Which of these two scenarios at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport should be more distressing? The flight I missed by three minutes a week ago, in the midst of the nationwide chaos caused by the TSA’s managerial ineptitude and deliberate slowdown tactics, or my ten-minute breeze through their checkpoint yesterday, when a plethora of uniformed staffers were standing around giving attention so cursory as to make illusory the notion of “security.”
(A detour from my usual topics of attention? The TSA muddle offers at least a teaching moment for my graduate students in Risk Management, as well as useful “how not to” lessons in strategy, communications and client service for those in business and professional services.)
A full hour and a quarter in the TSA scrum last week gave me ample opportunity to observe the agency's clear strategy of dilatory “work to rule.” Just one lane was open, which used the wretched scanner model that forces the emptying of pockets down to a chapstick. The single burly and surly TSA staffer had no back-up to handle any extra pat-downs, but was stripping and re-scanning frustrated would-be passengers one at a time, literally down to their cufflinks, while the waiting line stretched long enough down the concourse to deserve frequent traveler points of its own.
Yesterday, by utter contrast and at the same hour of the day, processing was so expedited that there were as many TSA personnel lounging around as there were passengers in the fast-moving queue. Three lanes were open, using the walk-through machines. The announcement was “coats and shoes stay on, computers stay in their cases.” Responding to “step right on through,” we moved so fast that the supply of plastic bins had all piled up on the other side.
Along with the rest of the flying population, I had planned ample extra time – with my own prior mis-adventure and taking seriously the reports of thousands of missed flights and rows of cots broken out for airport sleep-overs. There was one visible result of TSA’s tactical shift – the early-arriving crowds simply shifted the bottlenecks to beyond the scanners, forming lengthy queues at the Starbucks and McDonalds, and putting seats in the lounges at a premium while they waited out their now-excess margins.
Transparently displayed as was this wild variability in TSA staffing and tactics from one week to the next, the agency’s rapid ability to shift gears completely deflates the credibility of its assertion that a long-gestating problem requires long-term (and doubtless costly) fixes. To the contrary, post-9/11 inflictions at the airports have never been more than agency optics and the political manipulation of popular anxiety. Requiring plastic bags for toothpaste and hair gel has no more detected or deterred determined aggressors than has the bare-footing of grandmothers. Effective profiling and incisive algorithmic analysis have real effect; not so, the costly, annoying and pernicious disruptions of the national transportation system for the sake of TSA hiring figures or overtime budgets.
Perhaps worst of all – when my bilious exercise of my First Amendment rights should trigger a full-body search the next time I fly, my chances of identifying the responsible bureaucrat will be the same as the utility of the entire exercise – exactly zero.
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