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May 31 2016

Could TSA's Problem Be . . . High-Level Incompetence?

Patrice J. Lee

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is as popular as Congress these days due to the long lines that have forced thousands of passengers to miss their flights despite earlier-than-usual airport arrivals. We examined some of the possible reasons for the security line woes recently.

Democrats like Chuck Schumer would just solve the problem by hiring more TSA agents – i.e., throwing more money at the problem. However, additional funding only obscures underlying issues at the TSA. Morale is low, turn-over at both the top and bottom is high, and mismanagement has led to incompetent decisions that only compound these and other problems. Hiring more people into a toxic work environment won’t solve the problem unless the TSA begins hiring competent management which is willing to innovate.

Generally, that was the message from a former senior TSA official who helped to create the agency after September 11, 2001 and spent four years at the agency serving in the number two spot. In an interview with CNBC, Tim Blank (referred to as a TSA “founding father”) pointed to poor management decisions as the key driver behind the long lines:

"TSA has made bad assumptions about the level of personnel resources necessary to process the two million passengers a day that come through," Tom Blank told CNBC's On The Money in a recent interview.

"They assumed that the TSA PreCheck program was going to create enough [efficiency] and speed enough people through that they could do without some three thousand less transportation security officers," he said. Apparently, that assumption has been found wanting.

Under the TSA’s relatively new PreCheck program, travelers can apply for expedited security by paying an $85 fee and sharing personal information. The TSA overestimated how many passengers would apply for the program – a massive miscalculation. They projected that 25 million would sign up but so far, fewer than 3 million have signed up. Now, instead of waiting to see how PreCheck would perform, the heads of the TSA made yet another costly decision:

"They (TSA) agreed with Congress to cut the funding from 45 thousand personnel down to 42 thousand," Blank said. "That turned out to be an error in judgment, and that's one of fundamental reasons that we're seeing the situation we have."

Leadership turnover is a problem that plagues the beleaguered agency with apparently six administrators in just 15 years.

There is no “Easy” button that Washington can press to make things better at the TSA. Tough decisions need to be made and so far it appears no one has the guts to make them.

Long term, maybe it’s time to consider privatizing the TSA once again.

In the short-term, what about eliminating the PreCheck lines and reopening the empty lines as extra security lines to all travelers especially during heavy travel periods? Those who signed up for PreCheck can be escorted to the head of line. Or how about working with airlines to innovate on ways to get more passengers through security faster?

And of course, the TSA has to do more than fill positions with any bodies. That has led to the kinds of front line agents taking unsavory actions against passengers or screeners failing to identify explosives 95 percent of the time.

Let’s be clear that the TSA is anything but a victim as Blank rightly concludes:

"Let's stop acting as if the TSA is the victim of something that came along. We are the victims of really, really bad sloppy management and that's why we're paying the price."

It might also be a good time to re-examine the matter of getting government less involved at TSA. 

Independent Women's Forum is an educational 501(c)(3) dedicated to developing and advancing policies that aren’t just well intended, but actually enhance people’s freedom, choices, and opportunities. IWF is the sister organization of the Independent Women’s Voice.​
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