Here's my idea for how the TSA might make a few friends: Whenever there's a long wait at an airport security check point, send refreshment carts down the line with complimentary soft drinks, candy, shots of espresso or, better yet, some of that high-end, duty-free liquor the TSA must be stockpiling somewhere.
I've got a suitcase full of other suggestions for ways to improve the TSA's operations, but I've been keeping them to myself. Not because some people have told me my ideas are just way too wacky, mind you, but because up until last week I just didn't have a way to get these brainstorms to TSA administrator Kip Hawley and the other decision-makers.
Now I do. And so do you.
Last week the TSA added a blog to its Web site in the hopes that this bit of interactive technology might “facilitate an ongoing dialogue on innovations in security, technology and the checkpoint screening process.” Titled the “Evolution of Security,” the blog invites travelers to post comments, questions, complaints and perhaps even a few compliments about all manner of TSA issues.
Now you may be inclined to think that that the TSA would screen out all but the most complimentary entries. However, a flurry of blog postings from irked travelers convinced the TSA on Thursday to cancel a pilot program.
According to TSA spokesman Nico Melendez, a few dozen posts described what seemed like an irritating new policy requiring passengers to remove all electronics — not just laptops — from their carry-on bags at security checkpoints. “It piqued the interest of the blog staff because we hadn't heard about that program.”
Turns out that, in fact, a pilot program was being tested in some terminals at up to 10 airports around the country, including the American Airlines terminal at San Francisco International Airport. “We raised concerns about the program through TSA operations and leaders and the decision was made that we really don't need to do this.”
Thursday's actions are in line with Hawley's welcome post, where he promises that all comments will be read and, if “on topic,” posted and responded to by one of the TSA-affiliated bloggers enlisted for this project. “Our postings from the public will be reviewed to remove the destructive but not touch the critical or cranky,” writes Hawley.
Why are the very serious and already overworked folks at the TSA even taking the time to create a blog and invite postings that are sure to be overwhelmingly “critical or cranky?” It may be because the TSA is hoping to polish up its tarnished image. In a recent Associated Press-Ipsos poll, the TSA tied with IRS tax collectors as one of the least-liked federal agencies. (Only the folks the Federal Emergency Management Agency fared worse.)
Or it may be because the TSA is already aware that passengers are fed up and frustrated with the agency's “predictably unpredictable” procedures and is hoping to create an arena where it can describe and defend its actions.
It's not as if travelers aren't already giving feedback. As Hawley notes in his blog entry, while TSA officers “ ... get feedback verbally and non-verbally at the checkpoint ...,” a busy checkpoint doesn't offer “much opportunity for our security officers to explain the ‘why,’ of what we ask you to do at the checkpoint, just the ‘what’ needs to be done to clear security.’
So how's it going? A week into the endeavor, the TSA's Melendez says this “unconventional way for the federal agency to communicate with the public” is getting a flood of response. In the first 48 hours, more than 1,000 comments were received.
Other issues being discussed? “Overwhelmingly a lot of questions about shoes,” says Melendez, and people wondering, “Why am I not allowed to take liquids on the plane?” From a quick read through of the comments, it's clear and not at all surprising that many people are unhappy about the TSA's inconsistent enforcement of its rules while others are upset at the way in which some of the agency's officers treat passengers. “In Europe,” one comment says, “when I go through security someone helps me with my laptop and other electronic devices. In the U.S. all I get are a bunch of TSA representatives barking out orders while standing around looking mad.”
Melendez says the agency's blog team (Bob, Ethel, Jay, Chance and Jim — you can read about them here) is still working out how to best answer everyone's questions. They've already rearranged the site, moving from a very long list of jumbled comments to categories that include “Shoes,” “Liquids,” “Inconsistencies” and “Gripes & Grins.”
In the meantime, Melendez shared some tips on how well-mannered travelers can ensure that their comments make it onto the moderated site. “For the most part, everything will be published,” he says, “but we ask that people be constructive and respectful. Please don't use vulgar or abusive language, make personal attacks or use terms that are racist and otherwise offensive to specific ethnic or racial groups.”
Melendez also asks that people take a minute to think about what they're posting. “This is not an opportunity to discuss specific people on our work force. It's not an opportunity for agency employees to complain about their shift assignments. It's about what the folks in Washington can do make it better for the general public.” So, he says, “constructive comments, questions (‘Why do you guys do this?’) and suggestions are most appreciated.”
What kind of suggestions? Melendez says: “Its one thing to say, ‘Hey, TSA — you're doing it all wrong.’ What would really help is if you have an idea about how we might do it right.”
OK then, well-mannered travelers. Let's stop complaining to each other and send our suggestions straight to the top. I'll start: Hey, TSA! When will we see those complimentary refreshment carts making their way down the line at the security checkpoints?