Do airport security lines have to be so awful? A rare look inside TSA.
With a history of dysfunction and new calls to privatize, can the agency’s big plans to make airport security less miserable get off the ground?
The items look like they should be rolling along the checkout belt at the Stop & Shop. A package of Oreos. A tub of Chobani yogurt. A stick of Old Spice deodorant. A tube of Chapstick.
But I’m not standing in the eight-items-or-less line at the supermarket. I’m deep inside a former postal facility near Reagan National Airport. The high-security room is the lair of a 38-year-old former Army explosive ordnance disposal technician by the name of Alan Lucks. He did multiple tours in Iraq, defusing roadside IEDs. Now, instead of undoing the work of terrorists in Baghdad, he spends his days in Arlington, Virginia, attempting to get inside the heads of people like them. “I become kind of like a method actor,” Lucks says.
Every day in the brightly lit windowless room he calls his cave, he pores over classified reports and hangs out in open-source Internet chat rooms, trying to pick up the scent of people plotting new ways to sneak dangerous stuff past airport security checkpoints. Like the kid from The Sixth Sense, Lucks sees things the rest of us don’t. “What people see as normal carry-on items,” he says, “I see them as possible threats.”
Because terrorists seek to turn everyday objects into explosive devices, Lucks has trained himself to detect the hazards lurking behind the innocuous. That can make it hard to step out of character when he’s hanging out with his wife and children. “Kids’ toys are ideal items to turn into explosives,” he says. “My wife knows if I’m in a toy store, she’s lost me.”
As a lead in the testing department of the Transportation Security Administration, Lucks takes these objects and uses his military know-how to hide explosive simulant inside them. His weaponized Oreos and Barbie dolls get slipped into duffel bags and roll-aboards alongside lots of innocent items as part of TSA’s assessment of new screening machinery and procedures.
“We’re testing equipment with actual real threats,” Lucks says, “not three sticks of dynamite with a Flavor Flav clock attached to it.”
When I ask if everything now looks potentially evil to him, he pauses for a long moment before releasing a tight smile. “Yes.”
Fifteen years after TSA was created amid the smoldering wreckage of September 11, the agency’s checkpoint officers and equipment have become adept at finding those ubiquitous (but usually harmless) bottles of Poland Spring we’ve forgotten inside our backpacks. But Lucks sees it as his job to help TSA screeners get a lot better at recognizing the real threats that could be hiding in plain sight.
In this regard, TSA’s performance has been not just bad, but astonishingly bad, reinforcing widespread doubts about the agency’s competence and capacity for reform. Leaked details from a 2015 inspector general’s report revealed that undercover auditors, posing as regular travelers at airports around the country but secretly carrying banned weapons and fake bombs, had made it through TSA checkpoints undetected about 95 percent of the time. The findings were especially devastating because they reinforced the traveling public’s two most common indictments of TSA. The first is that the agency’s screening is inconvenient, inefficient, and invasive. The second is that it’s just “security theater,” purporting to make people safe but delivering little more than delay and unpleasantness.
TSA’s reputation for dysfunction has made it a favorite Republican example of bureaucratic bloat. And with the election of Donald Trump, the agency is now a prime target to see many of its 60,000 federal workers privatized as an early item on the Make America Great Again punch list.
Peter Neffenger had been going through his confirmation hearings to become head of TSA when the classified report was leaked in June 2015. Rather than adopt the defensive posture of previous agency executives, Neffenger, a Coast Guard vice admiral coming in as an outsider, used the findings to help advance perhaps the most ambitious effort in the young agency’s history.
“Kids’ toys are ideal items to turn into explosives.”Alan Lucks, TSA tester
I spent considerable time with Neffenger and his leadership team in recent months, granted rare access to observe — behind the scenes and behind the screens — the high-stakes work of remaking the sprawling agency that for many Americans is the retail face of the federal government. The picture that emerges is both encouraging and sobering. It provides a preview of the screening we’ll all likely find ourselves going through in the airport of the future. It also offers a reality check for the Republicans who made privatizing TSA a plank in this year’s GOP platform: They would be reshaping an agency where mistakes always run the risk of cascading into catastrophe.
Peter Neffenger had been in the line of fire before. In 2010, the Coast Guard lifer and graduate of Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government served as deputy national incident commander for the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill. In that role, he coordinated daily operations for the government’s response to the disaster, regularly getting reamed out by fishermen, environmentalists, and Southern governors. While testifying one day before a presidential commission, Neffenger, a mild-mannered native of Ohio, could see himself projected on a giant screen that was simulcasting the proceedings. The screen gave him a second’s warning when someone in the crowd behind him stood up, yelled “He’s a liar!” and then hurled something at him. He managed to avoid getting hit with what turned out to be a bag of rotten tomatoes.
Ever since then, the 61-year-old says, “as long as a big bag of nasty tomatoes doesn’t hit me, it’s a good day.”
Given the multiple, often conflicting lines of congressional oversight over TSA, Neffenger had to go through two confirmation hearings to become administrator. He had just finished the first round when the finding about the 95 percent failure rate was leaked from that classified report. He reminded himself of the tomato rule. “If I hadn’t gone through Deepwater Horizon,” he says, “I would have probably been trying to undo my nomination.”
The most dumbfounding incident described in the reporting involved an undercover tester who made it past the screeners wearing a phony explosive strapped to his back. After it set off an equipment alarm, a TSA officer patted him down but failed to detect the explosive taped to his spine and sent him on his way.
Inspector General John Roth of the Department of Homeland Security, who authored the report, says that as appalling as many of the lapses were, they were consistent with previous findings by his office. “Prior to Neffenger’s getting there, there was a bureaucratic stiff-arm at TSA to our testing and recommendations,” he says. “They argued with it, then they ignored it.”
The difference with Neffenger, he says, “was night and day.”
Shortly after Neffenger was confirmed in late June of last year, a veteran TSA executive pulled him aside and told him, “You’ve got to understand: Everybody hates us.”
When Neffenger led a root-cause analysis of the failures behind that hate, he found massive inefficiencies that prompted him to push through a wholesale retraining effort of TSA’s front-line workforce. Rather than just worrying about wait times, which had taken precedence under previous leadership, he wanted staff to focus on their central mission of effective screening. But Neffenger knew they’d have to roll out more rigorous screening with about 6,000 fewer screeners than the agency had just four years earlier, thanks to congressional cutbacks. That would mean forcing travelers to cool their heels for longer stretches in line, at least at first.
With the spike in travel this past spring, the lines came — worse than even he had imagined. Terminals in Minneapolis, Atlanta, and Chicago became paralyzed. It got so bad at O’Hare that staff brought out cots as they do in blizzards. Thousands of travelers missed flights, not because weather had grounded their aircraft but because of TSA screening delays.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel publicly blasted TSA leadership. Only partway through the administrator’s first year on the job, a chorus of criticism rose in Congress, with some lawmakers demanding Neffenger be replaced.
When confronted by angry, stranded travelers, the airlines and airports had been happy to point the blame squarely at TSA. So Neffenger brought them into the fold through a daily command center. He and his team found lines could not be effectively managed either from headquarters in Arlington, Virginia, or at the individual airport checkpoints. In either case, by the time you decide to open a new lane, it’s too late — you’re just cleaning up the mess. He wanted TSA managers at the airports to focus on anticipating flow, making staffing decisions based on sound national and regional travel projections, and having the discretion to turn on a dime if necessary.
Anticipating demand shouldn’t be that hard. Unlike at the Greyhound counter at the bus station, almost no one shows up at airports these days without having already reserved a seat. Yet airlines have traditionally not wanted to share their reservation data with competitors.
Neffenger’s team instituted a morning conference call involving the nation’s biggest airports, a practice that continues to this day. On the line are representatives from the management teams at 30 airports and the top airlines operating out of them, as well as TSA officials there. There’s a lot more information sharing these days. Participants take turns reporting a series of metrics, including the longest checkpoint wait times from that morning, the total number of passengers screened the day before, and estimates for total passenger volume in coming days. In the new command room set up at TSA headquarters, electronic maps and dashboard screens display real-time data for hot spots around the country where wait times are getting too long.
Having everyone in on the same call provides a better handle on likely passenger spikes — from a big sports event in one region to a school vacation in another. TSA sometimes uses the information to move teams of screeners from one airport to another. Rather than let a broken-down X-ray machine cause a logjam tomorrow, people at the airport level have found the call a great way to get help from headquarters to fast-track requests for equipment repairs. And because the airlines and airports are involved in the daily forecasting efforts, it’s much harder for them to blame TSA if unexpected spikes create major slowdowns.
The call provides a fascinating snapshot of how flight is distributed over American skies. Nationally, TSA screens nearly 2 million travelers daily. Although Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport ranks as the world’s busiest, many of its passengers don’t need screening because they’re passing through on connecting flights. When it comes to the US airport that screens the most passengers, Los Angeles International, whose checkpoints handle more than 100,000 every day, has no peer.
“I don’t want a static system, because static systems can be defeated.”Peter Neffenger, TSA Administrator
Neffenger shifted around funds in his budget so the agency could hire nearly 1,400 new screeners — officially called Transportation Security Officers, or TSOs — and have another 2,000 part timers go full time. TSA also made a mad push to sign up travelers for its PreCheck program that offers expedited screening for five years to those who pay $85 and submit to a background check. In just eight months, the PreCheck ranks have doubled, to more than 4 million. Just like what happened when E-ZPass reached critical mass on the toll roads, the PreCheck lines are now sometimes longer than the standard lines. Still, they move faster because travelers keep their shoes on and laptops in the bags. PreCheck also helps mitigate what many people hate most about TSA. “The more we know about you,” Neffenger says, “the less we have to touch you and your stuff.”
By the end of the summer, when the predicted wait-time crisis failed to materialize, Neffenger was drawing praise. Chicago’s mayor held a news conference, and this time he had only kind words. Even some of the same Republican congressmen who had been calling for Neffenger’s head stepped up to offer attaboys.
Averting a disastrous summer was only the start, though. Neffenger knew he had limited time in his chair, and he wanted to lay the groundwork for genuine transformation. To do that, he would need his employees to rethink how they look at systems — and even more important, how they look at themselves.
Welcome to the airport checkpoint of the future (based on technology that TSA is now developing). When you reserve your seat on a flight, TSA will start to compile your risk profile, not based on racial or religious profiling — an ineffective practice the agency says it eschews — but based on behavior, including where you’ve traveled in the past. When you get to the front of the checkpoint line, rather than let a TSO decorate your boarding pass with a few circles and scribbles, your driver’s license or passport will be scanned by an electronic reader. Connected to the government’s Secure Flight database, the reader will make sure your ID is authentic and verify you belong on that flight. Or, if you opt in, you’ll skip the boarding pass and ID altogether and submit to an iris scan or facial recognition to confirm you are who you say you are.
As you approach the carry-on screening line, if you happen to find yourself behind a frazzled mom whose toddler is in full tantrum or an unsteady grandfather who hasn’t flown since Ronald Reagan fired the air-traffic controllers, no problem. The former single-file approach to the X-ray now has a parallel setup, with five or six individual stations, all feeding to the same belt. You can bypass the slowpokes and simply approach any open station to start emptying your pockets. The bins are much bigger now, and your laptop no longer needs to ride solo, but everything needs to go in a bin, even your roll-aboard. You don’t have to push the bins along because a conveyor belt now sends the filled ones on their journey while continuously replenishing the supply of empty ones. Each bin has a radio frequency ID tag that ties it to you.
Before the bin heads into the X-ray tunnel, a camera captures an exterior shot of your stuff, which, combined with the ID tag, will ensure the screener grabs the correct bag if the X-ray flags it for a physical search. In fact, it probably won’t be an X-ray but instead a CT scan, providing detail-rich 360-degree images.
The walk-through advanced imaging technology, or AIT, machine will still use millimeter waves to detect any banned items under your clothes. But instead of having to stand inside that glass phone booth, holding your hands above your head as if being frisked, you’ll just stand for a second or two between two open-air panels, holding your hands below your waist. The hope is that someday you’ll be scanned automatically as you walk at a natural pace through the area. When you get to the gate, you’ll use a thumbprint or another form of biometrics to board the plane.
Some parts of this future are already in use at certain airports. Others are still being tested and refined at the TSA Systems Integration Facility near Reagan National, where Alan Lucks weaponizes grocery-store items.
The technology for the license-scanning electronic readers is ready to go. But because that new system needs to connect to the Secure Flight database, it’s on hold until IT specialists can figure out how to avoid introducing another dangerous back door for hackers. The biometrics technology is close to being ready, but privacy concerns have to be worked out.
The new “automated screening lanes,” where multiple travelers can empty their pockets at the same time, are already in use at select checkpoints in Atlanta, Los Angeles, Newark, and Chicago.
After admiring a similar automated lane at London Heathrow during a trip in 2015, Neffenger asked his staff, “How come we don’t have those things?” The answer involved cost and government procurement realities that would require about five years to roll out a new system nationwide.
Neffenger asked airline executives if they would foot the bill for some experimentation. Delta bit first, buying the equipment for two automated lanes in Atlanta and then gifting them back to the government. United and American followed. TSA expects to have about 75 automated lanes in action around the country sometime next year.
The team that got the Atlanta lanes up and running has morphed into the agency’s new Innovation Task Force, which is designed to be an incubator for similar pilot projects.
In a meeting at Logan Airport in October, task force head Jose Bonilla shares the technology coming attractions with airport officials. Atlanta’s automated lines, he says, are moving passengers through up to 30 percent faster. But he admits they’ve not yet reduced overall time spent at the checkpoints because of continued congestion at the AIT screening machines. (Those open-air scanning panels won’t be ready to be deployed for some time.)
Still, the Atlanta test is allowing TSA to refine a new system before spending lots of time and money to implement it nationwide. This, Neffenger says, is how TSA will get more agile and adaptive. “I don’t want a static system, because static systems can be defeated.”
Neffenger says TSA has already seen evidence that injecting unpredictability into the process is paying off. When K-9 units have been randomly sent to patrol terminals, security cameras have documented travelers walking through the front door and then turning around and walking out. He acknowledges the U-turners were more likely carrying drugs than explosives, but a good deterrent’s a good deterrent.
Interestingly, dogs have proved to be the most reliable form of explosive-detection “technology” in TSA’s arsenal. That’s why travelers will likely see more K-9 units at checkpoints. Stationing a trained dog in the center of a serpentine line allows it a couple of passes to sniff each suitcase rolling by. If the dog detects no trouble, TSOs can instantly turn those “standard-line” passengers into PreChecks, meaning everyone can get through the checkpoint faster.
If K-9s are so effective, why not staff the checkpoints entirely with them? For starters, they’re not capable of working eight hours straight with just a 30-minute lunch and two smoke breaks. TSA handler Sid Jackson, a 38-year-old Army veteran, works with a 3-year-old black Labrador named Jazz to speed up the checkpoint process in terminals A and C at Logan. If Jazz smells any trace explosives, she’ll alert Jackson with changes in behavior, and he’ll alert law enforcement. Jazz can work for only about 30 to 45 minutes at a stretch before Jackson needs to take her outside for a long break, rewarding her by letting her play with a toy. After four or five spells working the line, Jazz will tire out, and Jackson will take her home with him to Bridgewater.
The idea with dogs, humans, and high-tech machinery is to let each do what it does best. Machines are great at ingesting massive amounts of data that come from scanning billions of bags and detecting anomalies. “Humans watch other humans very effectively,” Neffenger says, allowing them to read travelers’ body language. “We need a continuum of security that starts at reservation and continues on through destination.”
The way large airports like Logan now screen checked luggage offers clues about how carry-on bags will eventually be handled. Far from public view, checked suitcases flow automatically along an in-line explosive detection system that sends them through a CT scan. A computer algorithm compares the scans of each bag’s contents with its vast image inventory. If it detects a suspicious anomaly, it alerts a human like Christine Buckley.
A supervisor who spent 22 years in the Air Force before joining TSA in 2002, Buckley sits behind a computer in a windowless office called the Central Monitoring Facility. When she sees the red alarm flash — about a quarter of checked bags trigger one — she manipulates the image on her screen to look for an innocent explanation. If she can’t quickly resolve the issue, she’ll hit a button that sends the bag along a different conveyor belt to the baggage room for a physical inspection. If the imagery raises very high suspicions, a law enforcement officer or member of the bomb unit at the airport will be alerted. Otherwise, a TSO will search the luggage. Some obsessive-compulsive travelers leave just-in-case notes with precise instructions on how to repack their bag. TSOs really love those notes.
The airlines discovered checked-luggage fees could be a big profit center, and carry-ons now outnumber checked bags, 4 to 1. For TSA, the bar is much higher for screening carry-on bags. With checked bags, they’re pretty much looking only for already assembled bombs. But because multiple terrorists could each smuggle a different item in a different carry-on bag and meet midflight for some lavatory assembly, the checkpoint screeners need to look for things that aren’t deadly on their own but could be if combined with others.
Yet if lines get too long, traveler tension spikes, which makes screening tougher. “We want to reduce that level of tension,” Neffenger says, “so we can better spot the people who are agitated not because they’re mad at us, but because they are planning to do something bad.”
There’s one more critical reason to reduce lines. Neffenger gained new appreciation for it in March, when he happened to land in Brussels a few minutes before a suicide bombing in the airport terminal killed 32. Terrorists don’t need to get through checkpoints to cause carnage and sow widespread fear. They can do it in the airport’s public areas. And long lines could turn travelers into sitting ducks.
We all know that when it comes to flying, 9/11 changed everything. But we’ve largely forgotten why it took a terrorist attack and the loss of 2,977 lives to begin the change.
Between 1968 and 1972, more than 130 flights were hijacked in American airspace, occasionally more than one on the same day. It got to the point that Lloyd’s of London began offering travelers “skyjacking” insurance policies. For a $75 premium, passengers could board a flight knowing that if their plane were hijacked, they would receive $500 for every day in captivity and a $5,000 payout in the event of death or dismemberment.
Lloyd’s and passengers may have been willing to acknowledge the risk, but the airline industry was not. As author Brendan Koerner explains in his fascinating book The Skies Belong to Us, the airlines refused for years to accept even modest screening efforts at airports, fearing that passenger fright or annoyance would hurt the industry’s bottom line. Because most skyjackers were after money and a flight to Cuba rather than passenger blood, the airlines concluded the best approach was to pay occasional ransoms. And because of the enormous sums they were already paying to lobby lawmakers, they had the clout to block the Federal Aviation Administration from imposing common-sense measures. However, by 1973, after some deadly skyjackings stoked public fears, the airlines finally accepted the FAA’s requirement that all travelers begin going through metal detectors.
Fast-forward to August 2001, when a team led by a young FAA staffer named Huban Gowadia proposed a plan to ban all knives — even those with small blades — from carry-on luggage and replace all the old, not particularly effective metal detectors at airports with enhanced systems. The timetable was modest: It would be rolled out nationwide over five years. Gowadia had experience being underestimated. She had played competitive junior college basketball despite topping out in height in middle school in her native India at 5-foot-1. Recalling how older hands at FAA had greeted her proposal, she pantomimes patting a child’s head: “Sure, little girl, try it. It will never happen.”
On September 12, 2001, after terrorists took down the World Trade Center, FAA leadership immediately imposed the small-knife ban (which now included box cutters) and asked Gowadia to implement the five-year plan within nine months. By the time she left the agency at the start of 2003, new metal detectors had been installed at virtually all airports.
TSA was created just before Thanksgiving 2001. What began with 13 staffers sharing three computers in a Department of Transportation conference room quickly mushroomed into a federal bureaucracy of more than 50,000 workers fanned out across the country. TSA eventually moved into the new Department of Homeland Security and took on oversight of security not just at airports, but also ports, transit systems, railroads, and pipelines.
TSA officials, when talking about those early days, use a military phrase to refer to how quickly the agency was “stood up.” Officials from the military and intelligence agencies played major roles in building TSA. So did the private sector, with experts from FedEx and Disney advising on logistics and “queue management,” the Magic Kingdom-perfected sleight of hand for making long lines appear shorter using winding configurations.
Nonetheless, it’s hard to hire that many people in a few months without taking some shortcuts. In many cases, screeners who had held that job for individual airports were simply “federalized” and given a cursory one-week training program, but not much else.
Pay became a contentious issue. A congressional fight over whether the new screeners should work for the government or private industry led to a compromise where they would be federal employees but paid much less. (Today, the range is $15 to $24 an hour.) TSA screeners are also denied the kind of automatic step raises most other federal employees enjoy.
Yet, owing to the security dimensions of the job and the early influence of the military, steep consequences were imposed for infractions. To this day, employee discipline is governed by something called the Table of Penalties, which sounds like a vestige of 1493 Spain.
TSOs must spend their days repeating the same deadening instructions while getting flak from angry passengers, some of whom joke that the agency acronym should stand for Thousands Standing Around. Not surprisingly, turnover has been high — 1 in 5 per year among part timers. In surveys tracking employee morale at 320 federal agencies last year, TSA ranked 313th.
Making that problem worse has been the lack of consistent leadership at the top: TSA has averaged a new leader about every two years.
Some TSA veterans say the biggest problem before Neffenger’s arrival was a powerful culture of fear, turf-building, and Game of Thrones-level score-settling. Back in April, three mid-level TSA executives testified before Congress as whistle-blowers, detailing a climate of flagrant abuse at the top of the agency. They accused a half-dozen or so leaders under Neffenger’s predecessor of maintaining “hit lists” and using “directed reassignments” to bully competent TSA security directors at airports around the country into quitting. Good directors, they said, were driven out of their posts in cities from Boston to Seattle — one was even banished to Alaska. Meanwhile, they complained, the abusive leaders at headquarters were handing out bonuses to each other worth upward of $90,000 a year. The whistle-blowers told Congress the jury was still out on Neffenger, who at the time was still relatively new to the agency.
When I catch up with the whistle-blowers this fall, one of them, Jay Brainard, credits Neffenger for putting a stop to punitive reassignments and working to change the agency’s culture. But the other two, Drew Rhoades and Mark Livingston, criticize Neffenger for allowing all but two of the offending senior leaders to keep their jobs and accuse him of tolerating continued misbehavior.
“There are still two sets of rules,” says Rhoades, the assistant federal security director in Minneapolis. “People at the top breaking the rules get $90,000 bonuses. But the average TSO on the front lines, if they make mistakes, they get the guillotine.”
Other agency observers, including a victim of the previous punitive reassignments, speculate that Neffenger was simply being pragmatic. Getting rid of all the offenders could have consumed much of the limited time and political capital he had in his job. Those he couldn’t drive out, he neutralized, by bringing in outsiders to be his top lieutenants.
“I have held people accountable,” Neffenger says. “You can look to the current structure of the organization to draw conclusions from that.”
For his chief of operations, Neffenger in February tapped a former Coast Guard colleague named Gary Rasicot. And for his deputy — the agency’s number-two position — he brought back Huban Gowadia, who had pushed through TSA’s metal detector plan shortly after 9/11. Gowadia, who had been serving as director of Homeland Security’s Domestic Nuclear Detection Office before taking over day-to-day operations of TSA in May, has already won over some whistle-blowers. “She has a genuine interest in doing the right thing,” Livingston says.
As a political appointee, Neffenger serves at the pleasure of the president. Gowadia and Rasicot, however, can’t be removed just because there’s a new occupant in the White House.
Deciding that far more rigorous employee training would be his best insurance policy for keeping the momentum going after he leaves, Neffenger created a TSA Academy, where all TSOs and other front-line workers would be sent. And he sent the agency’s top 125 executives to Harvard.
“People at the top breaking the rules get $90,000 bonuses. But the average TSO on the front lines, if they make mistakes, they get the guillotine.”Drew Rhoades, TSA whistle-blower
I first get to know Gowadia and Rasicot in a conference room at the Hyatt in Cambridge. They and two dozen other agency executives are there for a weeklong training session run by Harvard’s National Preparedness Leadership Institute. Four other cohorts had been trained in sessions earlier this year.
Since its founding in 2003, NPLI has trained more than 700 mid- and senior-level leaders from a host of agencies and conducted “embedded” research on government response to disasters ranging from Katrina to Ebola. Its roster of graduates includes Neffenger, who completed the program in 2008, when he was a captain in the Coast Guard. (Disclosure: As an author of a book about leadership during crisis, I was a guest speaker for NPLI programs on two occasions in previous years, once declining the speaker fee and once diverting it to charity.)
Many of the TSA executives arrive in Cambridge feeling beaten down. Over lunch with an earlier cohort, I ask how people respond when they tell them what they do for a living. “I don’t say that I work at TSA,” one executive replies, drawing vigorous nods from others around the table. “I say I work in homeland security.”
NPLI founding co-director Lenny Marcus and his colleagues try to give the leaders new tools to help them get out of the rut the Harvard team refers to as “the basement.” The group is divided into multiple teams that will each tackle a different problem at the agency, such as how to empower checkpoint supervisors to make decisions without fear of getting whacked at the Table of Penalties, and how to transform that punishment table — whose disciplinary offerings range from reprimand letters to termination — into more of a buffet of incentives. At the end of every weeklong session, Neffenger shows up in Cambridge to hear pitches from all of the groups. They get two months to refine their projects before Neffenger’s team decides which to greenlight.
Neffenger has high hopes for the TSA Academy, the agency’s first attempt at a national training program to replace the more ad hoc regional training of the past. Housed for now at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Centers in Glynco, Georgia, the academy is designed to give the agency’s front-line workers consistent, comprehensive training. New hires undergo simulations where they have to scour luggage without screening machinery to do things like find a penknife surreptitiously attached to the metal bracket inside an umbrella. Rather than just watch a training video detailing the “shoe bomb” that Richard Reid managed to get on board a flight in Paris in December 2001 (forcing a landing at Logan), new employees sit in outdoor bleachers as a bomb team detonates a charge of that same size. Even from a safe distance, it’s powerful enough to make their shirts vibrate, reinforcing the consequences of missing something during a search.
“Privatizing [TSOs] will be my number-one priority in the next Congress on the Homeland Security Committee.”Mike Rogers, Republican congressman from Alabama
Each new employee also stands up to take an oath. Although critics often talk about how TSOs need to get better at customer service, Neffenger wants instead to instill a greater sense of public service. They should always be professional, if possible taking the time to explain the logic behind seemingly contradictory TSA policies. (Liquids of more than 3.4 ounces are banned because they could conceal explosives. But travelers can bring onboard more liquid if it’s holding live fish because, if that water did contain explosives, the fish would no longer be live.) However, Neffenger argues that a TSO’s main priority must always be public safety rather than people-pleasing. In traditional customer service, the customer is always right. TSA exists only because the customer could actually be a terrorist.
And yet these TSOs in whom Neffenger wants to instill a sense of national public service could soon find themselves no longer working for the national government, at least not directly. Alabama Republican congressman Mike Rogers, who has played a significant role in TSA oversight over the years, tells me, “Privatizing will be my number-one priority in the next Congress on the Homeland Security Committee.”
He and fellow Republican lawmakers have been pushing to privatize TSOs for years. “But the Democratic administration wants to keep unions happy, so they’ve been slow-walking this.” That, he vows, will change with Republican ascendancy in Washington.
It’s important to note what Rogers means by privatizing. He does not want to dismantle the entire agency and put screening responsibility back in the hands of individual airports and airlines. Having different standards at 440 airports around the country, he admits, is a non-starter in a post-9/11 world. What he wants to do is turn over many of the roughly 47,000 TSO screener jobs to private contractors while keeping in place the TSA oversight bureaucracy. The congressman admits the move probably won’t save money but says it would give airports greater flexibility.
This setup of TSA overseeing private contractors who handle screening has long been in place in San Francisco, Kansas City, and 19 small airports. Data are thin, but costs seem to be roughly comparable. Inspector General John Roth says his undercover testing found the performance of private and federal screeners to be equally poor.
Inspector General John Roth says his undercover testing found the performance of private and federal screeners to be equally poor.
Roth’s big concern with privatizing the workforce nationally is that TSA has historically performed quite poorly as a regulator in other capacities, such as ensuring compliance by IT contractors and other vendors. He argues that a huge vulnerability in the current system concerns the private employees with “badge access” to secure areas of airports because they work for private companies that handle things like food service and maintenance. Though TSA is in charge of vetting those private-sector workers, the airports are responsible for managing their badge access — keeping logs, deactivating badges that are lost or stolen. Roth says far too few airports take this responsibility seriously.
Like many of his fellow Republicans in Congress, Rogers has long been impatient for change at TSA and was critical of Neffenger early on. So it’s interesting that he now says there is one change he’s not eager to see at the agency: Neffenger’s departure. The Democratic appointee, he says, has worked hard to stabilize an agency that has already seen lots of turnover. “I don’t think President-elect Trump is looking for things to do,” he says. “Trying to find one more person for a highly pivotal job is not something he needs to do.” (In a conversation in late November, Neffenger tells me: “I haven’t been approached yet. We’ll see.”)
Despite the strides the agency has made under Neffenger, deep dysfunction that has built up over more than a dozen years in an unwieldy bureaucracy can’t be fixed quickly.
Some longtime critics of TSA might not be content with simply privatizing more screeners and may push for a full dismantling of an agency they already see as broken. Then again, it’s worth remembering that whether TSA has just been lucky, or effective in ways we don’t fully comprehend, the agency has so far succeeded when it comes to its most important responsibility of helping to prevent another 9/11. Should that lucky streak run out after an overhaul, blame will likely fall on whoever did the dismantling.