Protecting your right to fly!

Meeting Notes, August 9, 2012

The meeting of Passenger Advocacy Subcommittee was held at the offices of the U.S. Travel Association at 

New York Avenue in Washington, D.C. The U.S. Travel Association is an industry trade association that represents businesses in the travel industry.

Scheduled speakers included:

  • Michelle Cartegena, Program Manager, TSA Contact Center (she manages TSA’s contact center); and
  • Claire Heffernan, Acting Director, Disabiltiy and Multicultural Division, Office of Civil Rights and Liberties, Ombudsman and Traveler Engagement.

The Purpose of the Subcommittee:

The Co-chair of the Sub-committee is Karin E. Glasgow, Director, Airline Stakeholder Affairs TSA/DHS. Her office is part of the “Office of Security Policy and Industry Engagement

"We could just as easily call the office, ‘stakeholder engagement, since that's what we actually do. We reach out to our various stakeholders and lead a collaborative effort to develop and implement security plans that are operational. It's about working together to achieve the security mission." Assistant Administrator John Sammon, Transportation Sector Network Management, TSA

Note: While Ms. Glasgow’s department is primarily concerned with formulating policy, it has no direct line authority over screening operations.

The Meeting:

The meeting was called to order at 2:00 by Geoff Freeman, the Sub-committee Chairman. After preliminary remarks and introductions, we were given briefings by Michelle Cartegena, and Claire Heffernan.

According to Ms. Cartegena:

·        The call center has a staff of 78 employees.

·        It receives between 750,000 to 800,000 telephone inquiries/contacts/complaints every year. (This is the same number quoted by Deputy Administrator Halinski)

·        She personally listens in on 500 calls per month to ensure her staff is handling calls in a proper manner.

·        The majority of contacts are inquiries regarding what items can be taken on flights either as carryon or checked baggage, and I.D. requirements.

·        Less than 8% of contacts are complaints, and the majority of those concern luggage/missing/damaged items. (This works out to about 60,000 complaints per year, or 1000 per week!)

Passenger complaints:

The consensus among the TSA staff seemed to be that the proportion of complaints to the total number of contacts (less than 8%) was evidence that TSA was doing a good job. Ms. Glasgow and Ms. Heffernan indicated that TSA Headquarters reviews the video of all incidents; and based on videos that they had seen, they believed most press stories of TSA abuse were exaggerated if not unfounded.  

TSA outreach to the Disabled

Claire Heffernan described TSA’s efforts to improve TSA’s outreach to the disabled. Her office has started a new program, TSA Cares, for passengers with disabilities and medical conditions. This is a toll free helpline (1-855-787-2227) for passengers with disabilities who want to prepare for the screening process before flying.   

Our Concerns:

  • I suggested that such an effort might be better directed towards TSA employees, who are known for their lack of familiarity with common medical conditions, implants, and prosthesis.
  • I also suggested TSA develop and issue a special picture ID card to individuals with disabilities, so that screening of passengers with pre-existing conditions could be done with less confusion and in a more expeditious manner. TSA’s current  Notification Card  is of no value and routinely ignored by screeners.
  • Finally, I suggested TSA develop a manual of common medical conditions that staff could refer to when confronted by unfamiliar conditions, implants, or prosthesis.

Such a manual already exist; but is of little value; it is not consulted, and in any event TSA is unwavering in its determination to screen all passengers in accordance with its protocols, without regard to any passenger’s medical condition, or any previous history of sexual assault.

Chairman’s Briefing

The Chairman, Geoff Freeman, then spoke briefly on the factors keeping people from traveling more. These were:

  1. The high cost of airfare. (71%)
  2. Fear of harassment by TSA employees (45%)
  3. The threat of terrorism. (13%)

Mr. Freeman’s briefing was based on a multipage handout titled “REPORT OF FINDINGS – A Study of Air Traveler Perceptions of Aviation Security Screening Procedures”

We will be posting this handout on line in the days to come.

Before Mr. Freeman opened the meeting to general discussion, he chided TSA staff present on a recent “blogger Bob” posting that referred to Jon Corbett (whose viral video demonstrated the weakness of TSA’s Body Scanners) as “some guy”.  

He then opened discussion on the question of improving the checkpoint process. (The meeting was scheduled to run from 2-4 pm, and it was already well past 3:00 pm)

Improving the Passenger Checkpoint Process:

Causes of Congestion

Most participants agreed that having to take off shoes was one of the major causes of congestion during the screening process. The other causes for delays cited were:

  • TSA employees standing around on break while passengers waited to be screened;
  • TSA screeners who were unfamiliar with their own rules;
  • Forcing families, frequent travelers, and those requiring special assistance to use the same line.

Mr. Freeman then asked for suggestions as to how the checkpoint process might be improved. The representative from “Victims of PanAm Flight 103” indicated that he was in favor of any and all additional security measures TSA wanted to deploy, but he felt some explanation to passengers was appropriate when changes were made. We seconded this recommendation, stating our position that all screening should be Reasonable, Consistent, and Uniform.

Ms. Glasgow did not concur. She indicated that TSA was moving toward “intelligence-driven, risk-based screening”; focusing on those passengers TSA knows the least about.

However, according to TSA chief John Pistole:

“…100 percent of passengers flying to, from, and within the

United States are prescreened against terrorist watch lists under TSA's Secure Flight program.”

This led me to point out to Ms. Glasgow that while TSA claims to know little about the average passenger, (I don’t see how that is possible given Mr. Pistole’s statement above) the passenger knows even less about the TSA agents he or she deals with. I did not wish to be unkind, but I felt obligated to speak the truth: for many people, TSO (transportation security officer) means Thief and/or Sex Offender.

I then went on to express my belief that security is enhanced in an atmosphere of mutual respect; and such respect cannot exist if screeners look at passengers as potential terrorists and passengers fear for their safety at the hands of screeners. This did not seem to be a point of view shared by Ms. Glasgow. 

Unfortunately (or fortunately) time for the meeting had nearly come to an end. Mr. Freeman dismissed us and indicated that the next meeting will focus on improving TSA’s communication and interaction with passengers.

My impressions of TSA staff:

The TSA representatives that I met seemed professional and hard working. They appear to be doing their job well. Based on their comments, however, I inferred the following:

  1. The TSA employees at the meeting believe they, and the TSA, are doing a great job!
  2. They want the public to appreciate the job they do!
  3. They believe a complaint level of 8% is ok!
  4. They are quite indifferent to passenger discomfort and suffering.
  5. They believe the body scanner is their best means of screening passengers.
  6. They do not want to hear complaints about TSA staff misconduct.
  7. They have no intention of altering their screening procedures.

Conclusions from this First Meeting:

First, TSA should be commended for reaching out to passengers. It’s a step in the right direction. 

Second, TSA is a large organization, with many departments. Each of these departments has its own agenda, and sometimes works at cross purposes with other departments within the TSA.

Except for the office of security operations, none of these departments has any real control, or even complete knowledge, over what happens at security checkpoints. I came to suspect that even the chief of Security Operations feels like a conductor trying to lead an orchestra where no one is paying attention or on the same page.

Finally, as in any organization of this size, management can become so concerned with meeting or exceeding statistical goals and promoting its public image, (especially with Congress) that it loses track of its original purpose.

Even so, it is difficult to understand the lack of concern or sympathy for the many passengers who have suffered at the hands of TSA employees. This report, only a day before, is something we have come to expect from the TSA:

TSA harassment sends rape victim to emergency room

Rather than recognizing complaints as a warning sign of serious problems within its organization, TSA management clearly views complaints (and complainers) with indifference if not outright contempt. From their point of view, 92+% don’t complain, so the problem is not with the TSA, but with the less than 8% who do complain.


A Barber’s view:

I mentioned the meeting to my barber. I told him that TSA thought they were doing a great job. He stared incredulously at me and said, “Really? You can’t be serious!” I said I was. He started laughing, controlled himself, and began laughing again.

When he had regained his composure, I asked him if his business could survive if 8% of his customers complained. He said:

“I couldn’t make it if even 2% of my customers complained.”

Final thoughts:

There is a very real disconnect between how the TSA sees the public and how the public views the TSA.

See our page: The Great Divide

 They would like us to change our views. We must help them change theirs.


Douglas Kidd

Executive Director

National Association of Airline Passengers

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