TSA will go back to private screeners

In the end, there will be two reasons why TSA will go back to using private screeners: Queue management and customer service.

Flying out today at my usual airport I approach the screening lines. My iPhone apps have advised me that the wait time will be about 10 minutes. Hmm, maybe it’s measured in dog years. The frequent flyer line has about 30 people waiting in it. There are about 100 people or so in the Line of Lesser Beings. Normally, I’d grab my Clear card and ascend the rarified air to the Registered Traveler line, and right to the front of the screening checkpoint, but my wife is traveling with me on business today and she has not undergone the in-depth background check and biometrics required to receive a Clear card so that the government knows that there is no . . . well, no what? That’s a good question. Why do Clear passengers give tons of personal information to the government along with their biometrics for the privilege of going to the front of the line? How do the background checks relate with going to the front of the line? Oh wait, they don’t. The background check and biometrics was required when the intent of the program was to tell the government more about you so you would be subjected to less screening, or maybe even keep your shoes on at the checkpoint. But I digress.

I debate briefly just going to the Line of Lesser Beings — that’s the non frequent flyer line for those of you without a primer – because it actually looks like it’s moving faster. My security-honed eyes see that the regular lines are feeding into 3 screening checkpoints, while the frequent flyer line, which is also shared with airport and airline employees, feeds into 2 lines, with BOTH of those lines accepting passengers from the regular line. So much for rank having it’s privilege.

I go into the frequent flyer line anyway and proceed to wait 20 minutes. During that time, the lines back up several times and are stopped completely as the divest points back into the queue lines. Nearing the front of the line is Garcia, a screener who could not look more bored if he’d been outside watching the snow melt. Right as we were 3 people from seeing Garcia at the document check station, all doc checkers in some sort of underwater ballet unison just stop everything — without explanation. For the next five minutes we wait…again, without explanation. The divest areas go down a bit, so I’m assuming that’s the reason for the holdup but we are never told for certain.

Finally, the lines start back up and we select what we think will be the quickest – – again, based on an assessment of people in line. I’m trying to follow the higher speed business travelers. At this time, the 3rd individual in a wheelchair is brought through the frequent flyers lines.

We change lines when our line proves to be moving too slowly. Although we’ve been told that staffing is not a problem, nearly half the checkpoints are not staffed this morning and I continue to hear rumors from screeners that they are having trouble with staffing.

I grab some bins from another line and bring them to our new line since our line was out. The “automatic” bin returners are concept only. . . And also in use in Italy, but they don’t look as nice nor do they require electricity so no one is probably making money off those, which is why I guess we don’t want them.

After finally getting to the front of the line, the poor soul in the wheelchair is now up and in the magnetometer. The assistant, an airline contract employee who is helping him, is trying to help him divest as he keeps setting off the alarm. Finally, the TSA screener says, and I quote, “Sir, it’s not my job to figure out what you have that’s setting off the alarm.”

Hmm, with customer service skills like that, I’m sure the Disney team will be recruiting her right away.

Now, it’s CLEARLY obvious to any individual with an IQ over 10 that this gentleman is older, clearly not a frequent flyer, and has mobility issues. There may even be other issues, but whatever, it’s clear that he needs help, not berating. At this point, the line behind him at the mag is up to 7 and nearing 8 people.

Finally, he steps aside to divest some more and the rest of us clear.

30 minutes from start to finish, for our “estimated 10 minute” waiting time on a SLOW travel day.

What frustrates me is that I know how the system should and can work and it isn’t. God Bless my wife for putting up with me bitching about it for the entire 30 minutes.

This is what is going to bring back the private contractors.

See, here’s the deal. In the post 9/11 world, this is a money-making deal for private contractors. The private contracts are now with the federal government and they have actual standards and are profitable. The screeners must meet the same standards as federal employees, so they have to hire reasonably competent help.

So, with both federal worker and private contractor forced by government standards and testing to meet the same security standards, what’s left to distinguish the two? Queue management and customer service.

I’ve stated in my book, Practical Aviation Security, that good security is good customer service. Moving people through the lines means less people standing in public unscreened areas being potential targets for suicide bombers or active shooters. It means screeners are less stressed because the lines aren’t backing up. It means passengers are less stressed and thus easier for the behavior detection officers to find the legitimate threat.

TSA has tried some queue management and customer service concepts at some airports, but they haven’t made their way across the nation. TSA has the ability to fix these problems, but I fear they may not have the flexibility to do what they know needs to be done.

What should have happened this morning, is:

  1. There should be individuals out front managing the flow of passengers as they come out of the travel document check, putting frequent flyers into their own lines (yes, flying tens of thousands of miles a year should have privileges, it means my job is more reliant on air travel than yours and thus, I’m losing money when I’m standing in line) and getting the less frequent flyers into lines that have wheelchair accommodations, larger pathways to accommodate the family and kids and extra carry-on’s that always accompany that crowd.
  2. Enough screeners to staff the checkpoints. All the checkpoints were not open yet there were plenty of people standing around that could have opened up another checkpoint, or assisted with the line management. At the contractor airports, the screeners monitor checkpoint operations and have teams that can move about and provide additional personnel whenever necessary.
  3. Simple returns for bins – weld a rack to the top of the x-ray machine that’s angled so when people get out on the other side, they toss their bins onto the rack and the rack using a mysterious force known as gravity, slides it’s way back to the front of the line.
  4. Customer service: the screener working the mag should have immediately figured out this guy doesn’t fly a lot and needs assistance, not to be yelled at. He also should not have been further embarrassed by being in the frequent flyer/employee lines. Without even getting into the profiling issue, good queue management in this case, and customer service, would have had an individual helping him through the process and when he sets off the alarm for the second time, send him to secondary and keep the line moving.

Congress now believes it’s time to change the screening process, but mainly for them because of the Tucson shooting which they are using as an excuse to bypass the process themselves. Didn’t a former U.S. Congressman just get a 3-year sentence for bad behavior? Okay, these are clearly upstanding citizens, but I digress, again. What it does show is that even Congress believes that the current process needs fixing and they’ll use any excuse, even some unrelated security incident, to try to get out of it.

The hue and cry is going up for a return to private screeners under a new model. At the recent AAAE Annual Security Summit I heard a TSA employee say they didn’t understand the benefit of private screening. Just ask anyone at the opt-out airports, or anyone who is still waiting to have their application reviewed for opt-out (the wait time for that is a year right now) and they will tell you. Queue Management and Customer Service.

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