Emerging Issues in Security

TSA Still Not Finding Guns and Bomb Parts in Training

In what sounds like a chilling repeat of reports from years past, recent Department of Homeland Security (DHS) inspection audits of its Transportation Security Administration (TSA) interdiction functions at our nation’s airports suggest TSA agents at the X-ray stations are still not discovering all of the test guns and bomb parts being sent through.

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Since its founding days after the 9/11 attacks, the TSA has been the target of jokes by stand-up comics: “TSA stands for Thousands Standing Around or Taking Scissors Away.” All this despite the reality that a TSA agent was shot and killed and another was wounded by a mass attacker at the Los Angeles International Airport in 2013. It is neither a glamorous nor an easy job.

The flying public—already under stress at the airport because of delays, weather, mishandled and lost luggage, and fear of flying—is rarely supportive of the TSA and its efforts to keep them safe. Long lines, staffing shortages at the checkpoints, invasive body searches, and rude officers have not helped their reputation, despite the fact that most TSA people are trying to be as professional, courteous, and as fast as possible. But the truth is the truth when it comes to their overall effectiveness in discovering firearms, ammunition, and bomb-making materials in carry-on luggage.

The latest report shows that the TSA is sorely lacking in its core mission to intercept weapons, explosives, and ammunition. About 18 months ago, the DHS Inspector General’s Office sent agents to test the TSA security checkpoints at various U.S. airports. As with previous audits in years past, this experiment showed that about 97% of the time the TSA failed to detect guns, weapons, and explosives, even while using their usual X-ray and hand-check process to search bags and passengers.

As a result of yet another poor report card, TSA officials suggest they needed to slow down the screening process in order to be even more thorough. This results in longer lines from irritated passengers, who rarely agree with or heed the TSA warning to “get to the airport at least 2 hours ahead of a national flight and at least 3 hours ahead of an international flight.”

When the TSA inspector general tried again to see if there was an improvement, the TSA failed to find and intercept those explosives and weapons about 80% of the time, a slight but hardly acceptable improvement in their detection and deterrence capabilities.

What are some solutions? More training for TSA agents; better shift changes to be timed not around peak passenger travel but when the flights are not all coming and going at once (which can be hard to predict at airports in New York, Atlanta, Los Angeles, and Chicago); and improved and more polite interactions between TSA agents at the gates and the approaching passengers, who see the TSA process as a necessary one at best and an exercise in rude, condescending, and rushed treatment at worst.

What about asking Hollywood or the biggest advertising agencies in the United States for help designing a series of fun, informative, helpful, and even funny TV commercials to be run as public service announcements during prime-time cable and network shows to explain how to get through the TSA inspection process as smoothly as possible? Some airports—like McCarron International in Las Vegas—have used video “infomercials” to good effect right at the checkpoints. These videos, made with a lighter touch, often draw smiles from the passengers and make the interchange more palatable.