Study Finds Slow Airport Security Has An Upside

TSA agent
Mobile Edge Laptop Cases, Flickr

Going through airport security is a lesson in patience for even the most Zen traveler, but the good news is that those frustratingly slow security screenings might actually be more effective. According to a new study, TSA screeners who take their time are more successful at identifying targets like weapons or restricted items.

The study pitted TSA agents against Ivy League college students to test how well each group conducted a visual search. The experiment was simple and tested natural search skills (searching for a particular shape on a computer screen) – so the TSA screeners had no advantage over the students. The results showed that the college students were faster at completing the tasks but the TSA agents were more accurate.Stephen Mitroff, the psychologist heading up the research, told NBC news that the TSA screeners were slower because they were more methodical, which is ultimately what led to better results. “Our interpretation is those who are most experienced have found their strategy and use it the same way over and over – whether you spiral through the bag or are zig-zagging left and right. If you’re always doing the strategy and always doing it consistently, you’re freeing up your cognitive resources – your other abilities to try to identify targets,” he said.

The research is part of a larger study being conducted by the Department of Homeland Security.

A TSA Agent Answers Questions From The Community

tsa agent security checkpointIf you are flying this week, you are probably anticipating long security lines, many tiny bottles of liquids, and a lot of time shuffling through a metal detector in your socks. Last night on Reddit, a TSA agent participated in a Q & A (known as an “I Am A…” or “Ask Me Anything” on the site), and the community asked some great questions on security, stereotypes and weird encounters. See below for some of his answers.

On speeding through security checkpoints:

Be nice to officers. Don’t lay it on thick, but being rude or confrontational will get you nowhere. The most often used tactic for officers looking to “win” or “beat” passengers is to slow down.

Pay attention. Especially at bigger checkpoints, look around. Many times there are lanes that have few or no passengers in them, and will not get a lot of business because people assume they are closed. Watch passengers that look like they know what they’re doing and emulate them. We have officers whose job it is to stand around and advise passengers on what they need to do to get through the checkpoint quickly. Pay attention to what they’re saying, they really are just there to help you.

On securing your checked bags:

They’re rollerbags with a hardcase and a lock built in to the side. That is hands down your best option. Anyone with a ballpoint pen can get into a locked piece of luggage and zip it up again without you ever knowing. YouTube it and you’ll see. But still, I’d put a lock on any checked bag. People besides TSA officers handle your luggage, people far less scrupulous than us, and I mean … you don’t want to just invite them to go through your stuff.

On TSA officers stealing:

Officers do steal stuff. Officers are, unfortunately, people, too. Not every person in the world is honest and scrupulous. I know of half a dozen officers who were caught stealing, and it’s usually stupid because it’s a fire-able offense. You get caught and they pull your badge on the spot.

So personally, I don’t get it. Even part timers are making like 400 a paycheck…you try to grab an ipod, or even 40 bucks out of someone’s bin…one paycheck later you’re out way more money than you would have gotten from it. Morality aside…it’s just bad math.

On behind-the-scenes “shenanigans”:

I wouldn’t say there’s really a ‘behind the scenes’ on a passenger checkpoint, but a lot of officers screw around right under passengers noses, and whether or not we get away with it, we believe we do. The sad truth is that in order to maintain staffing to be responsive to rushes there are often times when too many of us around with nothing to do.

We know people say TSA stands for Thousands Standing Around.

At one of my…less professional moments, it was slow and I took a pair of rubber gloves, rolled them into a tight ball and was playing catch with another officer across two lanes. I threw him the ball, and he missed the catch, it bounced off his fingertips and hit an old lady in the head. No one got caught, but that’s what I’m talking about.

Something about Idleness and the devil…

On the stereotypes that agents are useless or have no other career options:

Honestly 99.9% (or more) of the people we interact with on any given day don’t mind or understand that we’re a ‘necessary evil.’ Regular business travelers tolerate us and appreciate when we’re not jerkbags. If you go online and read the complaints about TSA, understand that they really are a vocal minority.
I don’t mind. In fact I went to school for Civil Engineering but once I got into the real world I realized it wasn’t what I wanted to do. Rather than going back to school (and spending a lot more money) I did this. The fact is the pay really is good (I make about 40k a year), with good benefits, and requires little previous experience.

On missing weapons or dangerous items in security checks:

Take a razorblade. Or a long, thin sawblade like what got through security in that Mythbusters. Turn it on end so you’re looking down at the edger of the blade.

Not a lot there to look at.

I hope that helps you imagine how such a thing could be missed..in fact we often catch small pocket knives and the passenger tells us that it has been through half a dozen or more airports without being caught.

On the weirdest items he’s confiscated:

I was around for the liquid scare in 2006. That was pretty crazy. We had these huge garbage bins out by the queues before you even got to the checkpoint, and officers up on the mezzanine with bullhorns just repeating the same things over and over again.

Those bins got filled and emptied countless times during the day…EVERY liquid was thrown in them: expensive perfumes, eye contacts in their little foil packs, baby food. The passengers did it willingly before we even looked in their bags. And very few people complained. Everyone was scared…the threat was real and close.

Other than that…I dunno, there are a ton of things. Some old guy, probably in his 80s, had a sword cane. Said he had it for years, never realized there was a sword in it. He was shocked.

On celebrity pat-downs:

So I don’t get to pat down attractive women. I’ve never woken up in the morning hoping I get to pat down some Abercrombie model. However from a technical standpoint, it is easier to pat down someone who is physically fit rather than someone who is overweight or obese.

On my third day of work, I was brand new, wide eyed stupid, I had to pat down Will Ferrell. It was weird for me…he didn’t seem to mind. I’ve also had to pat down a number of NFL players, because of their size they often wear baggy clothing.

Generally celebrities do their best to remain inconspicuous and when I recognize a passenger as a celebrity, I do my best to remain professional treat them the same as everyone else. In the situation I believe that’s what they prefer.

I did meet Alan Tudyk…and I’m a huge fan. I told him so.

Read the full Q&A here.

[Photo credit: Flickr user TSA Public Affairs]

“Gate rape” is Urban Dictionary’s Word of the Year. Thanks TSA!

tsa, TSA
TSA
patdowns have gotten a lot of coverage here on Gadling. The tragicomic lengths TSA officials go through to grab some booty keep us safe have created a whole Internet subculture of jokes and rage. There’s even a blog called The Daily Patdown to showcase pictures of security officials looking for the next underwear bomber.

Now the fine folks at Urban Dictionary have named “Gate Rape” as the Word of the Year for 2010. Nobody knows who coined this sadly appropriate phrase, but it’s catching on. For some reason people don’t liked getting groped, especially if they’re Indian diplomats. Perhaps we will be seeing civil and criminal suits for gate rape in the near future?

Urban Dictionary has lots of travel-related slang, such as Travel Nazi and Heather Poole’s greatest invention: Laviating!

Happy Christmahanakwanzaka everybody!

[Image courtesy TSA. You wouldn’t believe what I had to do to get it.]

Desperate TSA looking for new colleagues at gas stations – promises free X-Ray vision and benefits

After advertising on pizza boxes, the TSA at Reagan National Airport have now resorted to advertising at D.C. area gas stations. In their ad for part time security officers, they promise a career where “x-ray vision and federal benefits come standard”. Perhaps I’m overreacting, but using x-ray screening equipment as a job perk seems rather tacky.

I’m also surprised that four months after the pizza box ads, the TSA is still having a hard time filling positions in a country where unemployment is such a hot issue.

On the official government jobs site, 100’s of positions are listed with the TSA – but the entry level position of Transportation Security Officer is listed at $29,131.00 – $43,697.00 /year – and that starting salary may have something to do with the trouble finding enough candidates. Still, if you are out of work and you fit the requirements, the TSA would love you to come and help them enjoy their x-ray perk!

British Airways chairman criticizes US airport security practices

British Airways chairman Martin Broughton recently spoke to a conference of airport operators, and openly criticized the way the US operates its airport security.

In his speech, Mr. Broughton suggested that the practice of being told to remove all shoes and laptops should be dropped. He also complained about inconsistent security measures – something I completely agree with.

He also criticized the US for demanding increased checks on US-bound international flights but not on its own domestic services. In his speech, he said the UK should stop “kowtowing” to US security demands.

Unfortunately, many of the inconvenient measures put in place seem like they are here to stay – and the arrival of whole body imaging machines will only make things worse. It is highly unlikely that complaints by the boss of one of the largest airlines in the world will help change things for passengers.

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[Image credit: AFP/Getty Images]