Still Searching For Airport Security: Wasn’t TSA Going to Be the Solution?

April 24, 2005

It was created to shield the nation’s airports and transportation systems from attack after Sept. 11, 2001. But lately, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) itself has come under more scrutiny than a cigarette lighter at a passenger screening station.

The three-year-old agency has been ridiculed for everything from pat-downs of women and U.S. senators, to a “no-fly” passenger list that has produced story after story of mistaken identity, to a recent $16 million purchase of new uniforms with sturdier epaulets. More importantly, it still fails too often at detecting guns, knives and improvised explosive devices, and it’s years behind in developing “smart” technologies that could help screeners do their work.

The problems haven’t gone unnoticed in the White House, which recently asked the current TSA administrator to step down in June. With the agency slated for deep budget cuts this year, President Bush is said to be looking for someone who either can rebuild the agency or dismantle it.

Either way, the story of TSA can serve as a classic Washington morality tale. The agency is one of the federal government’s greatest bureaucratic achievements of the past 50 years. But it’s also an embodiment of the torpor that can overcome bureaucracies, public or private. As memories of 9/11 have faded, TSA has begun to look like any other federal agency. It has lived an entire bureaucratic life in quick time, moving from urgency toward complacency in just three short years. The question now is whether it can wake up in time to prevent its own demise.

Given an urgent mission and almost no time to achieve it, TSA grew from just 13 federal employees in January 2002 to nearly 65,000 by the following November. That’s not only remarkable, it’s unprecedented. It met every deadline in a deadline-heavy statute, built screening stations on every concourse at every commercial airport and fired the private screeners who had been on duty the day terrorists turned four airplanes into massive bombs. Just 18 months after its launch, TSA moved into the new Department of Homeland Security as one of its anchor agencies.

But TSA’s extraordinary achievements didn’t insulate it from anti-big-government attacks from House Republicans who opposed the agency from the start. Nor did they prevent standard bureaucratic blunders, such as lavish spending on executive office furniture.

It’s easy to blame those House Republicans — who never met a TSA budget they couldn’t cut and eventually capped the number of screeners at 45,000 in 2003 — for the tailspin. The cuts and caps not only distracted the agency from more important problems, such as port security, but they also delayed the development of new technologies that might have helped employees wade through X-rays of cluttered carry-on baggage and eliminate the much-reviled pat-downs. TSA also had little choice but to fill the gaps with temporary employees, summer replacements and part-timers, and to carve into its research and development budget to meet the inevitable payroll shortfalls. It also put those less-than-smiley private contractors at the front of the waiting lines to check tickets and IDs, and even imposed a temporary hiring freeze during the heavy 2003 summer season.

But not all of the turbulence came from outside the agency. Driven by the demand for consistency where none had existed before, as well as by his own history in federal law enforcement, TSA’s first administrator, John Magaw, issued one irritating rule after another, prohibiting passengers from carrying nail clippers through checkpoints one day, and cups of coffee the next.

With just 1,200 screeners in place by June 1, 2002, and TSA’s airport directors in near revolt against his one-size-fits-all-airports approach, Magaw was replaced late that summer by former Coast Guard commandant James Loy, a no-nonsense administrator who had once admonished Bill Clinton that the logical extension of doing more with less was doing everything with nothing. Within three months of Loy’s arrival, the coffee rule was gone, airline employees stopped asking that ridiculous question about never leaving your suitcase alone, and the agency was hiring 8,000 to 10,000 screeners a month.

Yet Loy’s honeymoon was not to last. Already operating under the employment cap, and facing a second year of budget cuts from the White House, TSA saw employee turnover and worker injuries begin to rise. Performance stagnated — and rumors of dismantling began flying.

Loy also made the unenviable decision to prohibit labor organizing. Although Congress would have made the decision for him if he hadn’t, the move created endless complaints on the frontlines, especially in a workplace where pilots, flight attendants, mechanics and baggage handlers are all unionized. Having interviewed more than my share of passenger screeners over the years, I know firsthand about the anger. Every time I ask a screener about the labor issue on my travels, I get pulled aside for an extra-thorough pat-down. I don’t know whether they think I’m pro-management or just asking too many questions, but the result is almost always 10 more minutes with the security screener.

TSA faces several possible futures. If House GOP members get their way, for example, the agency will become what they always wanted — a small regulatory agency with limited oversight responsibility over private contractors. So far, there’s no sign of a mad rush toward privatizing the airport security job again. Although Congress allowed airports to opt out of the federal system in favor of private contractors beginning last November, only the airport in tiny Elko, Nev., has asked TSA to approve the changeover.

Nor are private firms particularly anxious to enter the competition. It’s one thing to try making money when wages start at $5.15 an hour and a job at Cinnabon is a promotion, as former senator Max Cleland once so memorably suggested. It’s quite another to try making money when wages start at $11.30 an hour plus training and benefits. Private firms also rightly wonder whether current federal liability caps would actually hold in the event of another security breakdown, and whether TSA would be a particularly encouraging partner, having been stripped of yet another responsibility.

But it hardly matters who wears the uniform if employees don’t get the tools they need. Given the same pay, training and technology, private screeners in San Francisco, Kansas City and the three other airports Congress allowed TSA to leave in private hands have been only slightly more effective at detecting threats than federal screeners. And absent significant investment in new technologies, they won’t reach perfection, either.

What TSA desperately needs is a new business model that will reassure its critics and increase screener performance. It needs to be more alert to new threats, such as the strap-on explosives used by Chechen rebels to bring down two Russian airplanes last year; more agile in meeting the inevitable surge of passengers that comes with the changing travel season and the movement of high-volume carriers such as Southwest into underused hubs; and more innovative in funding screening technologies that can be used in a variety of public and private settings beyond airports. Meanwhile, it needs to concentrate fire on the nation’s most vulnerable airport terminals. Reagan National’s Terminal C, for example, has plenty of room for leisurely passenger screening, but Terminal A has a bottleneck that puts enormous pressure on screeners to get passengers through as fast as possible. Guess which one a terrorist would pick.

Building this kind of robust, risk-focused TSA would require more than new uniforms, obviously. It requires a mindset that harks back to the glory days of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), which was established in 1958 during a similar moment of great urgency. Also operating under personnel and budget caps, NASA created new incentives for private investment in a host of new technologies that helped build a base for decades of innovation.

TSA’s challenge is to avoid the fate of NASA, which has been marked by tragedy and is mired in uncertainty about its mission. If its screeners stay federal, TSA could easily end up like the U.S. Postal Service, with its predictable, if sometimes underwhelming, performance. If the screeners go private, it could end up as just another starving regulatory agency like the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

The public will be poorly served under either scenario. TSA needs to become a more agile, adaptable version of its former self, which will require a round of internal reorganization that will make its first year seem like a cakewalk. But if the agency can pull it off, it could yet become one of the government’s greatest bureaucratic achievements of the next 50 years.