Ex-TSA officer: “Every new controversy breaks down morale further”

Ron Moore is a former Transportation Security Administration officer at Baltimore-Washington International Airport and whistleblower who has called for better Congressional oversight and training for federal screeners. With some of the busiest air travel days of the year still ahead of us, and with the TSA continuing to insist body scans or pat-downs are necessary, I wanted to know what he thought. Here’s our interview.

So what did you think of Opt-Out Day?

When I discovered that The Rutherford Institute was filing suit on behalf of the pilot who refused to go through screening, then a larger movement evolved, it seemed fishy.

Since the early days, TSA was a target for private firms with the help of Rep. Mica of Florida in particular and this looked like an attempt to move the ball forward in that direction.

It has been a media firestorm more than an airport firestorm. TSA policy will not change one bit if private firms are paid to staff the checkpoints. I think TSA always poorly rolls out new policies as virtually no one at headquarters has worked a checkpoint.

That doesn’t mean that passengers shouldn’t ask questions and TSA shouldn’t be accountable, but the media narrative didn’t match the reality in my opinion.

What’s the reality, then?

The response to this on the checkpoints is minimal compared to the day we began taking away liquids.

Not a day goes by when someone isn’t upset over something and Transportation Security Officers (TSOs) feel caught in the middle. They cringe when a TSO does a poor job and realize it reflects on everyone.

Pat-downs are not comfortable for the TSO but there is a very specific right way to do the job and TSA’s staffing problems mean less training and preparation.

It should be noted that there are two kinds of passengers: experienced and inexperienced. When a passenger who flies rarely comes in loaded for bear, thanks to media reports they are quick to complain although too often they complain to others after the fact not on the checkpoint.

Some TSA agents have reportedly spoken out about the new security procedures. Does this reflect what your former colleagues are telling you?

No. I will say that a TSO can screen a thousand passengers and the five who are disrespectful stick with you. Those who disrespect TSOs would likely make comments regardless.

This media narrative just gives them the new script. This is nothing new in terms of morale.

How is morale?

Morale is extremely low and turnover is extremely high simply because TSOs enforce very strict rules yet work in a workplace with virtually no rules or rights. That may sound like union talk, but TSOs are treated as if they are in the military and have to follow orders even for things such as going to the bathroom.

Every new controversy breaks down morale further since TSOs can’t escape the media reports while off duty. By the way, I hear from TSOs nationwide not just BWI. I want to make that point clear so those who were close colleagues are not singled out as sources and face retaliation by TSA management.

There were reports that TSA officers turned off the full-body scanners last week, presumably in order to pre-empt Opt-Out Day. Is that possible?

I don’t think so because if a machine goes down or is turned off it sets off an alarm in operations, since even when a checkpoint is closed the machines remain on. Now each Federal Security Director (FSD) has wide latitude policy-wise, so anything is possible but it would have to be documented. Considering the hype I’d be surprised if this happened.

What should passengers know about airport screening that they aren’t being told?

One of the challenges is that TSA simple can’t make Sensitive Security Information (SSI) public. Passengers should immediately ask for a supervisor if they are uncomfortable with the way a TSO is following policy.

I think they need to be informed that TSA has many layers beyond the checkpoint. I doubt the average American experiences a process so frequently that is in part based on secret information.

If TSA is transparent about its screening process it defeats the purpose. I think most Americans understand that and TSA should be less responsive to the customer service needs of the few who complain. I was involved in one incident where a passenger shoved a TSO and the supervisor apologized to the passenger for the delay.

TSA management reflects the business culture and TSOs know they will take the fall.

I’ve heard that TSA will be an issue in the next session of Congress. Some within Congress are reportedly calling for the agency to be eliminated. What do you think of that possibility?

Rep. Mica has been at the forefront of the ‘opt-out’ movement since at least 2004.

I think the new Congress will hold hearings. If the hearings are about security that’s a good thing. If they are about privatizing, that’s a bad thing in my opinion.

Look for Mica’s Aviation Subcommittee to schedule hearings right away. If they are about policy, they will not be public obviously. If they are about privatizing, they will be public.

Why hasn’t privatization caught on?

Private companies balked in 2004 because Congress did not grant them a waiver from liability. I honestly don’t know where that issue stands today.

It troubles me that companies like Lockheed Martin, who conduct the recertification testing of TSOs, are part of the consortium. Aviation screening policy was dictated by the FAA before 9/11. If screening is privatized it will only the staffing, the uniforms will remain the same, and the policies will be managed by TSA managers. Private companies will have no say in policy, period.

So the agency could be downsized into simply an oversight agency but I still think it is an unpredictable landscape for firms and opting-out won’t happen. Kansas City was one of the five airports that remained private as part of a pilot program. Those screeners as private employees had collective bargaining rights. When they voted to unionize, the airport threatened to go federal.

Have the terrorists won?

No. We are significantly safer today than before 9/11, when screening was done to prevent hijacking. They have won in the sense that we still feel uneasy about the process and are more aware that anything is possible despite our best efforts.

Nothing can remove that awareness. Once innocence is lost it can never be restored.

If you were calling the shots at TSA, what would you do right now?

When TSA took over they essentially kept the fundamental process in place. The checkpoints are nicer and larger but the process remains the same. Passengers are queued in individual lanes so that they do not lose sight of their property. I think that is a flaw as it take only two passengers with an issue, be it a bag search or wanding or pat down to bring the line to a halt.

I would change the checkpoint design and the staffing process. Currently TSOs are scheduled to an individual checkpoint and stay there all day even if traffic number rise and fall. I would make things more flexible. Of course, TSOs should have the same rights other federal workers have so that TSA becomes an employer of choice not a last resort.

Sadly, nothing can be done right now. It’s just too big. The agency was mismanaged by design in my opinion and a commission needs to examine how to fix things. I would do two things right away: grant collective bargaining rights and close what the New York Times calls the ‘golden revolving door’ between headquarters and contractors.

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