Image: TSA
Ted S. Warren  /  AP file
TSA employees screen passengers at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in Seattle. In an effort to improve overall checkpoint security, the TSA in October rolled out a new skills training program for its workers.
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By Travel writer
msnbc.com contributor
updated 2/12/2009 11:23:37 AM ET 2009-02-12T16:23:37

Don’t be surprised or alarmed if the next time you go through the security checkpoint at the airport you find TSA staff handing out smiles and warm greetings instead of barked orders, mean looks and stern commands. There may even be some TSA-approved hugging and high-fiving going on back there behind the X-ray machines.

It sounds farfetched, I know. Especially if you’re one of the many travelers who regularly ends up feeling demeaned and harassed at airport checkpoints and believes that the TSA only hires sticky-fingered miscreants who are missing the genes for courtesy and respect.

The folks at TSA are well aware of that reputation. If they forget, they’re constantly reminded of it by news reports and by travelers who complain about their experiences in person, via e-mail (TSA-ContactCenter@dhs.gov) or by phone (1-866-289-9673.)

In an effort to address a variety of problems and improve overall checkpoint security, the TSA in October rolled out a new skills training program. It’s called Engage! (exclamation point included!) and all 50,000 TSA workers are required to attend. The initial system-wide training should wrap up in the next few weeks, so it’s a fair bet you’ve already encountered a few graduates of the course.

Have you noticed any changes? I wasn’t sure what to look for, or what was realistic to expect, so I said yes when invited to join 28 TSA workers from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in a windowless room at the main terminal for their two-day intensive.

I left feeling both reassured and alarmed.

Job one: Not customer service
The class I attend starts (at 5 a.m.!) with a few words from a local TSA manager who tells the surprisingly alert group that while the TSA is not in the business of customer service, “where you do whatever you can to make the customer happy,” it’s certainly possible to be “professional and polite and still get the job done. … It’s all about how we approach it.” Then it’s down to the business of changing how these TSA workers approach what they do.

First, it’s time for introductions. And, contrary to what many travelers believe, it turns out that the TSA ranks are not filled entirely by prison guard rejects from the state penitentiary. At least not this group. The pre-TSA job titles here range from barista, lab technician, homemaker and physical therapist to small business owner, truck driver and police detective. There are a fair number of retired military personnel here as well. And most everyone says they decided to switch careers in response to the events surrounding the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

In case anyone in the class has forgotten why they do the job they do, the coursework includes several actual surveillance videos showing terrorists (or “the baddies,” as one TSA worker in the class calls them) doing their jobs, including blowing themselves up and testing the flaws in airport security systems.

That’s when I get alarmed and, to be honest, sort of queasy. Not just because it’s frightening to see someone blow themselves up. And not just because it’s unsettling to watch how easy it was for a man to skirt a metal detector and walk right past a TSA worker who not only ignores the man, but then ignores other travelers trying to call attention to the problem.

What got me alarmed was the fact that most TSA workers in the class, many of whom have been on the job for years now, haven’t seen videos like this before.

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What’s new?
So why show those videos now? Not just to scare everyone (although if my nightmares are any indication, rolling these tapes a few times certainly serves that purpose). Instead it was to kick off some spirited discussions. First, about how TSA workers were trained and treated (“At times like glorified sniffer dogs,” complains one screener), and then about how the TSA is now encouraging and expecting all employees to go beyond their “stick to the manual” training. The assignment now: to think more critically; to draw on the accumulated skills of co-workers; and to do as much as possible to make passengers feel more comfortable and involved as “stakeholders” in the security process.

Not because doing all that will provide better “customer service,” although that wouldn’t hurt. But because, the thinking goes, if everyone is paying attention, confident of their co-workers’ abilities, cool, calm and able to act without always having to get the OK from a supervisor for every little thing, then fewer mistakes will get made and anything or anyone out of place will be easier to spot. And then, as the instructors put it, more TSA workers would be better at “mitigating and staying ahead of threats.”

Is it that simple?
Much of what was discussed in this class seems like common-sense advice. And the role-playing, team-building and confidence-instilling exercises that are a big part of the Engage! experience aren’t all that different from what many of us go through in organizational retreats and workshops in the business or nonprofit world. But there are some obvious and not-so-obvious differences here.

For example, at your office that corny team-building exercise may make it easier to get along with that irritating co-worker. But at the airport, like in an operating room, a focused, well-oiled team can save lives.

So while I left the Engage! class alarmed by the idea of how un-engaged and “by the book” the TSA training has been, I’m packing for my next trip a bit more reassured by the idea of a more engaged TSA workforce and by the “Aha!” statements some TSA workers expressed in class.

For example, Jonathan Crane says next time he’s on duty as a screener, he’ll do his “regular thing” of trying to be very respectful of passengers and a “helpful cross between a world-class security professional and a concierge.” But now he says he’ll do it with the confidence that his actions “represent the will of TSA.”

And Melissa Brunette is hoping that rather than just following steps one, two and three, she and her co-workers “will get to actually use our brains.” Which are, says Steve Miles, “probably our most important tools.”

And just maybe a great secret weapon.

Harriet Baskas writes msnbc.com's popular weekly column, The Well-Mannered Traveler. She is the author of the “Stuck at the Airport” blog, a contributor to National Public Radio and a columnist for USATODAY.com.

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