Our patience with the TSA is almost up

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By Christopher Elliott

Let’s give the TSA Transportation Security Administration one last chance. After the release of a Government Accountability Office report that revealed widespread TSA employee misconduct, including screeners involved in theft and drug smuggling, public sentiment is squarely on the side of a top-to-bottom overhaul that could privatize or dismantle the agency assigned to protect America’s transportation systems.

Just a few days after the 9/11 anniversary, is not the time to talk about the end of the TSA. This is the moment to take account of the failings of one of America’s least-loved agencies. And to say: Our patience has its limits; it’s almost up.

The GAO report is notable for two reasons. No other official report card has come this close to reflecting the traveling public’s deep disappointment with America’s federal screeners. Or with the TSA’s apparent disinterest in fixing itself.

Challenges and responses by the TSA

The study, which found a 26% rise in employee misconduct in the last three years, outlined numerous agency sins, such as transportation security officers who failed to conduct security or equipment checks or who simply allowed passengers and baggage to bypass screening. It also described an organization that appears disinterested in improving its image at a DNA level. Of the 9,600 cases of employee misconduct analyzed by investigators from 2010 through 2012, less than half resulted in letters of reprimand. Less than a third resulted in suspensions of a definite duration, and just 17% resulted in the employee’s removal.

“The TSA lists integrity as one of its core values,” Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., said at a congressional hearing following the report’s release. “But, unfortunately, integrity has been lost in many cases.”

Interestingly, the TSA essentially agrees with the government watchdogs. In a statement released after the report, TSA said it’s “already working” to implement the recommendations, which include setting up a process for reviewing violations, improved record-keeping, and procedures for following up on misconduct investigations.

A controversial legacy on the 9/11 anniversary

For some air travelers, that’s too little, too late. As they reflect on the 9/11 anniversary, they consider the TSA to be a shameful byproduct of the terrorist attack. An unintelligent, knee-jerk reaction that created a $6.3 billion-a-year behemoth.

“What a complete waste of taxpayer money,” says Cheryl Wahlheim, an information technology manager from Boulder, Colo. Several years ago, she contacted me after she says a TSA agent stole jewelry from her luggage. She believes things have only gotten worse since then. A promise to do better from the TSA is laughable to her and the many other TSA critics I hear from every day.

The TSA faces growing calls for reform

Others are willing to give the process more time, but their reasons are pragmatic. What would replace the beleaguered agency? “Have people forgotten the dreadful minimum-wage, minimally trained rent-a-cops that used to handle airport security?” wonders Garry Margolis. He is a Los Angeles marketing consultant.

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We haven’t. But many travelers believe that anything is better than an agency whose employees sometimes sleep on the job, steal from passengers, take bribes and fail to screen us. Never mind the problematic choice between an “enhanced” pat-down and walking through a full-body scanner that some say hasn’t been adequately tested and can be easily foiled.

Beyond tweaks and regulations

So, listen up, TSA: This is your final warning. As we near the 12th anniversary of the terrorist attacks, travelers want more than a few tweaks recommended by the GAO. They want real change. Now.

The TSA is still developing a final rule, required by a U.S. Court of Appeals, on the use of its controversial full-body scanners. According to a survey of public comments on a government regulations website, most Americans favor a return to the tried-and-true magnetometers and want the TSA to stop using pat-downs and full-body scanners. Bowing to their wishes would be a good start.

Beyond that, our requirements are modest. We want the TSA to screen airline passengers without stealing from them. We want to see polite, efficient TSA employees when we’re flying. Not at NFL games, political conventions or Amtrak stations — places to which they’re spreading under the TSA’s troubling, low-profile VIPR program, which handles off-airport transportation security. (Here’s how to handle the TSA when you are traveling.)

We’re unimpressed with the weekly tallies posted on the TSA blog of weapons confiscated by screeners. We just want to know when they’ve stopped a terrorist from blowing up a plane. And when the TSA says it has a “zero tolerance” policy for misconduct in the workplace, we don’t want to hear about a 26% rise in employee misbehavior.

If it can’t do that, then maybe privatizing parts of the agency — as my congressman, Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., wants to — is the way to go. Then again, maybe the TSA in its present form is beyond redemption. It needs to be scrapped and replaced by something else.

What should we do with the TSA?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

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