The Best Place to Focus – and Solve – Your TSA Frustration

Get ready for the threat of multi-hour waits before your next flight.
Get ready for the threat of multi-hour waits before your next flight.

We’ve been gloomily predicting appallingly long lines to get through airport security this summer, and while the summer is yet to be fully upon us, the reality of these predictions exploded into full public view earlier this week.

Reports came out of hundreds of flights needing to be delayed so as to give passengers a chance to get through security, lines stretching out of terminal buildings and ‘further than the eye can see’, and waits of 2.5 hours or longer to be screened.

Even after flights were held, many thousands of people have been missing their flights, and sometimes forced to overnight in airport terminals.  Oh yes, bags have had problems making flights, too.

No-one is taking responsibility; no-one will

The TSA’s response has been complacent and one of blaming everyone else.  ‘Congress sets the limits on our manning levels’ we are told – but the TSA avoids also telling us that their current staffing numbers are significantly below the congressionally appointed ceilings (their staffing is down 15% from 2011 levels, while passenger numbers are probably at least that much up compared to 2011), and it seems that turnover of screeners is so high that as fast as they recruit more screeners, they are merely replacing disillusioned staffers.

As for Congress, they either do nothing, utter empty statements, or blame it on the airlines, with Thursday seeing a couple of our finest elected representatives suggesting the solution is that airlines should be forced to accept checked bags for free.  The chances of that happening are of course as close to nil as possible, and the impact on screening lines at best minimal.  As objectionable as airline baggage fees are, it is even more objectionable to consider that Congress should start re-regulating and micro-managing the airline business.

A couple of days earlier, another congressman advocated more dogs as a way to get people through screening faster.  What exactly would the dogs do?  Bite the screeners if they were too slow?

What about the airlines?  Their response has been to gloomily suggest that people should plan to get to the airport 2 or more hours in advance of a domestic flight and 3 or more hours early for an international flight.  By the way – why the extra hour for an international checkin?  Apart from perhaps ten more seconds to look blankly at our passport, what else takes an extra hour for an international flight rather than a domestic one?

The question is relevant, because it reveals how the airlines have totally lost sight of their product offering – fast convenient affordable transportation.  Which part of that equation survives scrutiny these days?

The airlines think nothing of gratuitously stealing another hour out of our lives to check in earlier at the airport, purely for their rather than our convenience.  They think nothing of unrealistic schedules that further extend the ‘zone of uncertainty’ we have to add to the scheduled times of any flight.  And they seldom seem to be in any hurry to get our bags back to us when we arrive at our destination, either.  No wonder more and more of us are either driving longer distances to avoid airports, or not traveling at all.

Plus, the ‘arrive at least two hours early’ suggestion needs to be juxtaposed alongside the ‘waiting in line to be screened for more than two and a half hours’ reality – plus the extra time it takes to check in, walk through the concourses, and so on.  An unhelpful suggestion that neither addresses the present problems nor solves them for the future.

This was all foreseeable and foreseen

There is nothing surprising about any of this.  Airlines project their passenger numbers and their flight details, to a great degree of accuracy, months and even years in advance.

Everyone knows, six or more months in advance, about how many passengers are expected to pass through any airport, and not only do they know the total number, they know how those numbers will be spread throughout the day.  That anyone is now ‘surprised’ at passenger numbers and screening needs is a testament to incompetence almost without equal.  Which leads to –

Third world service in a first world country

Chances are you’ve flown through a number of very different airports in a number of very different countries.  I’ve flown through airports in Russia, North Korea, and the former Soviet Union, as well as other Asian countries, Europe, and the South Pacific.

If your experiences have been at all similar to mine, you’ll probably agree that the most reliably bad experiences are consistently in the US.

Why is that?  Shouldn’t we be near the top, rather than near the bottom, of customer service, efficiency, and politeness/courtesy scales?

It isn’t about the money, sort of

Now let’s understand one thing very clearly.  The TSA’s security screening isn’t a gracious benefit gifted to us by an appreciative government.  It is something we directly and generously overpay for, every time we fly.  We have every right to expect deluxe service to match the deluxe fees we’re paying.

There is a $5.60 fee each way ($11.20 max roundtrip) included in the ticket price we pay (here’s a dismaying list of all the fees we pay every time we buy a ticket, less ends up with the airline than you might think).  In addition, the airlines contribute extra sums towards the total cost of aviation security, amounts they formerly paid directly, themselves.

How much security does $5.60 pay for?  By the TSA’s own calculations, one of their screening lines can process 150 people an hour, or 300 an hour if it is a PreCheck line.  Let’s be more conservative than the TSA themselves are, and reduce those numbers down by 20% and call them 120 and 240 an hour, respectively, and let’s say that 75% of people go through regular security lines rather than the PreCheck line.

So that means an ‘average’ security line is processing 150 people per hour.  Those 1250 people have paid $840.

Offset against that is the manpower cost of operating that line.  This would comprise someone at the front of the conveyors, someone at the x-ray machine, someone at the far end of the conveyors, a secondary screener, and let’s say half of a supervisor and a quarter of a document checker.  4.75 people.  Let’s add another person for the semi-automated bag screening that also goes on, elsewhere.

How much should a person be paid to simply pick up and carry empty trays 15 ft from one side of the x-ray machine to the other?  How much should a person be paid to monotonously drone out, nonstop, ‘take everything out of your pockets….’?  Now double that number, and add a bit more to it, because we want the finest possible people working these jobs, to make us safer, right?  Let’s budget $30/hr for each of these fine people, and that suggests a total cost of $172.50 for all the people operating the screening line that is generating $840/hr to the TSA.

We should adjust these figures because during off-peak times we still have staff working their shifts (and that’s one of the problems with the TSA and their government style employment contracts – people are employed mainly for eight hour shifts, whether they are needed for all eight hours or not).  Let’s add another 2/3 to the $172.50 and almost double that to $300/hour.  Let’s add another $100/hr to cover the cost of the equipment in use, and because we want to be very sure to include everything, let’s include another $100/hr for who only knows what other types of wasteful expenses and head office overhead.

That still sees each security line earning $840 and costing $500 to run.  It would seem the TSA is making a 36% profit on the fees we pay.

Where does the extra money go?  Does it disappear into the general ‘slush fund’ of big government?  Is it used to fund all the gratuitous and farcical additional things the TSA and their/our overlords, the DHS, gets involved with?  You know – their VIPR teams that love to play dress-up paramilitary games around other forms of public transportation?  Their ‘spotting terrorists by their subconscious behavior’ behavioral detection programs?  Or another of the other things they throw money and people at, with the only two things they all have in common being their intrusive overreach into the lives of ordinary citizens and the complete lack of any success in finding terrorists.

And on the ‘user pays’ basis that the TSA is said to be funded, what is Congress doing instituting manning level caps?  Shouldn’t the TSA be told to simply staff up to whatever level is needed, because clearly they’ve plenty of money to cover all such costs.

You get what you pay for – except when it comes to security

The big lie that was eagerly embraced by everyone was that the 9/11 attacks were due to poor security screening at the airports the attackers boarded the planes.

This is untrue.  The box cutters the terrorists took on board were allowed to be carried on board as legal carry-on items.  If we are to allocate blame, it should be given to the people who wrote the policy that said ‘give in to hijackers, agree to all their demands, don’t oppose them’.  That was the big failure that caused three of the four hijacked planes to slam into the World Trade Center and Pentagon, and it was only the actions of the passengers on the fourth plane – passengers who realized the idiocy and likely consequences of giving in to the hijackers – that saw the fourth plane crash harmlessly in a Pennsylvania field rather than into the White House (‘harmless’ of course except for the passengers on board).

It would seem that a response to the failings of 9/11 was simple and required one or possibly two things – a new policy to oppose hijackers at all costs, and possibly a ban on box cutters.

But while we definitely banned box cutters, and more or less came up with a policy of opposing hijackers, somehow the private security operators who were contracted by airports to operate the security at each airport ended up all being unceremoniously booted out and replaced with a new government organization, the TSA.  It seems the TSA generally employs the same people as did the former private security screening companies, while paying them twice as much and giving them much greater job security and protection from being fired in the case of poor standards of behavior.  But not only have we demonstrably not got any better security, we’ve instead simply received greater inconvenience.  Our waits to go through security spiral ever upwards, and the unpleasantness of passing through the screening process has now become random, ranging from neutral to appalling.  Whereas, earlier, if we had a bad experience, we could complain to the airlines, airports, and security contractors, and perhaps get a sensible response, what chance do we now have changing the TSA’s behavior?

By all measures, the effectiveness of the actual screeners when it comes to detecting smuggled weapons and explosives is no better than the private screeners formerly, and quite possibly worse than before.  But because the lie has been repeated so many times, people now ‘misremember’ security screening as being bad before and inexplicably, view it as good now.

Before, we paid nothing for security, and got through the line quickly and with a minimum of fuss and indeed, security screening was so easy and straightforward that anyone could go through security to go with us to the gate to say goodbye, or to meet us at the gate when we arrived,  Now we pay $5.60 and get to wait in line for an hour or two and possibly even three.

Remember when you could arrive at an airport 20 minutes before your flight was due to leave, and be settled in your seat (and with an empty seat beside you!) plenty of time before the plane pushed back from the gate?

In what warped alternate universe is any part of this good, or an improvement?  What ‘value’ for money are we receiving?

Now for the surprising solution at hand

There is some good news, however.  Airports were given a choice to either accept the TSA’s imposition of their security service, or could instead choose to do their own thing, with whatever private contractors they chose, while subordinating it all to TSA standards and oversight.

Now, look up again at the analysis I did as to the huge difference between what we pay for appallingly bad security and what it actually costs the TSA to provide it, using gold-plated government salary scales.  Not wanting to exploit people, but don’t you think a private company, using contractors on split shifts so as to have fewer staff standing around at off-peak times and more staff when needed, and paying fair but not over-the-top wages, couldn’t do the same job, very much better, for less money.

You know – like it used to be!

So here’s the thing.  Don’t complain to the TSA about the long lines.  Nothing will come of that.  Don’t complain to the airlines – they’ve convincingly shown a total lack of care or concern.  And don’t waste your time reaching out to your elected representatives – they’ve been an equal part of the creation of this problem, there’s precious little chance they’ll reverse themselves and now solve it.

Instead, get in touch with your local port commissioners – the people who oversee and manage the airport.  Ask them to replace the TSA with private screeners.

Tell them it will likely result in lower costs and a better travel service/experience to passengers, and better security too (see some of the studies referenced partway down this page).  That in turn will encourage people to travel more, which means more money to the airport – more car park rental fees, more concession sales commissions, more flights and fees from the airlines.  Maybe they can even charge the successful contractor a fee, or get a slice of the funding between what the TSA pay and what the contractor receives.  There’s a huge amount of upside to the airport, if only they can be goaded into action to replace the TSA.

According to this article, four years ago it was estimated there could be a $200+ million a year saving by switching from the TSA to private screening, and who knows what amount of improvement in service and accountability.

A slowly growing number of airports have already made the switch (or refused to allow the TSA to take over their security screening in the first place.  In 2011, there were 16 airports with their own screening, and now we are up to 22 airports (compared to over 400 still afflicted with the TSA).  This includes large airports such as SFO, as well as small airports like Tupelo, MS.  All airports that have contracted to private screening companies are believed to have been delighted with the improved service and value received.

There’s no way we can hope to change national/federal policy, and national government super-agencies such as the DHS/TSA.  But it is entirely realistic to set out to change local policy, at your local airport.  Please do so – after all, the person who will most benefit is likely to be yourself, your friends, colleagues, and neighbors.

3 thoughts on “The Best Place to Focus – and Solve – Your TSA Frustration”

  1. Pingback: Weekly Roundup, Friday 27 May 2016 - The Travel Insider

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