Seat 2B By Joe Brancatelli
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Patch the TSA Now, Clean House Tomorrow
May 26, 2016 -- The only thing worse than America ignoring the problems of business travelers is America paying attention to the problems of business travelers. You may have noticed that everyone is suddenly up in arms about long lines at security checkpoints. The butcher, the baker, the gasbag politician and the software maker all decry a colossal meltdown that has caused epic waits at airports from Abilene, Texas to Youngstown, Ohio. Thousands of travelers have missed flights and the Transportation Security Administration thinks it's okay to tell us to arrive as much as three hours before departure. Ironically, the only people not talking about the crisis are presumptive presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. That's because neither flies commercial and neither rubs elbows with poor schleps like us. The problem when everyone except presidential candidates is talking? There's a lot of hokum being served up, regurgitated by instant experts and presented to a tired, impatient nation as a panacea for long security lines. We discussed the chaos caused by the TSA a month ago. The only difference now is that the agency is feeling the heat and furiously backpedaling on its trademark arrogance. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson now admits there's a problem. TSA Administrator Peter Neffenger now accepts that his agency must do better. And hordes of screeners and a cache of emergency funds are being shipped off the cut waiting times.
There are short-term solutionsThe issues at the TSA are systemic and require serious longer-term surgery, but most Americans want instant gratification. They simply won't accept that a summer holiday starts at the airport three hours before a flight. Thankfully, there is a short-term way to get waiting times down. With a total workforce of around 60,000 people, the TSA has more than enough staff to get the job done. What the agency must do is move every available body to the checkpoints. Stop deploying redundant document checkers and specious behavior-detection teams and concentrate on getting people through checkpoints efficiently. It's already worked at Chicago's O'Hare Airport, where the TSA was publicly torched for incompetence this month and then belatedly and begrudgingly devoted additional human assets to the security lines. The other required action? Airlines need to spend a few bucks. The industry earned a record-shattering $25 billion in profit last year, but its contribution to the nation's security infrastructure was essentially zero. That's because Congress in 2014 repealed the fees airlines once paid into the system. To fill the gaps that the TSA creates by moving bodies back to screening checkpoints, the airlines must be required to spend some of their profit and deploy some employees. After all, why can't an airline worker instead of a TSA screener check boarding passes and passports as we approach checkpoints? To their credit, airlines in recent days have begun opening their wallets, if for no other reason than they fear customers will stop buying tickets if lines don't get noticeably shorter.
What not to do nextWith a summer crisis avoided, we'll need to quickly move to fix what's wrong with the 15-year-old agency that has become the poster child for an entrenched, unresponsive, tone-deaf bureaucracy. But let's not get stupid. The most ignorant critics will immediately seize on an old meme: Let's do what the Israelis do. Simply put, however, that's physically and financially impossible. To clone Israel's security apparatus for an airline system as huge as ours would require a staff of about three million and a budget five times larger than the TSA's annual expenditure of about $7.5 billion. And can we please stop babbling about privatizing the TSA? Travel security was in the hands of private firms before the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and the results were disastrous. Screeners were paid minimum wage and the turnover rate was around 400 percent. "It's hard to train people to sharpen pencils" given those conditions, Federal Aviation Administration security chief Cathal Flynn warned 18 months before 9/11.
Hive off PreCheckThat isn't to say there's no place for private security operators. In fact, the law that created the Transportation Security Administration specifically envisioned private enterprise running a "trusted traveler" program to would speed low-risk flyers through security protocols. The TSA impeded the creation of a trusted traveler scheme at every turn and responded with its own operation, PreCheck, in 2011. As I warned at the time, PreCheck was doomed to failure. And as I noted two years ago, the TSA has made a maddening muddle of a can't-miss proposition. Yet the promise of trusted traveler remains. If you offer frequent flyers the proper incentive — fast passage through security in exchange for biometric and other personal data — and give them a predictable experience, they'll pay. Private enterprise can do it. The TSA cannot. The fact that the agency can't induce flyers to pay up even in this time of insanely long lines proves it.
Admit failure and move onThe rest of the TSA is a mess, too, and it is incapable of reforming itself. The problem isn't rank-and-file security screeners, however. It's the bosses. Despite the agency's proven inability to find contraband, only one top TSA executive has been fired for cause in the last five years. Even this week's ouster of a highly placed bureaucrat wasn't what it seemed. He wasn't fired, only shuffled to another gig. And he wasn't removed because of lagging security lines. He was "reassigned" because his outrageous bonuses became a public embarrassment.
Wait 'til next yearIt's foolish to expect substantial restructuring during the final months of the Obama Administration. In fact, the TSA under Obama has been noticeably less efficient and spectacularly more authoritarian than during the administration of George W. Bush. Realistically, a clean-sheet remake of the TSA will have to wait until the next president is inaugurated. There's plenty of work to be done, too. Everything from the agency's obsession with minutia — the deodorant we pack in carry-ons, for instance — to its habit of buying bad technology from on-the-make former political appointees needs to be fixed. Too bad the next president will have no idea what needs to be done — or even have any first-hand experience with being stuck on a security line in Mobile with the TSA blues again.
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