Happy birthday, TSA!

Today is the TSA‘s 10th birthday and there are celebrations all around the country. Passengers everywhere are feting the organization for their polite, respectful and efficient screening of passengers and cargo. The ability of the organization to effectively discern the difference between legitimate threats and hyped theoretical attack avenues was praised by both Congressional leaders and law enforcement officials in a ceremony on Capitol Hill where agency head John Pistole accepted the warm acclaim with humility and deference to the tens of thousands of well-trained agents the organization has out in the field working each day.

If only any of the above were true.


Well, it actually is the 10th birthday of the agency, so I guess that’s something. And what better 10th birthday present to receive than a letter from your parents (Congress in this case) telling you everything you’re doing wrong. Because that’s what actually happened this week. Two Republican Congressmen issued a rather scathing report entitled "A Decade Later: A Call for TSA Reform" that excoriates the agency for being incompetent, overly bureaucratic and generally dysfunctional. Ouch.

Among the things the TSA is criticized for, some of my favorites include:

  • Stopping the growth of the Screening Partnership Program (private screeners under TSA rules like at SFO) despite those screeners being as good or better than TSOs and at a lower cost, both for training and ongoing operations.
  • The SPOT program (behavior detection officers) growing despite it lacking scientific credibility or any demonstrated efficacy, including a number of cases where known terrorists passed through airports where the program was in operation and avoided detection.
  • Deploying 500 Advanced Imaging Technology (aka nude-o-scope) machines in a "haphazard and easily thwarted" manner despite a lack of evidence that they are ay more effective at detecting threats than the metal detectors they are replacing. There is evidence that they might cause cancer but that’s apparently of less concern.
  • The failed deployment of the "puffer" machines at a cost of roughly $39MM which was eventually abandoned when it was determined that they simply didn’t work in the real world.
  • There are more former TSA employees than there are current employees after only 10 years in existence, and there are over 65,000 active employees in the organization.

The report offers plenty more, but those are definitely the highlights.

The recommendations section offers a number of interesting suggestions. None of them are "disband and start over" but there are a few that could result in a significant change of direction for the organization. Little things, like trimming the $400MM administrative payroll overhead in DC or setting actual performance standards for passenger and baggage screening and then holding the employees to them are starters. Ditto for deploying some of the 2,800 pieces of screening gear that are in warehouses rather than at checkpoints.

The report is worth a read, or at least a skim, to see just how wasteful and incompetent the agency responsible for securing travel in the United States is. Really makes me happy every time I visit the airport.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.


  1. Well, the TSA does act like a 10-year-old, so hopefully things will get better in another 30 years.

    1. I dunno about that, Scottrick. My 5 year old nephew is a lot more responsible, particularly when his parents reprimand him, than the TSA seems to be. And based on some of the behavior I’ve seen from supposedly grown adults at airports I’m not so sure we can consider 40 year old people the model of appropriate behavior.

      I’m certainly not holding my breath.

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