Undercover TSA Screener

I know I’m tempting fate flying USAirways this weekend, with the impending reservation system changeover from Sabre to Shares. I’m even flying back home tomorrow morning. Hope it goes smoothly.

My travel rituals include collecting articles and documents to review in a folder that goes with me on my way to the airport, and I cruise through it in the lounge or when I board the plane. If it’s an evening flight I know I have to attack the folder right away, as the night wears on I may get too tired to read.

Last night’s simple flight down to Ft. Lauderdale was delayed about an hour by a crew scheduling snafu, so I had a bit of extra time — and I made it past my work and on to pleasure reading (if you can call it that). I had printed out Barbara S. Peterson’s piece in the March Conde Nast Traveler. Ms. Peterson went undercover getting hired as a TSA screener.

It was well worth a read. Some excerpts…


On the process of being interviewed to become a screener:

    My “interviews” are so detached and impersonal that they could have been carried out by a robot. My first face-to-face with a TSA official consists of my sitting mutely while she reads to me stiffly from a script. I am then ushered into a different office, where another interviewer asks me a series of generic questions that he reads from his computer screen (“Have you ever helped anyone in need without being asked?”). The queries offer no opportunity for probing, and never during the hiring process am I asked about my reasons for wanting this job. One assistant tells me: “We are supposed to ask everyone the same questions,” which, if correct, seems a rather literal-minded interpretation of a government-fairness policy.

On training materials and testing:

    By the end of two weeks, two of my classmates have dropped out and another two have failed the battery of multiple-choice and threat-identification tests we’re given at the end of the course. But the laggards are given another chance, which I interpret as a subtle message that the TSA will do what it can to ensure that we all make our way to posts at the airport across the street. Most of us are ready: We have mastered the arcana of how to screen all manner of carry-on gear—everything from crematory urns to the service monkeys that some disabled passengers are allowed to take through security. We’re also instructed on how to spot bomb components in X-ray images, but some of the information we’re force-fed during our training is already out of date: We’re repeatedly told, “You’ll have to unlearn this when you get to the airport,” because procedures have changed. We spend hours being taught how to operate explosives-detection machines, including models that we’ll never see because our airport hasn’t acquired them. The training materials, I learn, are from another giant government contractor, Lockheed Martin. While the TSA obviously dictates the content of the materials, procedural updates apparently take a long time to move through the pipeline.

On screening folks like former U.S. Senator Bob Kerry, whose artificial leg (as a result of being wounded in Vietnam) sets of metal detectors:

    The reason the TSA—and my supervisors—give for searching this man is what I will come to call the “you never know” argument. As in you never know if an elderly person in a wheelchair is a dupe for a saboteur. Of course, it’s important to keep the extra screening as random as possible to avoid any patterns that a terrorist could exploit. But clearly, unless you believe that The Manchurian Candidate presents a plausible scenario, there are people who could safely be exempted without compromising security.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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