Report: Fliers, airport security screeners at odds

WASHINGTON -- It was like a bad relationship, filled with misunderstanding and unmet expectations.

Airline passengers wanted to respect airport screeners. Screeners craved passenger respect.

The dysfunction came pouring out late last year when groups of passengers and screeners met for the first time with a Transportation Security Administration (TSA) consultant and talked amongst themselves. In a report provided to USA TODAY by the TSA, passengers complained that screeners are "poorly skilled, poorly paid" mistake-prone working stiffs. Screeners bristled at "daily instances of lack of respect and abuse."

"There is a very limited understanding of the TSA," Blue Lime consultants wrote in a conclusion worthy of Dr. Phil.

A 73-page report by the Manhattan company provides rare insight into the perception of a high-profile federal agency and illustrates how public opinion shapes policy.

The focus groups helped spawn changes this year at airports across the nation. For example, after hearing business travelers and families say they didn't like sharing security checkpoints with each other, the TSA began guiding them into separate lanes at nearly 50 airports.

Last week, the TSA rolled out a series of videos accessible through travel websites that explain why passengers have to take off their shoes, take out their liquids and show IDs at checkpoints. The TSA also is installing simplified checkpoint signs.

The research approach is the brainchild of Ellen Howe, the TSA's chief spokeswoman and head of the Office of Strategic Communications and Public Affairs. Howe hired Blue Lime for $200,000 and was startled when she sat in on the focus groups without identifying herself.

Blue Lime held five 3½-hour sessions with 16 to 18 passengers in New York City, Minneapolis and Washington, D.C. Two three-hour sessions were held with 12 to 15 screeners at Chicago O'Hare and New York's John F. Kennedy airports. Passengers were told only that they would be asked about travel.

"Some of it was hard to hear," Howe said. "If they had bad things to say, they weren't holding back."

The report points out that "passengers generally want to respect (screeners) so they can have confidence that they really are safe. Most are disappointed by the fact that they do not/can not."

"TSA is currently living in no-man's land — no real authority or bite to be truly taken seriously, no warmth or personal interaction to make the experience pleasant," the report says.

Blue Lime consultants had suggestions for screeners, such as "no slouching, pristine uniform," "eye contact and smile," "don't yell or bark." They also suggested checkpoint signs should be "less dense." A slogan such as "not on my watch" is "powerful." TSA leaders should "highlight everyday achievements" and consider using celebrity videos, possibly with model Heidi Klum describing the ease of checkpoint security ("You're in; you're out!").

AJ Castilla, a screener and union leader at Boston's Logan International Airport, said the TSA "needs to do a better job marketing the seriousness and deadliness of our jobs." He's been astonished to see passengers assault screeners and heave shoes across a checkpoint, though he never has problems at Logan's international terminal.

European passengers are far more respectful, Castilla said, because their countries have seen more recent terrorist acts, such as the attempted car bombing of the airport in Glasgow, Scotland. "They have a very current reminder," Castilla said.

Carie Lemack, a founder of the Families of September 11 advocacy group, spent the past year visiting 32 airports publicly thanking screeners. Screeners widely feel disrespected, she said, "because people don't have on their minds the reasons the screeners are there."

Howe of the TSA said she wanted in part to make security more passenger-friendly. Checkpoint signs, for example, were written by TSA lawyers and officials in charge of security and were dense with detail and legalese.

"The communications people didn't have a piece of making them simple and streamlined," Howe said.

The new signs are models of brevity. "Please be ready for security," says a sign that explains procedures. "Did you collect all of your belongings?" says another sign with icons of a wallet and keys. And perhaps most significant: "Please give our officers the respect they deserve."