By Chris Schmidt
“You know what TSA stands for? ‘Terrible Security Agents'” – Yasha Harari for TheDailyDose.com
It was 2010, and that was just one of the many jokes circulating about the Transportation Security Administration and by extension Homeland Security. It was a version of the laugh line that had been around since TSA stood up, even before the Department of Homeland Security came into existence. Congressman John Duncan, a prominent member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, frequently said that he had heard that “TSA now stands for ‘thousands standing around’.” It’s a safe bet that after many years of hearing the agency ridiculed, most of the traveling public likely thought TSA was more than just a punch-line and that it, indeed, was the joke.
Yet, in 2010, the situation seemed to be getting worse than it had been. There seemed to be a negative news story every day about a TSA agent getting too close and personal with your grandma or your child. There were stories about long lines and less-than-professional interaction between agent and airline passenger.
New TSA Administrator John Pistole and his Deputy Administrator, Gale Rossides, had heard enough. Soon after his appointment, I was tasked to help lead the team to change the image of an organization that, according to one poll, found the majority of the traveling public wasn’t happy with the TSA.
I have run newsrooms and television stations, was Chief of Staff to a Mayor and was also deputy executive director for the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority, which operates Orlando International Airport. Those skills put me in a unique position to help the TSA try to re-brand and re-make its image.
No One Said It Would be Easy
My title was senior advisor to the deputy administrator for the TSA. In the spring of 2011, I flew to Washington, DC, to begin work. I was excited but frankly wondered if I would last long enough to unpack all of my bags. I worried low morale, entrenched bureaucracy and a bunker mentality might stop cold any suggestions I might make to address the public’s negative perception.
My first meeting was in a cramped, government-issue gray conference room with eight people. In a few minutes, I figured I would be able to unpack my bags and get to work. In that room were smart, curious people who knew they had to think and act differently if the agency was not only going to survive the “piling on” happening every day but change the conversation completely.
Protect but Respect
Our efforts were made easier with the quick work Administrator John Pistole was making with some of the more frustrating issues involving the agency.
I am, by nature, a skeptical news guy. So, why would I decide to jump into the bureaucratic hot mess that was the TSA? I am at a stage in my life where I have no interest in being the moth or the flame.
TSA’s new leader was an FBI agent and seemed like a nice, squared away, by-the-book kind of guy. In fact, if you’ve ever seen Jimmy Stewart’s portrayal of an FBI agent in the movie “The FBI Story,” then you know John Pistole. Just like Stewart’s portrayal of an FBI agent, Pistole spent 26 years in the FBI. He rose to deputy director – a post he held for the second longest amount of time in the history of the department. Like Stewart’s character, he’s a man of few words but is clear and direct when it comes to his vision
Pistole came to the TSA with a clear idea of how he proposed to make an organizational change. In fact, at the end of his TSA service, he accomplished as much as Lee Iacocca did in turning around the Chrysler Corporation in the private sector.
That is a bold statement and here is why: Pistole institutionalized the concept of “risk based security.” He figured out what the traveling public already knew: not everyone needed to be screened the same way.
For example, he realized World War Two veterans, now in their 80s and 90s, coming to see the war memorial in Washington on an “Honor Flight” were not threats to the aviation system and didn’t need the same sort of screening as other passengers. Because, lets face it, how can you not feel a full-body frisk of a senior citizen who served our country isn’t more than a little distasteful and disrespectful? Screening protocols for children under 12 and adults over 75 were also changed. Randomness would ensure that loopholes were not exploited, but any notion of “everyone gets treated the same way” was eliminated from TSA thinking.
In addition to “risk based security,” which helped the TSA’s image, Pistole also led a progressive organizational change through the entire agency. He improved training with an emphasis on customer service; emphasized more workforce accountability with uniform discipline standards, which rooted out bad actors; publicized the greater accountability standards; and implemented a plan to reduce the number of redundant employees – all of which would save taxpayer money.
Thinking Outside the Agency
These changes helped slowly change the conversation about the TSA’s professionalism and service, but more needed to be done and the reach, wider.
I was tasked with a big challenge. We had to change the negative chatter about the TSA without a marketing or advertising budget. We had no money to air “warm and fuzzy” television commercials showing a TSA agent hugging instead of frisking a four year old. Our strategy and our challenge became getting non-traditional groups and people to speak well of their experiences with TSA.
What we needed was a blockbuster change in the way TSA screened passengers and the impact that would have on the “road warrior.” We got that in the fall of 2011 when the TSA rolled out its Pre-Check program. By signing up with basic traveler information and TSA approval, Pre-Check allows low-risk airline passengers to navigate shorter lines and allows them to walk through scanners without removing their shoes, belts, coats, and laptops.
While Pre-Check got some much-needed good press, we had to reach out to the businesses whose employees would benefit from Pre-Check and get the word out to the general public. What we were about to do was take a huge government agency and turn it into a grassroots organization.
Our team, with Administrator Pistole’s blessing, sought corporations considered high-performers in the area of customer service. We reached out to Enterprise, Alamo and National rental car, knowing their customers would benefit from Pre-Check and also CBP’s Global Entry program (which was a benefit for those passengers traveling overseas.) As a result, Enterprise, Alamo and National sent information about both programs to nine million frequent customers. We also partnered with Lowes Hotels and Marriott Corporation. Lowes’ decision to enroll two thousand of their best customers in Global Entry was the driving force for a news conference featuring Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. Other non-traditional groups joined to help out, which range from the Boy Scouts to Major League Baseball to AAA.
Our reach also included the general travel industry. We worked with convention centers around the country to find out when a large influx of travelers would be coming through their home airport. That information allowed individual airports to staff TSA agents to handle the additional passengers.
TSA partnered with US Travel, and with travel distributors such as Sabre, to provide webinars, e-mails and direct mail alerts to make sure the traveling public was aware of the changes being made as TSA expanded ways to improve the way travelers got to their planes on time and with less hassle in clearing security checkpoints. In all, we reached out to more than 4,000 businesses and organizations, most of which had never had any previous contact with TSA.
Change is Good
By asking for help from some of the most respected businesses in the country, TSA officials were able to learn how to improve the agency’s operations and start changing its image from that of being a joke to being a “travel facilitator.” With no money for marketing or travel, but a new strong dynamic product and strong industry partnerships, we started to change the agency’s public image.
During my time as senior advisor, there were security lapses and other issues that embarrassed the TSA, but perhaps for the first time, these were issues the agency felt could be weathered because there was a clear direction on how to make the TSA a more positive experience both for the first-time flyer and the frequent airline passenger.
My run with TSA lasted three years. During that time, I helped create a partnership between big government and the people and corporations we were tasked to serve and up until that point hadn’t served very well. This couldn’t have been accomplished without the visionary leadership of John Pistole.
Pistole is a guy with a commanding presence but is also someone who has the ability to make every member of his staff feel comfortable. He also did something that is tough to do in government: he made people feel they had a stake in the direction and success of the TSA. That is why, early on, he began talking about creating the most effective security in the most efficient way.
Change is Constant
I was sad when I learned that John Pistole’s leadership of TSA would end last year, but I remain hopeful that the changes he implemented will last for many years to come. Pistole will be the first to acknowledge that he did not act alone – and he is right. The people of TSA bought into his vision, message and leadership. A person is not a leader unless he can attract followers, and John Pistole’s legacy at TSA will be determined by how his followers continue to act to protect the traveling public.
In a recent Washington Post interview, Pistole said during his tenure more than half of the traveling pubic now uses some form of risk-based security pre-screening, and TSA complaints are down 25 percent. Also down is the number of TSA employees, which benefits taxpayers. According to the article, there are five thousand fewer agents due to an agency that is more efficient and flexible. Meanwhile, security has improved across-the-board. Pistole knows full-well that security is the principal mission of TSA; yet, he also knows that the public must believe that mission is being carried out in a proper manner.
Don’t get me wrong. There will always be challenges when your job is managing the smooth and secure flow of more than two million passengers who travel through U.S. airports every day and with an equal number of carry-on and checked bags. But with John Pistole’s vision now being implemented, we should be able to get to our destination with less hassle and more security. And that is a good thing for all of us.
Chris Schmidt is an accomplished senior business executive with extensive experience in governmental, transportation and media industries. During his more than 35 year career, Mr. Schmidt has served as Senior Advisor to the Deputy Administrator of the Transportation Security Administration, as Chief of Staff to the Orange County, Fla., Mayor, as news director and general manager at three television stations, and as the head of operations at Orlando International Airport (MCO).