Seat 2B By Joe Brancatelli
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14 Years After 9/11, The TSA Needs an Overhaul
September 10, 2015 -- One of the lasting legacies of the 9/11 terrorist attacks is the Transportation Security Administration, the dysfunctional federal agency that can't do its job and makes it miserable for us as we try to do ours.

The TSA's incompetence is unquestioned: As we learned earlier this year, it failed to discover phony guns and fake explosives in 67 of 70 tests of its effectiveness. That stunning collapse followed years of earlier TSA audits that proved almost equally unsatisfactory.

Yet the TSA carries on pawing through our carry-ons, demanding we disrobe, publishing increasingly ridiculous lists of contraband and flashing phony badges in our faces. All while an increasing number of TSA agents are arrested for everything from petty theft to sexual assault.

Some call for disbanding the TSA, but that is a political and practical impossibility. What we did before 9/11 leave security to the airlines, which promptly farmed it out of minimum-wage rent-a-cops isn't an option. And only the most naive think terrorists wouldn't come at us again via airlines and airports if security checkpoints magically disappeared.

The only practical solution is to overhaul the agency. I may be a cockeyed optimist, but fixing the TSA isn't too tough a task. Despite its deployment at 440 airports nationwide, the agency is a rounding error by Washington bureaucratic standards: about 60,000 employees and an annual budget of about $7.5 billion. If some estimates are correct, we've spent more than that every 42 days on post-9/11 wars.

Will these six ideas "save" the TSA? Probably not, especially since no one at the TSA ever listens to anything or anyone. But they could make things better if the TSA really cared about getting better.

Stop treating us like the enemy

The "original sin" of the TSA is that it treats every passenger as guilty until proven innocent to fly. That may (or may not) have been justified in the first, frightening weeks after the 9/11 attacks, but it certainly isn't appropriate 14 years later. The TSA claims it screens two million passengers a day. Only a few hundred of the daily tally pose any risk at all, so why are we all suffering for the perceived crimes of a few?

This fix must come from the top: The bosses at the TSA must accept that passengers are innocent until proven guilty. Then they should design a security regimen to screen and clear the vast majority of daily flyers quickly, politely and efficiently. There's no reason to force us to remove our shoes, to take just one example. Assume we're innocent of stuffing C4 in our soles and let us pass. If a passenger seems suspicious, pull that one aside for additional checks. Two million flyers a day shouldn't be hopping around security checkpoints in stocking feet.

Run PreCheck as a business

The TSA gives lip service to the fact that many frequent flyers, as well as travelers who've voluntarily given additional information about, pose the least risk. It's why the PreCheck security bypass program was created. But the TSA has destroyed the value of PreCheck by running it arbitrarily, haphazardly and without published and verifiable standards. It then clogged PreCheck lines with unvetted travelers who neither understood the rules of the program nor deserved to be in the expedited lines.

The solution: Run PreCheck like a business. Staff the lines at all times and keep them exclusively for frequent flyers and travelers who've paid to participate. That will ensure the program gets the critical mass it needs to survive as well as guaranteeing that low-risk passengers are processed quickly, allowing the TSA to focus on the real risks.

Dump the nude-o-scopes

Those hulking full-body scanners that began appearing at airports five years ago have always been controversial. The purchases were mired in scandal and the technology was suspect and possibly dangerous to our health. And they don't even work.

It's long past time for the TSA to ditch the things. These so-called nude-o-scopes are too finicky and too unreliable. Part of smart management is knowing when you made a mistake. The full-body scanners were a mistake.

Shorten the contraband list

If you can assassinate someone by stabbing them with a pair of eyeglasses, then anything can be a weapon. That said, the TSA's list of contraband items is too long. I refuse to believe four ounces of salsa is a flight risk. And, really, how many passengers have ever attempted to take a fencing foil as carry-on?

Part of effective rulemaking is keeping the rules simple enough so that the user (in this case, flyers) can understand them. No one understands why a 3-ounce tube of toothpaste is safe, but a four-ounce one is contraband. It smacks of bureaucratic tomfoolery and must stop.

Post a bill of rights

Ever been to a security checkpoint, disagreed with what the TSA agent claimed and tried to settle the argument by consulting the rules? Lots of luck. The TSA doesn't post rules. One example: You aren't technically required to give up an item that a TSA agent claims is contraband. You officially "surrender" it, but have the right, at least technically, to leave the area with your item and deal with it another way.

The TSA should be required to post a bill of rights for passengers at every checkpoint. And a named person, an ombudsman, must be on duty at all times to hear passenger complaints and inform flyers of their rights.

Jettison the badges

I've personally had fairly good interactions with TSA agents over the years and never been particularly hassled at a U.S. airport. I believe most TSA screeners try to do a tedious job with as little disruption as possible.

However, there are enough TSA agents who are drunk on their little bit of power. The TSA not only enables that arrogance, it re-enforces it by giving employees fake badges as a way to convince flyers that the TSA is a law-enforcement agency. It is not, TSA agents have no policing power of any kind and they certainly don't have the training to fake it.

It's a symbolic gesture, but the TSA needs to jettison the badges. It sends the wrong message to flyers and employees.


This column is Copyright 2015 American City Business Journals. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright 2015 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.