Our patience with the TSA is almost up

Ints Vikmanis / Shutterstock.com
Ints Vikmanis / Shutterstock.com
Let’s give the Transportation Security Administration one last chance.

After the release of a Government Accountability Office report that revealed widespread TSA employee misconduct, including screeners involved in theft and drug smuggling, public sentiment is squarely on the side of a top-to-bottom overhaul that could privatize or dismantle the agency assigned to protect America’s transportation systems.

But today, just a few days after the 9/11 anniversary, is not the time to talk about the end of the TSA. This is the moment to take account of the failings of one of America’s least-loved agencies, and to say: Our patience has its limits; it’s almost up.

The GAO report is notable for two reasons. First, no other official report card has come this close to reflecting the traveling public’s deep disappointment with America’s federal screeners or with the TSA’s apparent disinterest in fixing itself.

The study, which found a 26% rise in employee misconduct in the last three years, outlined numerous agency sins, such as transportation security officers who failed to conduct security or equipment checks or who simply allowed passengers and baggage to bypass screening. It also described an organization that appears disinterested in improving its image at a DNA level. Of the 9,600 cases of employee misconduct analyzed by investigators from 2010 through 2012, less than half resulted in letters of reprimand, less than a third resulted in suspensions of a definite duration, and just 17% resulted in the employee’s removal.

“The TSA lists integrity as one of its core values,” Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., said at a congressional hearing following the report’s release. “But, unfortunately, integrity has been lost in many cases.”

Interestingly, the TSA essentially agrees with the government watchdogs. In a statement released after the report, TSA said it’s “already working” to implement the recommendations, which include setting up a process for reviewing violations, improved record-keeping, and procedures for following up on misconduct investigations.

For some air travelers, that’s too little, too late. As they reflect on the 9/11 anniversary, they consider the TSA to be a shameful byproduct of the terrorist attack — an unintelligent, knee-jerk reaction that created a $6.3 billion-a-year behemoth.

“What a complete waste of taxpayer money,” says Cheryl Wahlheim, an information technology manager from Boulder, Colo. Several years ago, she contacted me after she says a TSA agent stole jewelry from her luggage. She believes things have only gotten worse since then. A promise to do better from the TSA is laughable to her and the many other TSA critics I hear from every day.

Others are willing to give the process more time, but their reasons are pragmatic. What would replace the beleaguered agency? “Have people forgotten the dreadful minimum-wage, minimally trained rent-a-cops that used to handle airport security?” wonders Garry Margolis, a Los Angeles marketing consultant.

We haven’t. But many travelers believe that anything is better than an agency whose employees sometimes sleep on the job, steal from passengers, take bribes and fail to screen us. Never mind the problematic choice between an “enhanced” pat-down and walking through a full-body scanner that some say hasn’t been adequately tested and can be easily foiled.

So, listen up, TSA: This is your final warning. As we near the 12th anniversary of the terrorist attacks, travelers want more than a few tweaks recommended by the GAO. They want real change. Now.

The TSA is still developing a final rule, required by a U.S. Court of Appeals, on the use of its controversial full-body scanners. According to a survey of public comments on a government regulations website, most Americans favor a return to the tried-and-true magnetometers and want the TSA to stop using pat-downs and full-body scanners. Bowing to their wishes would be a good start.

Beyond that, our requirements are modest. We want the TSA to screen airline passengers without stealing from them. We want to see polite, efficient TSA employees when we’re flying, not at NFL games, political conventions or Amtrak stations — places to which they’re spreading under the TSA’s troubling, low-profile VIPR program, which handles off-airport transportation security.

We’re unimpressed with the weekly tallies posted on the TSA blog of weapons confiscated by screeners; we just want to know when they’ve stopped a terrorist from blowing up a plane. And when the TSA says it has a “zero tolerance” policy for misconduct in the workplace, we don’t want to hear about a 26% rise in employee misbehavior.

If it can’t do that, then maybe privatizing parts of the agency — as my congressman, Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., wants to — is the way to go. Then again, maybe the TSA in its present form is beyond redemption, and needs to be scrapped and replaced by something else.

What should we do with the TSA?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at chris@elliott.org. Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • Nica

    I just looked at the job requirements to be a TSA Officer and I see why some people may be concerned:

    1. Be a U.S. Citizen or U.S. National at time of application submission.
    (I agree with this).

    2. Be at least 18 years of age at time of application submission.
    ( I think 18 is too young for this role – I think at least 25 years of age is better.)

    3. Be proficient in the English language.
    (I agree, but we have so many people coming into the country to visit that do not speak English at all. I think it would be better to have people who can speak other languages.)

    4. Have a high school diploma or General Educational Development (GED) credential OR at least one year of full-time work experience in the security industry, aviation screening, or as an X-ray technician.
    (I think someone with experience with security would do this job so much better. Maybe retired law enforcement or military perhaps? I feel they would have a better understanding of what the TSA is trying to achieve and know how to achieve it while maintaining a good relationship with the public).

  • Trudi

    Congress just cut funding to health care as well as funding to food stamps, but they continue to support this agency. It boggles the mind. This agency should be desolved. Restructure of the existing ineptitude would be just more of the same; it needs to start from scratch. Hey Congress, want to save money: CUT TSA!

  • jim6555

    Regarding the comments left by Nica:

    1. I agree

    2. It is against employment law to discriminate because of age. There should be psychological tests given to all TSA workers who interact with the public to make sure that they have the maturity and temperament to handle the job.

    3. All TSA agents MUST be proficient in English. The ability to speak a second language should be considered a plus in the hiring process. This is especially true at international gateways (New York, Miami, Los Angeles, etc.).

    4. I don’t think that retired military and law enforcement would necessarily be the solution. While in their previous employment, many of these people have formed negative opinions of people from other cultures which could result in poor treatment of some people. Of course, if they can pass the psychological tests in paragraph 2 and meet all of the other job requirements, they should be hired I would rather see an effort to recruit people who are currently in community colleges or traditional universities. These people can be shaped to be a part of the new TSA and not bring prejudices from past employment with them. Graduation from a community college or completion of two years with satisfactory grades at a university should be the minimum education requirement.

  • BillCCC

    Can you point me to the evidence that shows that military and law enforcement officers are more racist than any other sector of society.

  • chiefted

    “Have people forgotten the dreadful minimum-wage, minimally trained rent-a-cops that used to handle airport security?”

    Actually I do remember as they are still on the job. TSA agents are minimally (or not at all) trained. They make about the same as someone flipping burgers at McDonalds. Most of the agents I have run into think that their uniform gives them unlimited power. When asking questions its the same answer you would give a 2 year old “Because I said so”

    The agency doesn’t need reforming, it needs to be taken apart completely.

  • frostysnowman

    What do you mean, “almost”?

  • Bill___A

    The patience has been “up” for quite a long time. Anyone who travels in countries other than the USA knows very well how their job can be done better and more politely.

  • Jim Daniel

    I am sorry Chris,

    I STRONGLY Disagree. Giving them one more chance is like giving a viper one more chance not to kill you?

    I also disagree about reforming them unless they are Re-Formed as the Totally Stupid Agency which is what I believe TSA really stands for.

  • jim6555

    I did not use the word racist and am not saying that racism is a part of the TSA culture. It is possible to be prejudiced without being racist. A TSA agent might be much harder on young people than older people or vice versa. They might be very impatient with people who have disabilities while being overly courteous to young attractive females. They may not like people with British accents and yet extend special treatment to those with French accents. You get the picture. What I want to see happen is that the TSA should stress to their employees that each individual traveler is to be treated the same way that the employee would expect that a member of his/her family be treated. In addition, all TSA agents should be given psychological testing to make certain that they will treat each person with the courtesy and respect that all travelers are entitled to. Those who can’t pass should be put in positions where there is no direct contact with the public or should be let go.

  • BillCCC

    You did not say racist but I believe that is what you meant. If you think that law enforcement or military are more likely to be prejudiced you should also back that up.

  • jim6555

    To paraphrase the title of Chris Elliott’s article, My Patience With YOU Is Almost Up.
    I know what I meant when I wrote the answer to Nica’s posting. I’ll say it again, for the last time, I did not accuse anyone of being prejudiced. How can I back up something that I never said or implied?
    Perhaps its time for you to get a life.

  • BillCCC

    Thanks for your comment. Your reply has said it all.

  • Nica

    Thank you for your response. I agree with number 2 as well – there should be some psychological testing in place.

    For number 4 – I never thought about that. That gave me something else to think about.