Last week, TSA rolled out its new website, together with a well-produced YouTube video highlighting the changes and the reasons for them. If the GAO were writing a review of the site, it would no doubt conclude, as it almost always does in its reports, that “progress has been made but much work remains to be done.” In fact, there is so much more work that needs to be done that I’m surprised TSA released it when it did.
The new design is clean, crisp and visually appealing. It has a lot of easily understood graphics and a significant amount of “white space,” which, in my opinion, makes it far easier to navigate than the former website. The preview video says that it was designed based upon user input and a thorough analysis of the way users navigated the old site. Locations that received a lot of traffic have been given more prominence on the new site, and popular programs like TSA’s Pre-Check get extra special treatment, including an interactive map of where one can sign up. The majority of the new site provides helpful information to passengers and those who may not travel frequently. A lot of hard work went into the new website, and for the most part, it covers the basics most people will want to know.
So what’s the problem? Simply put, the search function either doesn’t work or is a bit weird. Admittedly, I probably don’t look at the TSA website the way a “normal” traveler might. But there are some fundamental items that should not have passed quality control reviews, although it does appear that some of the problems I found last week have now been addressed.
For example, the upper right box that on most websites is the “search box” is not that at all on the new site. Rather, it is a special place limited to searching for items that may be carried onto an airplane, entitled “When I Fly Can I Bring My…..” I tried it out by asking if I could bring my “mother.” A window popped up asking me to clarify if I meant to ask about my mom’s ashes, urn or cremains. Wow, how did TSA know that she passed away a number of years ago? Maybe they know more about me than I thought!
Seriously, once I quit playing around, I located the “real” search icon – the tiny magnifying glass icon below the bigger search box, and guess what? A new, smaller search box pops onto the screen. I typed in the word “Hatfield” – meaning I wanted to search the site for Acting TSA Deputy Administrator Mark Hatfield. Over the weekend, the site directed me to a list of references with the top item purportedly being a biography of Mr. Hatfield. But when I clicked on it, I got a “Page Not Found” message: “We’re sorry, but there is no www.tsa.gov page that matches your entry…”
As of this morning, the top link has been “fixed” and directs me to the page with his bio – but when I went down three items to the listing called “Leadership” (which Hatfield clearly is at TSA), I got the same “Page Not Found” reference.
So I went back and tried to search by name for eight other TSA Assistant Administrators and the Chief of Staff. In each instance, I got a “Page Not Found” message. The only link that worked was for the new TSA Administrator, Pete Neffenger and it was very different from the biography of Admiral Neffenger that is on the “new” website. Once again, those particular broken links seem to have been corrected over the weekend, but the inconsistency remains this morning.
After some further searching, I found the new page with the TSA Leadership (different from the “old” page mentioned when I used the search function – which comes up empty) but noted that the Organizational Chart which used to be there is gone. What used to be on a single page is now broken out so that each TSA component requires an additional inquiry (or click.) And I could not find financial or budget information anywhere on the site.
These comments may seem like petty nit-picking to some, and maybe that is what they are. As I indicated earlier, someone worked over the weekend to address a few of the problems I found.
But stepping back, less than a week to the time the site was rolled out – not a beta test but the actual “we are live for all the world to see” day – embarrassing problems like the ones described above should not have happened. It shows a lack of attention to detail and isn’t that the problem TSA has been required to address for the past few months after the stories about the IG report on checkpoint screening deficiencies? It is completely unfair to equate a website problem with a screening equipment or TSA training problem, but there is a common thread that runs through both issues – and it is the problem of providing a service to the public before it is ready for full deployment.
I’ll be the first to admit that glitches in a new web site for TSA pale in comparison to the problems the FAA experienced over the weekend when it tried to upgrade the En Route Automated Modernization software at the Leesburg, VA TRACOM. According to the Associated Press story, the ERAM system “has had a greater than 99.99 availability rate since it was completed nationwide earlier this year.” Yet, a software issue led to the cancelation of almost 50% of the flights for a significant period of time at Reagan, Dulles and BWI airports – affecting many thousands of travelers. So perhaps I should back off and cut the TSA some slack.
The website problems I found can and are being addressed or will likely be resolved very soon. Not a single passenger or flight was ever at any risk of danger. Unlike Saturday’s FAA software issue, no passengers were inconvenienced.
Under the best of circumstances, the TSA has a difficult job and millions of passengers should thank them daily for ensuring our transportation system is as safe and secure as it can be. TSA officials are dedicated and committed to their mission, and they deserve credit for performing their tasks with little positive feedback from the passengers who benefit from their work.
And that is the biggest problem of all, it seems to me. Whether viewed as a “substantive” issue or merely a “nuisance” issue, the new website is not representative of the level of attention to small details that TSOs demand of themselves in making travelers safe. TSA deserves better than it got. Sure, a lot of progress has occurred, but much work remains to be done.