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How To Fix the TSA? Experts Weigh In

The Transportation Security Agency, created in the wake of 9/11 security failures, has weathered a number of high profile failures.
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The Transportation Security Agency, created in the wake of 9/11 security failures, has weathered a number of high profile failures.

One damning report after another has exposed weaknesses in the agency's ability to keep weapons off airplanes and to prevent potential terrorists from gaining access to airports.

With public confidence tanking, and lawmakers demanding changes, NBC News asked experts — former government officials, former aviation workers, security and risk-management consultants — what fixes the agency needs.

Here are some of their suggestions.

K. Jack Riley, director of RAND's National Defense Research Institute:

The main thing here is not to panic and implement wholesale change. If they’re going to make changes, I’d like them to be considered and deliberate and keep a clear eye toward figuring out what works and doesn’t. That said, there are a few things I think they should be putting some emphasis on.One is simply narrowing the scope of the kinds of things they’re looking for. There’s a fairly lengthy list of contraband. All day long, TSA personnel are making judgment calls about contraband. I think a more limited set of things that they are looking for, firearms and explosives in particular, moving in that direction, is probably the right way to go.Second, I think they could make a lot better use of the videotapes and the recordings that occur in most airport (screening areas). To my knowledge, there’s not systemic mining of those videotapes to collect some basic information about, for example, how far into a shift a screener’s attention starts to drift. That also includes the basics of customer service — how thorough the interactions seem to be. Video could be mined to understand better how to make the work less boring, or otherwise improve people’s performance. I think we’re just leaving information on the table by not looking at those video tapes.Third, I think there’s reason to think that what is important for the traveling public in terms of screening and so forth should probably apply to the TSA itself. They don’t go through the same random checks and screenings that the traveling public does. You need a more uniform application of screening protocols for everybody going into the security area. Everybody other than TSA personnel who work in the airport is regularly screened.

Michael Boyd, aviation consultant and former airline manager:

They've got to rebuild the TSA. It is structurally a failure. It's not safe to privatize it. You need to rebuild it from the bottom up. When you fail 95 percent of your tests, it's clear. You have to get rid of all the management and start again. Otherwise you're putting old wine in new skins. It's the only option. People are out there planning to do bad things to us. Have we forgotten what happened (on 9/11)?TSA's management is incompetent. If you can't do basic screening, you can't anticipate what the bad guys may do to you. And who's working the back door? Maintenance? Construction? It's all about making sure we don't carry 4 ounces of Grecian Formula on the airplane.We have to have people in place who are trained as security professionals, not as pointy-objects patrol. They need to know what to look for, but also what to anticipate. It has to professional, proactive security. That means putting people at the top with security credentials, not police credentials and not political credentials. This is life and death, and you don't tolerate failure.

Anthony Roman, former pilot and president of Roman & Associates, a private investigation and risk-management consultancy:

A 95 percent failure rate shows internal dysfunction in the entire organization, starting from the leadership to executive management down to personnel at security checkpoints. Fundamentally, there needs to be an overhaul in executive and administrative management to make the TSA an effective organization.You need new policies, procedures and protocols in the selection process of personnel, and in training, and you need an ongoing training program with examinations that hold staff accountable so that they perform at peak levels.Singular training won't work because the job is repetitive and it's boring. When jobs are repetitive and boring, psychological studies have shown, the effectiveness of personnel begins to erode. Staff has to be challenged with periodic, frequent and unscheduled internal audits, so TSA personnel is always on their toes.This is not the kind of job where you can say, "Oops I have a problem," or, "Oops, they got by." There are hundreds if not thousands of lives at stakes here.

Mary Schiavo, former U.S. Department of Transportation Inspector General and lawyer for victims of aviation mishaps:

I spent 11 years investigating and litigating on behalf of families after 9/11 and through it all ... the weakest link was the airports and airlines. The reason is money. It costs a lot of money to do a full background check (on employees). Not that the TSA isn't responsible, but Congress has tied its hands and the airlines and airports are allowed to do their own background checks and provide them to the TSA. We're right back to where we were on Sept. 10, 2001, because we're relying on airports and airlines who have the shareholders and bottom line to look after.And so the fix is to expand the TSA's power so they get the information to decide if someone has a clear background for the job, and so they can make the decision (whether to make the hire). The TSA has to get tough tough on these airports. They need to shut down airports for failing security (tests). Only then will the airport do what they have to do.