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The Education of John Pistole

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The TSA announced they are reversing their earlier policy that would have allowed small pocket knives, hockey sticks and a few other items back in the cabin of the aircraft.

Regardless of the right or wrong’ness of this step, it seems Pistole is learning that TSA is not like the FBI.

Industry participation in policy making is not only expected in this industry, it often makes for better policy.

Pistole announced a few months ago, essentially by fiat, that small pocket knives would once again be allowed on board the cabin of commercial aircraft. Now, from a strict anti-hijacking policy and anti-bombing policy this makes some amount of sense. Tiny pocket knives are not nearly as effective weapons as box cutters or larger fixed blade knives and by not worrying about the thousands of them that get left in bags every year, screeners can focus on larger, more threatening items.

The problem is that these small knives may endanger flight attendants, flight crew and other passengers. It’s doubtful that someone is going to hijack a place with a 2-inch Swiss Army Knife, but it it possible that they could cause some injury.

The real issue is that Pistole attempted to move forward with this policy, without asking the people that would be affected by its implementation. Flight attendants, pilots, Air Marshals and screeners came out in droves against the policy, not to mention the public backlash.

Pistole has access to the information that comes from the intelligence community and likely attempts to make his risk based decisions based on that intel. So far so good, but, while the intel doesn’t always need to be shared with industry, he should gather information from a variety of other sources before making policy decisions that affect the entire industry.

Industry experts, the trade associations and definitely the opinions of the “boots on the ground,” should have been consulted first.

Moving forward without industry consultation has been Pistole’s most glaring deficiency. In my eyes, he has done many good things for TSA, like showing some backbone to Congress and implementing the risk based security policies, which have reduced screening lines and focused security on higher risk individuals; but when it comes to what industry participation, Pistole continues to struggle.

It started shortly after he took over at TSA. He first attempted to checkmate the private screening program (known as the Screening Partnership Program) to make it nearly impossible for an airport to opt out of their TSA personnel. The industry screamed and Pistole ignored them. It took Congressional action to override that decision and the private screening program is again moving forward, albeit slowly.

TSA is attempting to do it again with the decision to turn over control of the exit lanes from TSA staffers (from the sterile areas) to airport operators, rather than the traditional use of screeners to staff these positions. This will cost the airport industry over $200,000,000 whereas it presently only costs the TSA about $80,000,000. The reason for the difference is that TSA already has the personnel – whereas airports will have to hire security guards or police to staff the exit lanes.

Pistole has continued his stance that the exit lanes are an airport responsibility – he made this decision, again, without consulting with industry first. The lesson in the case of the prohibited items is that the trade organizations and unions can be powerful allies and powerful opponents. Listening to industry, the Aviation Security Advisory Committee (ASAC), experts in the field and the people who know how the system operates is an important lesson if you want a long tenure in your job and if you want to actually improve security without bankrupting the industry.

With the exit lanes however, the industry is in a situation where the public could largely care less about who sits there – the public should care however, because the exit lanes are the areas where most breaches occur.

Breaches cost the airlines millions of dollars in flight delays cancellations. The costs of switching to airport staffers at those exit lanes will be seen in increased airport parking fees, increased costs at the restaurants and possibly even increased airfares.

TSA and Pistole were taken to school on the prohibited items issues. I wonder if another trip to the woodshed is in their future.

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2 Responses to The Education of John Pistole

  1. Jeff:

    I agree with the gist of the article as it pertains to Mr. Pistole and his “cowboy” approach in furthering his views. However, one point on the exit lane situation. If breaches are occuring now with TSA monitoring the lanes, can not the argument be made that having a trained person whose sole purpose is to monitor that exit lane in accordance with written Post Orders; and their company is required to have DHS SAFETY Act Designationand Certification; and is held liable for the conduct of their employees, more desirable than having no recourse as we have today? Since the air carriers have all but abondoned anything to with the checkpoints from managing queue lines to customer complaints about wait times, they have proven that they are not interested in this facet of getting their passengers on the plane, or getting them off of the concourse when they have deplaned. I’m just tired of being held responsible for problems that I am not authorized to control.

    • I think that’s a good point Mike. I’m sure if TSA funded it, many airports would not have as much problem accepting this responsibility.

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