“She’s really good” … and other TSA tales

As many learning professionals do, I travel frequently around the U.S. and sometimes to other countries.  It has been interesting to watch the “security” procedures evolve since 911 and to observe the consistency, or lack thereof, across the U.S. airports.  How many times has something that didn’t raise an alert in my outbound airport suddenly cause concern in the return airport?  Or it was fine one week and the next week concern are raised?  I love to travel, and it is essential for my professional success, yet I have found packing and navigating through security to be more and more of a hassle over time.  And as a learning professional, I wonder how well trained these agents are and how TSA ensures learning transfer and quality of work. Yesterday I flew from St. Louis (STL) to Denver (DEN) to begin a 12-day business trip which will include a business mastermind retreat with some valued colleagues, facilitating a 3-day ASTD Training Certificate pre-conference workshop, and attending and presenting at the 4 day ASTD International Conference & Exposition.  No easy way to pack light for this trip due to the variety of activities and outfits required!  One of my check-in bags (weighing in at 40.5#) exclusively held materials for the pre-conference workshop!  (I often say, “If you are going to do training right, you don’t travel light”).  As I constantly do, I thought carefully about how to pack to minimize hassle and maximize productivity. Two checked bags later, I was in the security line with one rolling check-in bag (containing my casual clothes for the retreat as well as some business materials) and my over-sized purse/duffel (containing my computer, reading material, purse, etc.).  It was 6:00 a.m. – earlier than I typically want to even talk to people let alone be lectured to.  One of the two TSA agents that check boarding passes and IDs was continually admonishing the passengers to
“Remove all of your liquids from your bags.  This is why the line is so long and moving so slow.  How hard is it people?” (she actually said that a couple times!) “Anything liquid needs to be seen to verify it is safe.  Remove it before you get to the scanners.  You need to make these lines go faster.”
REALLY? I get that TSA’s job is to keep us safe, but is belittling us helpful to that end?  On the TSA website, they state “we are people of integrity who respect and care for others …”  That didn’t sound or feel like respect and caring to me. Finally, my bags went through the scanner as I did.  On the other side, one of the agents asked if the green rolling bag was mine and explained there was an item that looked like a small knife in there, so they needed to search the bag.  No problem, I’m happy to cooperate.  She asked to see my jewelry bag and I also pointed her toward a small office supplies bag as I assumed what she was looking for was in one there.  Sure enough, a small pocket knife, blade about 1.5″ long (that once was my father’s and I’d been carrying around with me for about 8 years), that I use to open boxes and training materials, was the culprit.  (Note: TSA prohibited items list states no knives are allowed in carry-on but you can bring metal, pointed tip scissors with a blade up to 4″ long. Hm.) I comment to the agent that it is frustrating that I’ve been through so many airports, including STL with this little knife many times and no one has ever questioned it.  She says “Yes, it can be easy to miss things.  This inspector is really good though; she and I have both been here since 911.”  Being polite, albeit frustrated, I sacrifice my knife, thank her for helping keep us safe and go on my way. About 4 hours later I am at the Valdoro Mountain Lodge in Breckenridge, CO (beautiful place) unpacking and can’t find my toiletries bag.  I was sure I put it in the big checked bag that had my conference clothes and, other than the toiletries bag, was intended to stay in my car while in Breckenridge.  I’m digging in it (in the hotel parking garage) and finally decide I need to bring the bag up to my room to properly unpack it and find my toiletries.  Upstairs we go.  No luck.  Toiletries bag MIA.  About to call my husband to ask him to overnight it because I clearly must have left it at home, I decide I might as well unpack my carry-on bag first. Much to my surprise, there was my toiletries bag!  While I thought I had packed so carefully, I had accidentally put my toiletries in my carry-on bag!  In the green rolling bag.  With the 3-1-1 clear plastic liquid bag inside it.  Filled with multiple bottles and tubes of liquids.  Not far from the office supplies bag (less one small pocket knife) and the jewelry bag. “She’s really good; we’ve both been here since 911” echoed through my head.  One of TSA’s expert, high-performing screening agents completely missed my large toiletries bag with the 3-1-1 liquids bag filled with liquids.  REALLY? As a traveler, I was #thankful that my toiletries bag wasn’t discovered.  It would have really bummed me out if fueled the fire of the rude Security Checkpoint agent by being one of the admonished travelers who “didn’t take out their liquids” and “slowed the line down.”  I was also a bit shocked that something that obvious was missed and a bit concerned for the true safety of our air travel. As a learning professional, I was flooded with questions.  If she was one of the “high performers,” what were the lower performers missing?  What happens to the security agents scanning ability when they have locked in to one concern?  Is it normal brain functioning to completely miss other potential concerns at that point?  Does TSA use recent brain research to design their processes and training?  How does TSA train their agents?  What type of refreshers do they give long-term agents to keep them fresh?  What are their quality metrics?  How do they track quality lapses such as this?  Do they have a feedback loop to incorporate learning from lapses such as this and improve their processes?  Not to mention, do they provide Customer Service and Interpersonal Skills training so that their agents reduce the stress of travel and tension of being in security lines instead of adding to it by insulting and belittling the travelers? We take our shoes off because one person put explosives in his shoes.  We have severe liquid limitations because a few people smuggled on explosive liquids.  Both of these measures were after-the-fact, reactionary measures.  How can TSA get ahead of potential threats, modify their rules and train Security personnel ahead of the fact to keep us safe?  And then, of course, how can they ensure consistent quality inspection and smooth processes so that the minority of “bad guys” don’t get through but the majority of “good guys” aren’t punished in the process? What about your organization?  How often do your “high performers” slip?  How do you keep all of your employees skills sharp, especially in critical operations?  How do you learn from quality misses and improve your processes? These are just a few of the questions learning professionals need to be thinking about to help our organizations succeed.
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