TSA is failing us

Homeland Security personnel ran a test a few weeks ago to determine how effective the screening is at U.S. airports. The results were dismal. The Transportation Security Administration failed to detect fake guns, bomb parts, and explosives in 67 out of the 70 attempts, failing 95 percent of the time.

Something is terribly wrong when an organization provides a service that gets it right only 5 percent of the time. Just think about that. What it says is the system used at checkpoints for screening is a complete failure. Of course, the agency defended their performance by citing how many guns and knives they did confiscate, but that’s little consolation.

Can you imagine any company offering a service or product to paying customers that only works 5 percent of the time? It’s unheard of. It never happens because during its development, issues would be exposed that would force a redesign, or in the worst case, the conclusion that no solution is possible. That’s the way the invention and development process works.

But when it comes to the TSA’s security system devised for airports, how did we get where we are? You can’t blame just the agents that staff the checkpoints; they are following the instructions given to them. Responsibility goes right to the top.

It goes back to the Department of Homeland Security that defined and developed the system to screen travelers. It didn’t take this recent audit to know it’s not working. That’s just the latest evidence in one failed audit after another.

The process to create a service or any product in the private sector is very straightforward. It typically begins with a specification of what the product or service needs to do. Goals are set so you can measure your success later on.

A development team then creates the product. Along the way, it’s evaluated several times to see how well it works, and if it meets the original specification. When it doesn’t, more invention is needed and, if needed, a complete redesign. At some point, when the team believes they’ve met their goal, it’s brought to market.

Was the security system developed by TSA in this way? Was it developed with a specific requirement in mind? Were those requirements ever tested? Or did it come about as something that evolved with little testing? The system consists of the agents, the screening equipment and the rules and procedures they follow. And all of them failed.

Clearly, TSA knows the screening system is flawed and the TSA has failed miserably in its goal. Keeping the same system in place and expecting better results is not the solution.

Most all of us who travel know the system is broken. We see agents focusing on the elderly in wheelchairs, babies with bottles of milk, and adults with knitting needles. That diverts effort to do the more important work.

Last year, TSA implemented a pre-approval for frequent travelers. It was designed to allow those pre-approved to pass through security more quickly, without having to remove their computer or take off their shoes and light jackets. It was the fast checkout line for travelers.

But the TSA took this seemingly straightforward process and screwed it up. First, those who have gone through the process to become TSA prequalified are randomly refused the service. But worse than that, TSA randomly sends travelers who have not gone through the preapproval process to the pre-check line.

This is unacceptable, not only because these people slow the line by not knowing what to do and not do, but they are not the “known travelers” who had been pre-screened and fingerprinted.

Criticism is easier than coming up with a solution. I don’t have the answers to what will work or what will provide better screening, but neither does TSA. It’s time to bring in a team that understands security and the product development process and uses the smartest people they can find to come up with a solution.

Otherwise, the whole process is a farce, and potentially a very dangerous farce.

Baker is the author of "From Concept to Consumer," published by Financial Times Press. Send comments to Comments may be published online or as Letters to the Editor.

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