Despite Recent Mistakes, Agency's Head Says Training Programs, Checkpoint Changes Will Improve Process
As anyone who travels regularly knows, airport screening has had its share of blunders, embarrassments and controversy.
And the Transportation Security Administration is, once again, attempting to change that.
The 10-year-old agency has been under fire from Congress and the public for treating all travelers like potential terrorists, inconsistently applying complex rules at checkpoints and putting people in distressing situations. Amid emerging threats, the agency has lurched through new technologies, some of which didn't work out.
Training and supervision are factors, TSA Administrator John Pistole acknowledges, and he has put new programs in place to improve communications and even promote common sense. He also blames continued checkpoint problems on the sheer scale of checking 1.7 million people per day and the delicate nature of screening people, where agents are charged with the objective of finding underwear bombs on the bad guys without being offensive to the good ones.
Will problems keep happening? "I think there will continue to be incidents," Mr. Pistole said, "but as we move more to risk-based initiatives, we'll see fewer and fewer."
According to recent news accounts: A mother was told incorrectly she couldn't take an ice pack and empty bottles for breast milk through airport security. Two elderly women had to pull down their pants to show medical devices. A teenager was wrongly ordered to go through a body scanner with her insulin pump, even though the machine can, and did, damage the device. A 4-year-old girl became hysterical when an officer insisted on patting her down simply because she hugged her grandmother, who was awaiting a pat down.
There is a police blotter, too. A TSA screener was ticketed for hurling a cup of hot coffee at an airline pilot who asked a group of screeners to clean up their profanity-laced conversation. TSA screeners in Los Angeles, Buffalo, N.Y., and White Plains, N.Y., have been charged with helping people smuggle drugs through airport security checkpoints. And there have been multiple arrests around the country in which screeners were accused of lifting cash, computers and other valuables from passenger bags.
The TSA does routinely have its successes. Last week alone, officers found 30 loaded guns in passenger carry-on bags. There were seven drug busts as a result of imaging technology, with contraband hidden on bodies and in clothing. One passenger was caught with a tube of toothpaste in her groin area, placed there after officers told her she couldn't bring the tube through. Those kinds of episodes, TSA says, show the agency could find explosives just as it finds drugs and toothpaste.
The agency is responsible for enforcing complex rules as thousands of officers screen millions of passengers across 450 airports in the U.S. So mistakes are bound to happen, Mr. Pistole said.
"I'd like to say we can guarantee 100% security and 100% customer satisfaction and it's just not realistic," Mr. Pistole said. Though the agency strives for that, "I don't know any government agency or business that has 100% customer satisfaction."
'I'd like to say we can guarantee 100% security and 100% customer satisfaction and it's just not realistic.' John Pistole, Transportation Security Administration
Changes to improve checkpoint handling of travelers are coming. This weekend, relaxed screening of people 75 years old and up will go into effect nationwide. That means anyone born in 1937 or before will be able to keep on their shoes and light jackets, and some belts.
Mr. Pistole said many of the agency's 45,000 checkpoint screeners have rote procedures down but lack good communications skills for dealing with the public. So he's running all through a "tactical communications" course; 28,000 have completed it and the rest will finish by the end of summer.
A longtime veteran of the FBI, Mr. Pistole has also created an "academy" for TSA supervisors. It recently graduated its second class of about two dozen supervisors.
About 43% of its screening officers, who earn between $25,000 to $61,000 a year, not including extra pay for high-cost living areas, have some college education, TSA said. Its attrition rate fell to 7.2% of the workforce turning over in fiscal year ended Sept. 30, down from 18% seven years ago. More than half of the TSA workforce has been on the job more than five years.
Since taking over in July 2010, Mr. Pistole has moved TSA away from "one-size-fits-all'' screening, deploying new procedures to make things better for frequent travelers, children and now people 75 years or older. TSA's "PreCheck" program lets travelers who undergo background checks go through special screening lanes with their shoes on and liquids and laptops left inside carry-on bags. Mr. Pistole changed screening for children under 12 last fall so they could leave shoes on and avoid, in most cases, invasive pat downs.
Mr. Pistole said the agency runs criminal background checks on all hires, but arrests of officers have raised questions about continuous vetting and supervision of employees. He has cited those cases in town hall-style meetings with TSA staff as incidents that tarnish the reputation of everyone at the agency. "It does concern me," he said.
When the agency messes up, it will sometimes apologize. In March, the TSA apologized after an officer incorrectly told a nursing mother she either had to leave behind an ice pack and empty bottles for breast milk, or go fill them up with breast milk before flying. The officer involved also received retraining.
The agency also apologized after two women in their 80s complained of having to drop their pants to expose medical devices at New York's Kennedy International Airport in November. Again, JFK personnel received refresher training on screening passengers with disabilities or medical conditions.
But after a family complained about a pat down of a crying 4-year-old girl in Wichita, Kan., last month, TSA defended its officers, saying they followed procedures.
The girl ran up and hugged her grandmother, Lori Croft, while she awaited a pat down. Because they touched, TSA decided the girl had to be patted down as well. The girl became hysterical, and the family told the Associated Press that TSA officers began yelling at them, calling the crying girl an uncooperative suspect, and patted her down while she was held by her mother.
Write to Scott McCartney at middleseat@xxxxxxx