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Friday, June 2, 2017

Has the TSA Actually Become Bearable?

We need more entrepreneurs in the TSA. Any ideas?

I’ve been flying pretty frequently since I was four months old. My first airport memory is from when I was about six, pre-9/11 TSA: my parents, younger sisters, and I were going through security, which was not a big deal at all, and an agent simply asked us three kids if our parents really were our parents, to see if we were being abducted (I guess).

Perhaps we should also look at the little ways some airports are trying to improve their TSA.I remember freaking out, thinking my younger sisters were going to be stupid and either not answer or say something other than the obvious “Yes they are,” and then we would be taken away or something (I did not have a terribly high opinion of my sisters, whoops). But I had an overactive imagination and of course it was all fine.

That was about it though – no weirdly intrusive body scans making you feel exposed and vulnerable, even though they’re supposed to make you feel safer or something, in machines that are probably giving us cancer; no particular feeling of dread like you got as a kid when you had to see that one relative you never wanted to see again (no offense).

No one loves the TSA. At all. It’s totally inefficient, very badly managed, and would be much better if it was privatized. It is the worst part of traveling, even more so than flying with a crying baby and a snoring man (which was my last flight). But this is the way it is right now, and it doesn’t look like it’ll change soon. So, without giving up the fight to make big strides to improve the TSA, perhaps we should also look at the little ways some airports are taking entrepreneurship as far as they can on their own.


Hartsfield-Jackson International is my new home base airport, and even though it’s huge and has its own train, it’s really not that bad. When going through security for my Memorial Day flight last weekend, there were a good 100 or so people ahead of me in line, and they had a few security lanes closed, but I got through in about 10 minutes.

I’m still amazed.

How did we manage to get so many people through so few checkpoints so quickly? TSA didn’t try to force us. We broke ourselves into multiple lines pretty early on, so we didn’t jam. People began taking off their shoes and jackets ahead of time so they wouldn’t hold up the line at the conveyor belt. The new system that allows multiple people to get their carryons through security at once cut down wait time. Instead of using the full-body machines where you put your feet on the yellow marks, put your hands above your head, and wait for the walls to spin around you, TSA used the “old-fashioned” doorway meters, which took about a quarter of the time. And they didn’t yell at us.

Ten minutes later I was free and on the train, in a bit of a whirl from how quickly the process had gone. If only every TSA checkpoint could be as efficient!

Kansas City

The TSA agents at the KC airport are the friendliest I have ever encountered. A woman behind me was hovering at the very start of the line, unsure of what to do. The agent down by me called out to her, saying, “Come on down! Unless you want to stay here forever, haha… oh no, I’m kidding, come on down. How can I help you?” As I walked to security, I looked back and saw the agent patiently explaining where the visibly distressed woman needed to go.

“If you have $500 worth of barbecue sauce, you either have to throw it away, check your bag, or drink it.”As we waited to go through security, an agent was announcing the usual message: “If you have any aerosols, either throw them away or check your bag,” etc. But he changed it when it came to the liquids: “If you have any liquids larger than 3.4 ounces, you can’t take it with you. If you have $500 worth of barbecue sauce, you either have to throw it away, check your bag, or drink it. I have seen it all.”

We all grinned at his joke – which may not have been a joke, who knows in the land of barbecue – and seeing us smile made him smile. He and the other agents all seemed a little tired, and the line of people was longer than normal, but they were determined to make security a good experience for us. I have no doubt that TSA agents go to work a little depressed, knowing the people they encounter will probably be a little grumpy and predisposed to dislike them – they are usually grumpy to us, after all. But the attitude of the agents at KC made all the difference. Everyone in line with me was in a much better mood than I’ve seen lately.

It also didn’t hurt to have cartoons playing on TV immediately on the other side of security. Atlanta, take note.

New York City (LaGuardia)

I went pretty much straight from the UN to the airport, so I was pretty burned out on the whole security thing. I had very consciously worn a sweater with the American flag on it, hoping it would get me brownie points with TSA, and it worked: two of the agents told me they liked my sweater, and I got through security in about 10 minutes. Even in New York City. Turns out having a better attitude in line makes TSA agents better, too. Guess they’re human after all.

Meanwhile, at Reagan in D.C…

You’d think our nation’s capital, with all its lofty importance, money, and traffic, would have efficient TSA. Nope. Absolutely not. They must have decided it was fitting for a politician-filled airport to be as slow and cumbersome as Congress at the end of session: there really were not that many people in front of me, and we had plenty of space to line up, yet it took about half an hour to get through security. Why?

We need more entrepreneurs in the TSA. Any ideas?None of this is to say that TSA should not be overhauled. It should. We’ve had it for nearly 16 years and it still isn’t even that competent. But until that overhaul happens, at least we have some creatives willing to do their best to improve the system while we still have to deal with it.

On the other hand, more could still be done: music, for example, would be lovely. Does the TSA really think we still listen to the recorded security announcements they play over the speakers? We’d listen if they were played in between songs. TVs with cartoons visible from the waiting line would also help, a la Kansas City. A popcorn stand would be nice too. Also coffee, because we could all use a caffeine boost to speed us through the lines like in video games. And more comedian TSA agents.

In other words, we need more entrepreneurs. If you’ve experienced any improvements, or spotted any ways to make TSA more bearable, spread the word with us and be entrepreneurial yourself!