Minor changes to Transportation Security Administration management practices could change its poor image and improve travelers’ airport experience, former agency officials told a U.S. House panel.
Giving local TSA airport managers more authority to intervene when children or elderly passengers are singled out for patdowns would restore credibility with the flying public, said Tom Blank, a senior agency official during President George W. Bush’s administration.
“If TSA can significantly reduce adverse experiences, the agency’s overall credibility as a bulwark of post 9/11 homeland security will go up markedly,” said Blank, now an executive vice president with Gephardt Government Affairs, a Washington lobbying firm.
The TSA has come under increasing criticism from Congress after reports of patdowns of senior citizens, young children and celebrities spread on social media and employees in several cities were arrested.
TSA has more than 3,000 managers at most large U.S. airport checkpoints, and they could be empowered to intervene in sensitive situations without setting aside security procedures, Blank said.
TSA Administrator John Pistole has said the agency is providing more training for those managers yet doesn’t have enough funding to go faster. That training should be expedited, Blank said. It should be relatively simple to find the money in an agency as large as the TSA, he said.
“Working with the U.S. Congress, TSA remains committed to providing the traveling public the most effective transportation security in the most efficient way possible,” David Castelveter, an agency spokesman, said in an e-mailed statement. “We continue to work closely with industry stakeholders and value their input.”
House Transportation Security Subcommittee Chairman Mike Rogers, who called the hearing, said he was looking for ideas on how to streamline the screening process and make TSA smarter, leaner and more professional.
“TSA’s poor conduct is sending a strong message to American taxpayers,” Rogers, an Alabama Republican, said. “TSA doesn’t care or doesn’t know how to best serve and protect the traveling public.”
TSA has an inherent conflict of interest when it comes to airport screening, as it’s both the operator and the regulator, said Robert Poole, director of transportation policy at the Reason Foundation, a Los Angeles-based group that supports free markets. That leads the agency to reflexively defend itself after mistakes, he said.
“Arm’s-length regulation is a basic good-government principle,” Poole said. “Self-regulation is inherently problematic.”
TSA should speed up efforts to allow airports to use private-company screeners, such as the ones employed at San Francisco International Airport, Poole said. A recent study found San Francisco screeners performed at a higher level than TSA screeners in Los Angeles International Airport. If private screeners were used in Los Angeles, the workforce would be 867 persons smaller, saving $33 million a year, Poole said.
Some of TSA’s problems stem from its creation by Congress a few months after the September 11 terrorist attacks, said Rick “Ozzie” Nelson, director of homeland security and counterterrorism at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
Congress gave the agency a “zero-failure” mandate while expecting it to protect the civil liberties of 2.2 million U.S. airline passengers every day, Nelson said.
“It is impossible for any agency to completely mitigate all risk to our transport system, yet we have been forcing TSA to operate under a model that promotes this goal, fueling bad policy and practice,” Nelson said.
Security problems continue to occur, including an attempted hijacking in China a week ago, said Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, a Texas Democrat. In May, an AMR Corp. American Airlines flight from Paris to Charlotte, North Carolina, was diverted to Maine after a passenger claimed, falsely, that she was carrying an implanted explosive device, she said.
“I will be continuously committed to the security we put in place,” Jackson Lee said.