Homeland security is paramount, but facilitating trade should not be far behind. This past month, I flew roundtrip from Washington, D.C. to Las Vegas, Nevada. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) agents provided excellent customer service when I departed Las Vegas, but I cannot say I received the same level of customer satisfaction from Washington, D.C. My experience is anecdotal, but maybe it is worth examining the actual customer service data, why this is important, and how can it be improved. Homeland security and good customer service should be considered complimentary and result in an even safer travel environment.

We first need to remember that a good travel experience is made possible when our air carriers, airports, airport merchants, the TSA, and others work together. To accomplish this goal, DHS provides passenger and baggage screening complaints and incidents data to the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT). On a monthly basis, customer service statistics are available, allowing researchers to understand how well our government is performing in this area.

It also makes sense to figure out how our Federal government can do better. For example, the March 2015 DOT Air Travel Consumer Report shows that for January 2015, TSA screened about 50 million airline passengers and received 602 complaints in areas including courtesy, screening, processing time, and personal property.

Unfortunately, these monthly data do not identify the airport where the incident took place. Consequently, there is no opportunity for the American public to figure out which airport is performing better, and there is no way of measuring improvement at a given airport from one month to the next. These metrics, which are related to facilitating trade, are important because people do not have to take their trip altogether or they can take an alternative, less safe means of travel (e.g., driving to their destination). According to the U.S. Travel Association, in 2013, 38 million trips were avoided (for a variety of reasons), costing the U.S. economy $35.7 billion.

From an economics perspective, it makes sense to understand the nature of customer satisfaction and why everyone at our airports should strive to be competitive. Customer satisfaction helps us understand how services being supplied meet or surpass our expectations. If provided data on an airport-by-airport basis, everyone at our airports could use these and other metrics to manage and improve their operations.

It should be noted that good customer service does not have to operate in a vacuum. A Federal Times article quotes TSA Press Secretary Ross Feinstein as saying that homeland security and good customer service are complimentary. From the article:

“[Feinstein] said the agency – which has hundreds of thousands of followers on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram – is continuing to expand their presence in order to educate travelers and help solve their problems.

“Earlier this year, a delay in an airport shuttle caused the closure of a TSA checkpoint, and the agency tweeted live updates for passengers until they were able to reopen.

“‘It’s another great way that we can help work with passengers and learn their concerns. Ultimately, if we fix an issue that they have, then the next experience they have is just that much better.’
“The Transportation Security Administration has been shifting from a one-size-fits-all screening approach to a risk-based model – and dramatically improving the customer experience at the same time.”

The main point is that homeland security and good customer service can be accomplished simultaneously. But we should not forget that customer service goes beyond what happens at the airport. The White House Office of Consumer Affairs says that for every customer who bothers to complain, 26 other customers remain silent. Extrapolating that figure, if 10 people complain, then about 260 might have experienced a similar situation. The issue does not end there. According to an American Express survey, Americans tell an average of 9 people about good experiences and tell 16 people about poor experiences.

So the 260 individuals who might have had a reason to complain to TSA could have told more than 4,160 individuals. This is an example of how customer service stories can multiply and affect the desire to travel, as well as homeland security.

Homeland security and good customer service should be considered complimentary. With our President advocating for increases in travel and tourism, it is important that we remember companies with strong capabilities and competencies for delivering customer service excellence regularly outperform their competition. TSA can do even better if more customer service data (stratified by airport) is made available to the American public.

Gary S. Becker is the Chief Economist for Catalyst Partners, LLC. In this role, Becker offers economic analyses to clients on matters relating to homeland security, including the cost impact of proposed and final rulemakings. He offers advice on how to save money while achieving desired security benefits. Read More