“The search for a scapegoat is the easiest of all hunting expeditions.” ― Dwight D. Eisenhower
The announcement on Monday that TSA has replaced former Assistant Administrator for Security Operations Kelly Hoggan got a lot of national attention. It might lead one to conclude that the recent “blame and shame” efforts of some members of Congress threatening TSA Administrator Peter Neffenger’s tenure in office had worked. Was this Neffenger’s way of responding to the criticism that long airport checkpoint lines were caused by TSA mismanagement? If anyone came to that conclusion, they would be wrong… flat out wrong, in my opinion.
I know Admiral Neffenger well enough to know that he makes decisions based on facts, not political accusations or personal attacks. Anyone who is familiar with Neffenger’s unblemished record in the U.S. Coast Guard, or who worked with him in the position as Principal Federal Officer in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon oil well blowout, knows that the TSA Administrator is not someone who makes decisions depending on which direction the political winds are blowing. He has been through far more serious storms than the current one he is dealing with, and his success in those is as much due to his substantive knowledge as it is for his ability to build a team that listens before it takes action.
That is why I believe that calls for Neffenger to step down are precisely the opposite of what needs to happen for TSA to perform its mission to keep the entire transportation system, and the people who use it, safe and secure. And the suspicions that the demise of Egypt Air 804 may have been caused by terrorist activity highlights the very real threat that exists in the aviation sector.
Neffenger has been completely candid in his position. The security of the traveling public will be his highest priority, even if it means long lines getting through the security checkpoints. Inconvenience from standing in an airport line may be irritating, but it is far preferable to standing in a line at a memorial service for a victim of a terrorist attack.
And yet, being so seriously understaffed that wait times become longer than the flight itself is not acceptable either.
Not wanting to be left out of an opportunity to pander to the frustrated, Airlines for America (A4A) started a #Ihatethewait campaign on social media asking people to send in pictures of long lines, as if expressing outrage on Twitter or Instagram would help solve the problem. DHS Secretary Johnson and U.S. Senators Markey and Blumenthal asked the airlines to eliminate checked baggage fees to incentivize passengers to speed up the checkpoint. In my view, both DHS and airline association messages were off target.
A4A could have asked the traveling public to vote on some of the ideas they have previously recommended, using social media to crowdsource a solution, thereby giving passengers a sense of “buy-in” on a solution. Or they could have recommended that TSA schedule their screening workforce by using the same software system the airlines use to optimize efficiency by ensuring they have the right number of people and supplies when their flights arrive. But A4A had rather demagogue the issue, it seems.
By now, DHS should understand that commercial airline business decisions are generally based on the desire to gain a competitive advantage over (or deny one to) their competitors. If their premise is correct, why didn’t DHS show that the wait times at airports served by Southwest Airlines, the only major airline that doesn’t charge checked baggage fees, are much shorter than at airports serviced by other carriers? Or were the long lines at Midway Airport last week, where Southwest is the dominant carrier, anecdotal evidence that only having 331 TSOs this year instead of the 471 TSOs that were assigned to Midway a decade ago a significant contributor to the problem?
Yet, A4A and DHS were relatively minor players in the public debate over checkpoint constipation. Members of Congress give the impression that all they can do is point fingers and yell at TSA officials. Frankly, if members of Congress want to place any blame, they should start with their colleagues.
For years, House Appropriations committee members have limited TSA’s ability to hire additional Transportation Security Officers, including putting a specific numeric cap on the number of screeners. Other members of Congress have continued to refer derisively to TSA as meaning “Thousands Standing Around,” even though the number of passengers has increased significantly and the threats that new technology deployments are designed to address require more thorough and time-consuming checkpoint and baggage screening processes.
As I’ve written previously, it is beyond time for Congress to cut the overt hypocrisy and “heal thyself.”
But back to TSA for a moment. In previous appearances on Capitol Hill, Admiral Neffenger has received nothing but personal praise for his efforts to straighten out the problems that he inherited last July when he became TSA Administrator, including supportive comments from Chairman Mike McCaul. Neffenger has addressed the allegations in the leaked Inspector General report about the security gaps and agreed with Congress that the “managed inclusion” program needed to be changed. He stopped the process of forced transfers of Federal Security Directors and stopped the practice that led to Kelly Hoggan receiving large bonus payments. In previous hearings, members of Congress expressed their agreement with Neffenger’s actions. It will be interesting to see if McCaul repeats his previous accolades at the hearing on Wednesday, when Neffenger will testify.
Neffenger also has the complete confidence of DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson, and there is no expectation that Johnson will do anything to micromanage Neffenger’s work at TSA. Thus far, he has been engaged and supportive, and that is the right thing to do, as best I can tell.
In the midst of all of the blathering and bleating from the old goats on Capitol Hill who, because they fly in airplanes, tend to believe they know more about aviation and aviation security than the TSA, one thing is likely to occur: There will be more blame commentary than solution offering. That is the sad reality of the climate on Capitol Hill these days – and just as the American flying public deserves good, efficient security operations, they also deserve problem-solving ideas from those who were elected to represent them in Congress.