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Ken DunlapBy Ken Dunlap

Talk of customer service often gets brushed aside as being in conflict with the mission of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). Understandably, a security culture within the Agency and Congressional Oversight Committees embodied by the TSA oath ending in the words “Not on my watch” leaves little room for interpretation of the mission. But that has left certain recesses of TSA with an “anything goes” mentality towards how passengers are treated.

This manifests itself every time a TSO is arrested, a transgender passenger has a “negative screening experience,” or a passenger is yelled at. Outside these shadows, we have a bureaucracy often incapable of predicting and preventing a customer experience nightmare, as when a line becomes a quarter of a mile long.

In this ongoing series, we’re looking at pillars for advancing and improving the Transportation Security Administration into a more effective 21st century counterterrorism organization—TSA 2.0. The fifth pillar is customer service.

The American people, who we need on our side, have little faith in TSA. We need a paradigm shift. “Protect” must become “Protect and Serve.” TSA 2.0 needs to embrace service as a core value and recognize the power such a transformation will have on increasing security effectiveness and fostering the goodwill of the American people, as a partner in combating terrorism.

Imagine what the Magic Kingdom, Universal Orlando, or Six Flags would look like if they provided the same customer experience as airlines, airports, and TSA offer at passenger checkpoints? I see a crumbled Cinderella Castle, weeds overgrowing Diagon Alley, and rusting roller coasters. We don’t see that though because of the value these businesses place on the customer experience. There’s a lesson to be learned.

To those who believe this is not a fair comparison, or mixing security’s apples and oranges, let me tell you why it is the best comparison. To begin with, it glaringly illustrates an alluring but intellectually lazy worldview that the pleasantness of the security screening experience should vary inversely to the level of threat and vulnerability. Such a world view seemingly explains why the Magic Kingdom offers a pleasant customer experience and Dulles Airport a more challenging one. More threats equal more inconvenience; less threats equal less inconvenience.

Such logic breaks down when you analyze the security of the highest risk places in the country, such as GSA Level V facilities, certain research laboratories, reactors, the White House, or the Pentagon. Such higher risk places should have the most inconvenient and most unpleasant experience…but they don’t. Why?

The fact is that given the proper infrastructure investment, pre-screening, and emphasis on the experience, targets can be properly protected without scaling up the unpleasantness of the screening experience. Only poor logic, poor budgeting, and poor planning dictate that the customer screening experience must deteriorate as the threat escalates.

Don’t believe me? Here’s what our Canadian neighbors say about their vision to excel in air transport security:

“Our service: We provide the best possible passenger experience and deliver value to Canadians with an optimal use of our resources”

Don’t believe the Canadians? Here’s what TSA itself found in 2009 during the “Checkpoint Evolution” program:

“By reducing stress in the checkpoint, both security and the passenger experience are improved by making hostile intent more visible. A better passenger experience may lead to a better partnership between the public and the Transportation Security Officers (TSOs) who are watching for anomalous behavior.”

We need the Canadian and Checkpoint Evolution mindsets in the U.S. aviation industry, and we can do that while we increase security and passenger satisfaction. Most importantly, we can do that without touching our screening equipment, rushing passengers through checkpoints, or lowering our standards.

TSA 2.0 should focus on three areas to transform itself and build a customer focused mindset. Keep in mind that 99.99% of passengers have no nexus to terrorism, but 100% pay for the screening services they receive through fees and taxes.

Investment in Infrastructure

Airlines, airports, and the TSA need to pay for updating the physical infrastructure of the checkpoints. Many of our checkpoints look, act, and feel old, tired, and decrepit. (What is more, fecal material is one of the common contaminants at security checkpoints. Yuck. Is a clean checkpoint too much to ask for?) Here’s where we get the money from to improve infrastructure:

  • Passengers/TSA: Let’s recover the $12 billion passengers will pay in ticket screening taxes but that have been diverted by Congress to the general treasury. Half of this money should be paid directly to projects that upgrade checkpoints, the other to the TSA operations budget.
  • Airports: $1 out of every $5 airports receive in Airport Improvement Program (AIP) funds should be mandated to checkpoint improvement. Airports need to build conveyor systems to move oversize and unwieldy bags from the checkpoint to the hold baggage systems.
  • Airlines: The Aviation Security Infrastructure Fee (ASIF) needs to be restored by Congress. Such money should be made available for checkpoint modernization upgrades for both passenger and cargo screening. This will produce roughly $500 million per year. Airlines also need to place baggage collection services at the checkpoints to assist customers in checking oversize bags.

Finally, this infrastructure must be available to all passengers regardless of what cabin seat they purchase. We need to end premium lanes, special business class perks, and “cut to the front of the line” for a fee programs. Checkpoints need to be agnostic to your ticket price.

Pre-Screening

Time and again, known traveler programs such as Pre-Check, Global Entry, SENTRI, and NEXUS have proven themselves to be secure and efficient methods of pre-screening travelers. Such programs are key to safe and efficient screening. As checkpoints using Pre-Check process twice as many passengers as normal lanes, the benefits of the program can not be underestimated. Checkpoints are more efficient, and airplanes leave their gates on time. Yet, the government and industry have failed in getting the Pre-Check program widely adopted by the public. It’s too expensive and too difficult to enroll in. The top complaint we hear is that the fee is too high, especially for families. It’s time to remove the financial barrier.

  • Pre-Check needs to be provided free to passengers willing to provide biographic and biometric data prior to travel.
  • Airlines, through taxes and other per passenger fees, should subsidize the full cost of operating Pre-Check infrastructure and resolution centers.
  • Airports, through taxes and other per passenger fees, should also subsidize the full cost of operating enrollment centers within the local community.

Cultural Mindset Changes

Workforce training, continuous improvement, and accountability serve as the key drivers of cultural change in any organization. But they need support from the top to be successful. That’s why we need the President, Congress, and the DHS Secretary to set the tone for change by saying that TSA’s mission is to “protect and serve” the American people. We’ve had a full measure of protect, and now we need to balance that by demanding a service aspect to the mission.

The TSA Administrator needs to set a new trajectory for the TSA Academy and all new hires. To that end, candidates must demonstrate during the interview process that they have a service mindset or can be successfully trained for such a role. The curriculum needs to incorporate the role of service in the passenger experience at the checkpoint. Finally, graduates need to demonstrate a commitment to the service aspect of their mission before they ever leave the Academy.

The current workforce in the field needs to be re-engineered to embrace this dual mission. Not only must this occur in a classroom, but it needs to be reinforced through a dedicated continuous workforce improvement program. All TSA employees need to be held accountable for their execution of the service part of the mission. Most importantly, the TSA Administrator must use his bully pulpit to reinforce the message that customer service and tight security can coexist.

Here are a couple recommended changes:

Include in the Administrators Intent Document: “Service: Be thoughtful and kind to the passengers who entrust their security to us. Through word and action display the professionalism that will warrant their confidence in our abilities.”

Change the TSA Commitment oath to say: “Driven by a noble and critical mission, I proudly serve with integrity and professionalism, my family, community, and fellow citizens. Today, I recommit myself to my role in safeguarding my country and reaffirming my promise to serve the American People: Not on my Watch.”

Nothing mentioned in this post suggests that should we rush people through security checkpoints, lower detection standards, or compromise our values. Security and service can coexist and complement each other. What we need to be doing is treating the people who rely on TSA, airports, and airlines for their safety with the greatest respect and dignity. That’s how we gain their trust and earn their loyalty.

In part 6, I will discuss the radical surgery needed to reform the organizational structure of TSA 2.0.

Ken Dunlap is a Senior Fellow at the George Washington University Center for Cyber and Homeland Security. For more than a decade, he led many of the International Air Transport Association’s (IATA) key government affairs activities relating to airports, passengers, cargo, and security. He launched and guided the Checkpoint of the Future program for IATA, and he has testified on global aviation security issues before the U.S. Congress and Canadian Parliament.