Recently, while at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport, I was mired in a miserable and frustrating 40 minute TSA experience that never should have happened. Like the other passengers around me, I entered the security line expecting to be inconvenienced for the usual 10 to 20 minutes. It quickly became apparent that the line was moving much slower than usual. Starting to become concerned, I moved to one side to see past the people directly in front of me. The problem was immediately evident. To my dismay, the entire concourse was bottlenecked through two bag scanners and one body scanner. The adjacent screening lanes were inexplicably shutdown. I watched them stay that way for the next half hour. While I inched my way up and down the lanes for the next 20 minutes, the grumbling of the people around me slowly turned to concern and helpless anxiety as their departure times neared. As I finally approached the front of the line, an additional TSA crew slowly sauntered up only to stand and casually talk to one another on the far side of the nearest of the two shutdown screening lanes. By this time, many of the passengers were beginning to look panicky as they realized they were in danger of missing their flights. After several agonizing minutes of inaction, the screening team, one by one, slowly snapped on their gloves and moved toward their various stations. It was remarkable to watch the helpless and anxious passengers coldly ordered around by the uninterested, uncaring federal screeners. The first passenger to the new scanning line put her bag on the conveyer where it sat for several moments for no apparent reason. Then, after her bag went through, she stood in front of the body scanner waiting and waving to the TSA personnel on the other side. Finally, the screener got into his position and directed the visibly anxious lady into the scanner. Looking back at the bag conveyer in the newly opened lane, I was surprised to see that there was only one other person behind the first lady unloading her belongings. I wondered what was holding up the flood of people that should be overflowing into this new lane. To my consternation, I noticed a trainee had been selected to check ID’s and boarding passes. I watched while he admitted around 5 (rather than 15) people per minute into the screening area. After standing in the security line for a total of around 40 minutes, I was finally given the honor of having it be my turn for the Federal Government to search my body and belongings.
As I was laying my possessions on the conveyor, I couldn’t help but noticed an elderly couple, about 25 people back in the line, flagging the TSA team lead to request that they be allow to step around the line as their flight was departing in exactly 10 minutes. They were probably in their mid-70s, middle class and seemed a little unfamiliar with the whole process. They also seemed a bit sheepish and ashamed for making such a request but were evidently compelled by the desperation of their situation. Instead of allowing them forward or asking the section of the line in front of them if it would be ok if they passed through, the TSA lead coldly shook her head, held up her hands and informed them, with the tone you would use for rowdy middle school kids, that everyone had to wait. Thankfully, several passengers waiting in line in front of the couple, noticing what was going on, parted, and beckoned the two forward.
I arrived at my gate about 2 minutes before departure. The airline gate attendant was furiously calling names, discussing with the attendants on the plane and trying to juggle accommodating late comers with allowing standbys to fill in open seats before the plane had to shut its door. In dramatic contrast to the TSA agents, her movements were quick, she made reassuring eye contact with the anxious passengers, smiled, and tried to reassure them while concisely explaining the situation. She was doing everything humanly possible to assist her passengers to her best ability. Fortunately, I was flying standby on this flight and had a backup flight a few hours later. I would get to where I was going either way. As I waited near the desk, I watched as TSA victims ran up one or two at a time, asking if they could still make it onboard. As they arrived, the airline agent directed them toward the gate, instructing them to board if they already had a boarding pass while juggling several other tasks. I noticed the old man from the couple in line rush up to the counter and ask if the plane was still here. While I watched, he hurried over to the gate, spoke a few words with the attendant taking tickets, and then hurried back to the corridor walkway summoning his wife who was desperately moving as fast as she could down the length of the concourse. As she approached, he went out to meet her,taking ahold of her arm and guided her to the gate. They were two of the last people on the plane. Subsequently arriving TSA victims were not as fortunate. Frustrated and downcast, they formed a line while the already late plane pulled away from the gate waiting to go over their options with the airline agent.
This event demonstrated the stark contrast between how the airline agent and TSA screeners from the same city, working in the same airport, treats the same passengers. The gate agent, working on behalf of an airline, was kind, empathetic, and working furiously to do as much as she could to alleviate the suffering of the passengers. The screeners, working on behalf of the Federal government, displayed coldness, indifference, and mild annoyance toward the obviously distressed passengers. This begs the question as to why these two groups of airport service workers from the same city would exhibit such a large degree of difference in how they treat the same airport passengers.
The airline industry has had issues with customer satisfaction but some of this can arguable be considered misplaced anger over rising energy prices. Despite the energy cost issue, based on data from the ACSI, the major airlines all out performed the
Department of Homeland Security (the closest option to the TSA). Also, in a recent survey of frequent flyers, those customers best in a position to rate TSA customer service, over 90% rated the TSA as fair or poor. The majority (56%) were dissatisfied with their most recent experience.
It is important to understand what motivates the workers and organizations. The ticketing agent and the organization she represents have incentives to treat their customers well and disincentives to treat them poorly. Because there is more than one airline to pick from, the very existence of the airline depends on the consistency with which its passengers are served well. If airline representatives started treating passengers like the TSA, that airline would soon find its customers preferring its competitors and be faced with declining revenues. Conversely, if the airline can consistently offer superior service, even beyond what its competitors provide, it will be rewarded with more customers yielding greater revenues.
The TSA have no such incentives and disincentives associated with how they treat airplane passengers. Even though the passengers were provided with terrible service, they can’t choose different screeners or opt out of the ordeal next time. Nor can they opt out of funding the TSA with their own tax dollars. Conversely, the TSA doesn’t receive more revenues as a result of providing better service. The TSA has the exclusive right to conduct airport screening no matter how it performs as long as it is a legal monopoly instituted by the Federal Government. No matter how bad passengers are treated, they are all forced to pay for and go through TSA screening every time they want to fly, no matter what airline they are flying and which airport they are flying from.
I’m sure many airline passengers have had poor experiences with airlines as well, however, most regular airline passengers likely prefer the service of their favorite airline over that of the TSA. A multitude of other examples of superior service by private companies competing with one another to public monopolies can be mentioned as well. Compare the service at the DMV to that of your neighborhood auto parts store. Compare hours of operation and average wait time at the US Post Office with that of Fedex. Compare the speed and performance of your internet connection on a weekday evening with that of the interstate during rush hour. Compare the failure of inner city public schools to the success of private charter schools with randomly selected kids from the same impoverished neighborhoods.
Almost anything would be a better option than a federal monopoly on airport screening. If each state or airport ran its screenings, there would at least be the opportunity for multiple screening strategies giving some prospect for innovation. The service could also be contracted to private security providers. These providers could be contracted either by the airports or jointly by the airlines that use the concourses. If customers knew the airlines were responsible for providing the screening service, there would be an incentive for the airlines to make the experience as pleasant as possible. Imagine traveling through an airport with friendly airline associates assisting you through the security process rather than condescending and impersonal TSA drones ordering you around. In the former case you’re a customer keeping them accountable with your wallets, but it the latter, you’re a subject to an unaccountable government.
Submitted by Luke Jain