an inspection. In another incident, agents in St. Louis were accused of upsetting a disabled girl when they inspected her wheelchair. The TSA apologized.
“Where criticism is warranted, we accept responsibility and take the necessary corrective action,” says TSA spokesman David Castelveter. He says, however, that most of the time, such allegations are easily refuted when closed-circuit video of the security line tells a different story.
The chance for a headline-grabbing incident is increased dramatically in busier airports and on busier travel days when there are more witnesses and nerves are already frayed.
“There are billions of people travelling today on an annual basis. When you get to those sorts of numbers, you’re going to get some headline incidents,” says Bob Mann, airline consultant at RW Mann & Co.
“They try to do what they can,” he says. “I’m not suggesting that everyone is trained as well as they possibly could be. I’m not suggesting everyone shows up for work every day in a cheery and helpful manner, because frankly that never occurs anywhere. But it becomes much more of a headline issue when it happens in an airport and it’s a highly observed situation.”
McLaughlin says one of the best ways frequent travellers can avoid the most common airport-induced headaches is to participate in the TSA’s PreCheck program. Launched in 2011, this system allows frequent flyers of participating airlines to submit to pre-screening background checks before they arrive at the airport.
If the TSA determines a passenger is not a security threat, information on that traveller is then embedded in his boarding pass barcode, making him eligible for – but not guaranteed – expedited screening at the airport.
PreCheck travellers may be referred to a designated security line, which operates much like they did in the pre-9/11 days. Travelers there are not required to remove laptop computers or 3-1-1 compliant liquids from their carry-on bags. They also are not required to remove their jackets or belts.
PreCheck travellers may be members of existing Customs and Border Protection Trusted Traveler programs including Global Entry, NEXUS, and SENTRI. Canadian citizens travelling in the United States who are members of NEXUS are eligible for TSA PreCheck. The TSA also offers expedited screening for children 12 and under and adults 75 and older as well as for airline pilots, flight attendants and active duty military personnel at some airports.
Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, United Airlines and US Airways offer their passengers a PreCheck option, and more than 7.5 million people have used it, according to the TSA. The administration says public response to the program has been “overwhelmingly positive.” And experts tend to agree.
“This whole TSA PreCheck is a huge improvement,” Mann says.
ALWAYS FIGHTING THE LAST WAR
But for those passengers who not enrolled in a PreCheck program, there may never be an end to the burdensome restrictions they face at airports. Folks who scheme to attack commercial air transport are crafty, and the TSA has no choice but to assess any attempted security breach and take steps to ensure it does not happen again.
We can thank Richard Reid, aka the “Shoe Bomber,” for the fact that we now have to remove our shoes before passing security checks. Reid, a British citizen, attempted in 2002 to detonate explosives he had hidden in his shoes on an American Airlines flight from Paris to Miami.
In 2006, after British police stopped a plot by would-be attackers to detonate liquid explosives on airplanes travelling from the United Kingdom to the United States and Canada, stiff new security measures were put in place. Although some were relaxed, the TSA still requires travellers in the United States to carry liquids through security checkpoints in 3.4-ounce containers that can be packed in a 1-quart clear plastic zip-top bag.
“It’s an era where you’re always fighting the last war,” says Mann. “You essentially single out the thing that looked the most problematic from that last episode.”
Apparently, the TSA agrees. The administration constantly reevaluates the restrictions on carry-on items and the type of inspection it performs on passengers at security checkpoints. Hence the earlier plan to ease restrictions on certain knives, which is being reconsidered.
As the Philadelphia Inquirer noted in a March 13 editorial: the TSA once banned tweezers and nail clippers from airplane cabins – a now-discarded rule that seems quaint by today’s standards. The newspaper dismissed such restrictions as “pointless security theater” that inflicts “untold misery on the travelling masses” and distracts the TSA from more productive efforts to find explosives and other threats.
“Not that any of that has stopped the TSA from attempting to rid the skies of all manner of theoretically dangerous tchotchkes for years,” the newspaper said.
In March testimony to the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Transportation Security, TSA’s Pistole said he should have consulted more groups like the flight attendants unions before issuing the decision on small knives. But he defended the administration’s commitment to ensuring top-notch security as it moves toward a risk-based model that makes better use of pre-screening and other technology to promote an efficient and less intrusive customer experience at security checkpoints.
“We remain committed to providing the most-effective security in the most efficient manner,” he said.