The suicide attack at Istanbul’s Ataturk International Airport highlights the necessity of keeping airport security lines short and moving fast. A line of hundreds of people waiting for thorough security screening may lead to greater safety once past the screening point, but the line itself becomes itself a vulnerable target for terrorists.
Reacting to long wait times in early May, TSA managed to handle the influx of millions of passengers during last month’s Memorial Day weekend by using a combination of overtime, re-assignment of personnel and a few other tricks up their sleeve. But Memorial Day weekend was the quiz, not the final exam. The Final comes this month and into July, as the rest of the schools let out and families start flying en masse throughout the summer. Just as a marathon runner can only maintain short bursts of full speed, TSA will not be able to maintain the shorter lines throughout the summer, using the same tactics and strategies that they used for Memorial Day and beyond.
The issue is sustainability and the solution isn’t just hiring more screeners or approving more overtime. Eventually the overtime budget runs dry, and sustaining high levels of overtime burns out personnel. A tired screener is a mistake-prone screener. But there is a solution we haven’t tried yet, and it’s called Customer Service.
Last year, when Peter Neffenger took over the TSA, he put more focus on the inspection process and less on the line waits. The results however, were insanely long lines, very upset passengers, and millions lost in re-booked airfares, delays, cancelled vacations, and lost business. The old “TSA means Thousands Standing Around,” joke has become reality, but now it’s the passengers standing around.
People errantly believe that customer service and security are polar opposites, but good customer service actually provides better security. It’s a problem of resource allocation, and a reliance on the wrong technology. Also, long line waits are not just a TSA problem: They are an airline problem; they are an airport problem; they are an industry problem. And they can be solved by looking at the process and the people involved. But let’s first recognize a few simple truths:
• The airlines aren’t going to stop charging bag fees – Why would they ditch a very profitable revenue source?
• Passengers aren’t going to stop traveling – The US travels by air and sustains our way of life – you remember our way of life right? That thing we weren’t going to let the terrorists stop us from having?
• Passengers aren’t going to significantly change their bag checking preferences – They’re just not, okay?
So let’s deal in reality. Let’s quit pushing ideas that aren’t going to work, and quit trying to make aviation fit into security. Security needs to fit into aviation and customer service is the key.
For several years, many airports have employed private security or line management personnel to help direct passengers to the various lines (i.e. PreCheck, CLEAR, frequent flyer, or just help them to find the shorter line), but after that, passengers are on their own. TSA has put up signs and videos to explain the screening process, and if those don’t work, a TSA agent has to “instruct” you from the other side of the magnetometer or body imager – not the most effective way to communicate.
But some airports and airlines are now taking a new approach – they are bringing customer service back to the security process in order to both move lines and improve screening effectiveness. What is lost in the screening process could be the key to solving the line problem and increase detection rates.
Both Contemporary Services Corporation and HSS are involved in this new approach. Both companies are going beyond line queue management to help move passengers through the screening process. It’s a process of deploying customer service staff to the divestiture area (that’s where you take your shoes off) and to the recomposure areas (where you put your shoes back on), to assist passengers — in a friendly manner, and help them prepare for the screening process, and help them on the other side of the x-ray, to get them back on their way. Contemporary Services Corporation, under an American Airlines contract, is in place at the Dallas/Ft Worth Airport, and HSS is in place with this new arrangement at Seattle-Tacoma Airport.
Mo McGowan is the former Assistant Administrator for the Office of Security Operations at TSA (yes that OSO!!) and today is a partner with Command Consulting Group. He is one of the few that have analyzed these circumstances from all perspectives (Government, private sector, and heavily travelled passenger) and is firmly of the belief that there is a better way and change has to occur.
“Look, the solution isn’t that difficult,” says McGowan. “The better you engage and communicate with passengers individually, the better their experience. No matter where you place signs, provide LED monitors, or “bark” at passengers it will never replace someone looking them in the eye and saying “May I help?” Think about, as a passenger, you are at airline kiosk trying to get a boarding pass and your are having difficulty, how good does it feel when the airline representative walks up and offers to assist you instead of trying to continue to read the directions. The days of parceling out the responsibility of who owns what space for processing passengers may never end. But let’s not forget the customers (passengers), if they are treated with dignity and respect they will continue to come back and most likely more often. This ladies and gentlemen is a shared responsibility of the entire industry. It is time. Applause for those that are taking these steps toward change!!”
The “new” way of approaching queue management, goes beyond the video-loop or posted sign briefings. Passengers will now be able to ask questions to an actual human, as they go through the process. It may be cheaper to automate but it’s not always the most effective way of doing things. If you want an example, just ask yourself this: How many of you would rather talk to a real person when you call a company, or would you rather navigate their phone tree using voice recognition? Point made.
When it comes to security, by providing a lower cost contract customer service agent to answer questions, chat with people, and help them prepare for the screening process, you move the line faster. You put more screeners back into the screening process. You have less passenger back ups, and you also relieve screeners of the natural psychological pressure many feel when they know there are thousands of upset people, relying on them to get clear their bag quickly, so they can get to their plane on time.
Briefing the passenger before they are at the screening technology, ensures less liquids, laptops and other elements being in the suitcase and having the line stop as the screener has to pull aside the bag. Plus, there’s less clutter in the suitcase which allows the x-ray tech to have a clearer picture of what’s left in the bag. And, if you add a little suspicious awareness training to the process, as both companies have, you may get some behavior detection benefit out of it as well.
Customer service and security has long been seen to be diametrically opposed in the aviation environment, but in the security industry, good security and good customer service go hand in glove.
To read more of my posts on aviation security, click HERE.