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November 22, 2010
TSA Ticking Travelers Off
How would you handle airliner security?

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) might like to know. As the Associated Press reports, an agency that was created after Sept. 11 to protect the flying public, is now royally ticking a lot of those people off. Many passengers are being treated, essentially, as though they themselves are bags. But it's worse than that: bags don't have gender.

AP quotes even Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton as saying, on  "Face the Nation," "Not if I could avoid it. No. I mean, who would?"

She was asked if she'd want to go through TSA's "see through" X-ray machines, or "enhanced patdowns."

John Pistole, TSA's administrator, says the threat level is too high and there's no time for dithering at airports. In effect, "We've got to be certain that all those body-shy people aren't terrorists."

But that's a stance, understandable as it may be for a bureaucrat, that's made San Diego traveler John Tyner a YouTube folk hero: "If you touch my junk," he told a TSA screener, "I'm going to have you arrested."

TSA "is not a flier-centered system. It's a terrorist-centered system and the travelers get caught in it," AP quotes Paul Light, a professor of public service at New York University, who has tracked the agency's effectiveness since its creation.

The problem is the vast, vast majority of travelers aren't terrorists. TSA may be looking for one or two (hopefully none on any given day) among millions.  

All this has become an epic public relations problem. Demonstrations are scheduled for the day before Thanksgiving that threaten to tie up airports across the nation. It may be too late for TSA to turn customer-conscious. Of course, the agency has apparently felt right along that it's job is to protect, not to be liked.

Yet when you're looking for a needle in a haystack, could there be a better way?

Columnist Charles Krauthammer writes in The Washington Post: "The only reason we continue to do this (intrusive searches) is that people are too cowed to even question the absurd taboo against profiling – when the profile of the airline attacker is narrow, concrete, uniquely definable and universally known. So instead of seeking out terrorsts, we seek out tubes of gel in stroller pouches."

We're not up on the pros and cons of profiling, but when you listen to the deadpan voices of TSA officers on YouTube, it's hard to avoid the feeling that maybe Big Brother has arrived, even if it's for own good. Could there be a better way? PR specialists are certainly among the people to ask.  

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Doug Bedell has a background in journalism and PR and is the owner of Resource Relations LLC in Central PA, focusing on organizational and crisis communication. He’s the community manager of SimplyFair.net, a social network on fairness. On the Web, Doug’s at www.ResourceRelations.com. On Twitter, he’s @DougBeetle.
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