Changes coming to TSA screeners

November 19, 2008 7:19:09 PM PST
Changes are coming to an airport near you. The confusion and inconvenience you often find at the security checkpoint may be less so, soon. It is the goal of new initiatives that stem from a consumer survey the TSA conducted this past year.

X-ray friendly laptop bags and separate lanes for business travelers and families are just some of the new features the Transportation Security Administration has rolled out this year.

If it seems like airport checkpoints have had a major makeover recently, you are right. But it may surprise you what is behind the changes.

TSA Director Kip Hawley spoke exclusively with ABC7 News about a series of eye-opening focus groups his agency commissioned. It hired research firm Blue Lime to do five workshops with adult passengers late last year in New York City, Minneapolis and Washington, D.C.

ABC7 reviewed Blue Lime's entire report. Its conclusion was that the TSA currently has "no real authority or bite to be truly taken seriously" and "no warmth or personal interaction to make the experience pleasant." Its suggestion -- the changes need to begin with screeners.

"Some are very nice, but some look at you like you're not even... like you're cattle," said a traveler.

This SFO traveler reflects the opinion of some focus groups participants, calling screeners "power trippers" and "rude or cold."

The TSA's answer? Hawley says every single one of his agency's 40,000 screeners will undergo two days of retraining on everything from technology to intelligence to people.

"Work with the passengers, be friendly, help them get through. That's going to get the passengers more respectful," said Hawley.

After the training, screeners will get new uniforms and badges the TSA says convey experience and authority. To further humanize screeners, you will soon see Facebook-style personality profiles of them at checkpoints.

The focus groups show these steps may help the TSA to build "a sense of partnership with the traveling public."

Kristen Sze: "Why do you think some people have the perception that the TSA is not working with them but against them?"

Kip Hawley: "Somewhere along the line I think the image was these guys aren't thinking and it doesn't make sense."

After September 11th, focus group participants felt "security trumped all." But seven years later, that is no longer the case.

"The only thing people really care about is increasing efficiency, making things go by faster," said a traveler.

The TSA says things are going faster now, with separate lines for families and business travelers launched earlier this year at dozens of airports, including Oakland.

Other ideas in the report being considered include different color bins for easy recognition and supermarket-style dividers to separate your stuff from the next guy's. There are also ideas for creating a calmer environment, such as adding soft floor padding for bare feet, soothing music, or even aromatherapy.

"A calm environment is a much better security environment than a busy one," says Hawley.

But despite this new push to improve the checkpoint experience, some new measures are being criticized. Privacy rights advocates are alarmed by the TSA's new ID policy. If you don't have an ID and want to fly, you now have to confirm your identity by answering a series of personal questions.

"One of the reports that came out was that someone was asked what his political affiliation was. Asking a person who they vote for, what their religion is, those are questions that most Americans are going to find very intrusive and offensive. It's none of the government's business," said Julia Harumi with the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union).

"Under no circumstances would we, should we, will we, from this point forward, ask political, religious, anything that would be personally sensitive," said Hawley.

Hawley admits mistakes were made, but now promises consequences for employees who make the same mistakes again. He says he gets complaints and compliments on the TSA's Web site and often answers them himself. It is part of the process of rebranding the TSA as a security partner rather than an obstacle.

"We're not here trying to penalize people for shampoo or for this or that. We're trying to ensure their safety," said Hawley.


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