Has the TSA lost it?

As air travel returns, the agency is adding staff — but not accountability

Have you been paying attention to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) during the COVID-19 epidemic?

No? Neither have I.

But while you weren't looking, the agency hit up the government for more money. It'll probably get it. The TSA also announced it would hire 6,000 more screeners in anticipation of a busy summer travel season.

🎧 EXTRAListen to the podcast version of this commentary.

The TSA has become an unofficial barometer for pandemic travel. When the number of daily air travelers exceeded 1 million in October, the agency sent out a news release. Maybe it should have waited a few months before suggesting that air travel was back. 

But that's nothing compared to the agency's systemic problems, which seem to have gotten worse. You can read all about the TSA's recent missteps on the Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General reports. They include lax hiring standards and carelessly maintained full-body scanners, among others. 

So we have a bloated, incompetent agency that's expanding. What could make it even worse? Mistreating its customers. A case that crossed my desk recently will leave you shaking your head and worrying about the future of the agency tasked with protecting the nation's transportation systems.

📰 Are you a full subscriber yet?

Paid subscribers to Elliott Confidential get exclusive access to documents and internal memos that shed new light on current events. They also help support the journalism in this newsletter. Please consider upgrading your subscription today. Here's how.

Stories you probably missed

Travel prices are bouncing back, but here’s where to find the bargains
Warning: Wear a mask or get banned from Uber — guaranteed!
These companies pride themselves on customer service

Abandoned at TSA screening

Margo Tomaras flew out of Chicago's O'Hare Airport last week. She traveled with her sister, who needs a wheelchair and is deaf, visually impaired, and mildly developmentally disabled. Here's what happened when the TSA screened the sisters.

"When it was our turn, I told the TSA staff I needed to stay with my sister because she is deaf and needs to be told in sign language what to do," she says. "They told me to go through first." 

Tomaras proceeded through the screening area and waited for her sister.

"No one was bringing her through," she says. "She started to panic because she did not know why I had gone through and she was sitting there."

After a long wait, a TSA employee wheeled her sister through the screening area and proceeded to do a "very aggressive search" of her. When the wheelchair set off an alarm, as wheelchairs are prone to do, the agent yelled at her sister, who could not hear anything. 

Tomaras says the TSA mishandled her screening.

"When you have a deaf person who can't hear commands and with the COVID situation can't even see people’s mouth moving, shouldn’t the TSA people be more understanding, instead of being rude and vindictive?" she asked.

Leave a comment

What say you, TSA?

I was troubled by this case for several reasons. First, this experience directly contradicts the TSA's published policy for screening people in wheelchairs. No helpful employee met Tomaras and her sister at the screening area to assist them. Instead, the TSA separated them — and then scolded them. 

But there's also this: With the TSA screening only about 1 million air travelers a day — roughly half as many as it did in 2019 — you would expect it to provide terrific customer service. There should be more screeners on duty, offering customer-friendly screening with a smile. Not that we can see them smile through their face masks, but we can imagine it.

And I know from experience that there are two sides to every story. I really wanted to include the TSA's version in this newsletter.

So I asked. I contacted the TSA with a few questions. Given the mask mandates, has TSA made any special arrangements for anyone with hearing disabilities? Did it follow those procedures for Tomaras and her sister? And was there something Tomaras could have done differently to ensure her sister wasn't left alone during her screening? 

The TSA didn't respond.

So I asked again. Nothing.

What has happened to the TSA while we weren't looking

Is it possible that while we were worrying about COVID and ignoring travel because hardly anyone was flying, the TSA got even worse? 

I hope that Tomaras' problem was an aberration — one agent having a bad day. I hope that the TSA's public affairs department never received my messages and wasn't ignoring me.

But experience tells me that's not what happened. The TSA has a long history of treating air travelers, who fund the agency, with disrespect, and this is likely a continuation of that pattern. 

[❗Need a hand with a consumer problem? Just fill in this form for free help.]

Instead of asking for more money for additional employees, maybe the TSA should focus on screening all passengers before they get to the airport. That way, people like Tomaras and her sister can walk to the gate without being poked, prodded and berated. That's where they should be spending money.

Charles Marshall once defined integrity as doing the right thing even when no one is watching.* We haven't been watching for the last year. But it didn't take a pandemic to confirm our suspicions about the TSA's integrity.

Tips for surviving a pandemic TSA screening

If you have a special need, contact the agency in advance. Get in touch with the TSA at least 72 hours before your departure and let them know you're coming. 

Don't assume anything. The pandemic has made screening even more complex and unpredictable. If you haven't flown since the outbreak, you may be in for a surprise. That was certainly the case with Tomaras, a frequent air traveler.

Know your rights. Yes, you have rights. I outline them on my nonprofit consumer advocacy site. For example, they can't just push you through one of those full-body scanners at the airport. You can say "no."

💬  OK, over to you. Tell me about your pandemic screening experiences. Is the TSA doing better — or worse — now. Any thoughts on the agency's institutional integrity?

* The quote is sometimes also attributed to C.S. Lewis, but he apparently never said that, despite all those inspirational posters on Etsy that claim otherwise.