For the past eight years, I have served as President of Airports Council International – North America (ACI-NA), the airport trade association. During that time we had (more than) our share of tussles with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), under two administrators and an acting administrator. We battled over many issues, some behind the scenes and some publicly. When I first took the job, about 75 percent of all the calls I received from airport directors were to complain about TSA. So one could be excused for thinking this post would be simply a chance for a “former” to air out his grievances. If that’s what you expect, you will be disappointed.
And yet, you will note the title is “Two Cheers,” not “Three.” That is because the work is unfinished, and more needs to be done.
Let’s start with the good. When I took the ACI-NA job, we pushed hard on TSA in three areas we felt lacking:
- To take a much more risk-based approach;
- To use more technology and information and become less labor intensive in their approach;
- To better share information and explanations with the airport community about why they were doing what they were doing.
On the first, John Pistole has done a much more than commendable job. The Risk-Based Security initiative is exactly the kind of effort we asked for. This might just seem like common sense, but in the face of a Congress and a news media that seem unwilling to contemplate the presence of ANY risk, this is a bold step. TSA’s Pre-Check can be a game changer, and I predict that by the end of the decade, Pre-Check will be the default security method for most travelers. The way Administrator Pistole and TSA talk about risk management is very important; this cannot be underestimated, and it is something that would have seemed unlikely eight years ago. I might add that the real test of this approach is in the aftermath of some future incident. Something will happen, someday, and at that point, some will say we cannot tolerate ANY risk. That is when TSA, airports, airlines and everyone involved will need to stick together.
On the second, we are doing a much better job of using technology and information to process travelers. While we still have a ways to go, the current AIT machines, by any measure, are a much better way to process passengers than individual pat downs and wandings. As the possessor of a metal hip, I am particularly grateful. And Pre-Check makes good use of readily available information about passengers.
Third, when I first took the job, I called a high-ranking TSA official to talk about a policy (the specifics elude me now). I asked about why something was being done and whether, if it was something that was needed, some sort of explanation could be given to airports, as the policy was harming throughput, and thereby airport operations. The answer I got was, “don’t your members read the papers?” To be candid, I got this sort of answer a lot in those early days. Today, that rarely, if ever, happens. When changes are contemplated, input is now sought early in the process. There is much more information and collaboration, with constructive results.
Yet, TSA only gets “two cheers” because there are some things that can be done differently. TSA officers should be focused on passengers and bags, for example. They have no business prowling around parking lots (and oftentimes reporting to the airport that a number of cars have expired tags). That’s what airport and local law enforcement does. This remains a matter of contention at many airports.
Also, TSA should not be stopping people in public areas of the terminal. This is a public space, and the Fourth Amendment still applies. Frankly, many of the most colorful discussions with TSA over the years have pertained to Fourth Amendment issues. The TSA legal department has an “interesting” interpretation of the Fourth Amendment. This also remains an area of contention with airports and with local law enforcement, which is responsible for those areas anyway.
And on information, while TSA is almost immeasurably better than it was eight years ago in this regard, there is still too much of an adversarial and closed tone. Classified briefings rarely yielded any information I could not have figured out by watching CNN. Yet, when I’ve visited Israel with delegations of airport leaders, the information we get from their government is much more interesting and valuable.
In my first conversation with a TSA Administrator as head of the airport association, I told him my job was to translate my members to him, and to translate TSA to my members. It is a two-way street. Much of what TSA does happens at the airport, and if someone does not like it, the airport gets blamed. We are in the same boat, for better or worse.
Greg Principato is the former President of Airports Council International – North America.