Public outcry over new “enhanced” pat-down procedures at many U.S. airports has reinforced a perception of Transportation Security Administration officers as poorly trained, minimum wage drones.
But in fact TSA officers are well-trained, generally well-qualified and earn far more than the minimum wage, security analysts say.
The biggest problem exposed by the protest against the tighter security measures is a colossal lapse in communication, experts contend.
“There are a lot of lessons learned over the past week that TSA is now internalizing, and I think you will see modifications to procedures,” said Roger Cressey, who held cybersecurity and counterterrorism positions in the Clinton and Bush administrations. “Part of the change we’ll also see is just a (public reminder from TSA) that, ‘We’re not doing this because we want to, we’re doing this because of the threat that is out there.’
Cressey and others said the TSA has done an adequate job of training its 50,000 employees for their stressful work, including how to professionally inspect flyers’ private parts in public places.
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But a smattering of ham-handed interactions between TSA workers and travelers put many journalists in attack mode and sent late-night TV hosts into comical, anti-TSA rants. In less than a month, TSA officers have become about as publicly loathed as IRS auditors.
One of the passengers caught in the tumult was Thomas Sawyer, a bladder cancer survivor from Lansing, Mich., who wears a bag that collects urine from an opening in his abdomen. After an enhanced pat-down by TSA officers at Detroit Metropolitan Airport Nov. 7, Sawyer said he walked away in tears and covered in his own urine . In another case, a flight attendant was forced to show a TSA officer her prosthetic breast .
On Monday, Sawyer received a call from John Pistole, head of the TSA, who apologized and asked Sawyer, “What do you think needs to be done?” Sawyer suggested that TSA screeners get more training, especially to better accommodate flyers with medical conditions.
TSA workers, who earn from $29,131 to $43,697 a year, get about five weeks of training before they are hired permanently, according to the agency. That includes 56 to 72 hours of classroom training and 112 to 128 hours of on-the-job training.
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The two top duties they are taught: “Discover and stop emerging transportation security threats, using state of the art technology” and “educate and provide friendly customer service to travelers” – in that order, according to TSA documents.
TSA officers also are trained in the “soft skills” of dealing with stressed-out people, said Tom Murphy, director of the Human Resiliency Institute at Fordham University. He knows because – at the invitation of airports in New York, Los Angeles, Boston and elsewhere – he has personally schooled “hundreds” of TSA employees “how to put a customer at ease,” he said. His techniques include tutoring screeners how to relax flyers by smiling at them, looking them in the eye and quickly offering a greeting.Story: How to get through airport security fast
Six times since Nov. 1, Murphy himself has been given an enhanced pat-down by TSA screeners. In each case, he said, “it’s been done in a highly professional manner. I’ve seen, myself, evidence that they have been (properly) taught how to do this. I see it in their eyes, in a smile. Connection-making has worked.”
Perhaps the top complaint voiced by travelers during recent days is the perception that TSA workers are minimum-wage earners who would otherwise be employed in menial-labor jobs. But the pay is generally at least double the federal minimum and comes with government benefits. About one-quarter of the TSA “front-line workers” are either U.S. military veterans or currently in the U.S. military reserves, said Greg Soule, a TSA spokesman .
“You have to meet certain standards throughout the training in order to be a security officer,” said Soule.
TSA officers also must be a U.S. citizen or national, at least 18 years old, proficient in English, “have customer service skills,” and pass drug-screening tests, background investigations, criminal and credit checks, according to TSA documents. If an applicant has defaulted on $7,500 or more in debt or owes any delinquent federal or state taxes or child support payments, he or she will not be considered. TSA also lists 28 criminal convictions that will automatically disqualify applicants. Those include aircraft piracy, murder, drug dealing and rape or aggravated sexual assault.
TSA security officers are required to be high school graduates or have an equivalent degree. Soule could not say what percentage of TSA applicants are hired.
To maintain their jobs, TSA workers must “participate in and pass all recurrent and specialized training and recertification tests on a periodic basis,” TSA documents say.
“In the last two years, the entire workforce has received additional training on how to engage the traveling public,” Soule said.
He could not say specifically how much training had been provided for the new, enhanced pat-down procedures.
In an age of ever-present terror threats, do warm, interpersonal skills have any impact on the effectiveness of aviation security? Must TSA workers offer a smile with each pat-down?
“Human interaction is important,” Cressey said. “Here is the grand bargain we’ve struck: The public expects the TSA to be accurate and efficient; the TSA expects the American public to be understanding and accepting.
“That’s why the education component is so important – it’s telling the traveling public what they should expect. For many people, the shock to the system was they didn’t know what to expect until they got to the airport for the first time” after the new system was implemented in selected airports Nov. 1, Cressey added. “This is one of the few cases where that grand bargain has frayed.”
Bill Briggs is a frequent contributor to msnbc.com and author of the forthcoming book, “The Third Miracle."