Flight security's a higher calling
Wednesday, November 26, 2008

OP-ED By Tom Murphy

Thanksgiving is coming and with that comes long airport lines. Then come the TV interviews with disgruntled passengers, and as gravy boats get passed around holiday tables Transportation Security Administration security screeners often get the stuffing pounded out of them from travelers who see cranberry red.

But who considers the point of view of the blue-shirted TSA screeners on the other side of the conveyor belt why would anyone want to do this most maligned of aviation jobs?

I discovered the proud and profound answer to this question from a TSA supervisor at Logan airport in Boston, Brett Cavanaugh.

As a trainer I teach that service should be used as a tool to promote security. The TSA believes this too, and over the years the agency has made efforts to enhance customer service. In advance of this latest TSA focus on service I was invited to Logan in September to offer customer service tips to Boston's screening supervisors.

The TSA has legitimate reasons for slowing the security process, including requiring that shoes be removed (Richard Reid, the potential shoe bomber, in 2002,) limiting liquids to three ounces (the London plot in 2006,) as just two examples. In class I made the point to the screeners that they should seize the initiative to calm travelers.

"Take the first step to relieve travelers' anxieties and that will help them, but it will help you defuse your pressures too," I told them.

Still, can service and security be compatible in practice? To gauge the effectiveness of my tips, I returned to Logan in October where Brett Cavanaugh volunteered to take me to his checkpoint in Terminal B.

Cavanaugh's a big guy with a ready smile. He's been with TSA since July, 2002 and before that he did a tour of duty in Bosnia with his National Guard unit. I asked him what he found the hardest part of the job.

"We live on the razor's edge between service and security," he said. "People want to get though the line quickly, but we have regulations to follow."

He pointed to one of his men using a tip from class. "See how he's engaging the passengers in conversation while checking IDs. That's good. That's using service to fulfill our safety mission."

Then a problem arose as an airline agent pushed an elderly woman in a wheelchair to the front of the line, forcing several travelers to step back. Activity on the belt ground to a halt while two screeners searched the woman, a slow process given her disability, and grumbles followed.

"What do you when people get upset because the line slows down?" I said.

"We try to let everyone know we haven't forgotten about them, but we have a job to do," he said. "And we will never compromise safety."

So there it was travelers want to get through the airport quickly, but security trumps service as many travelers might perceive it.

"After Bosnia, I'm sure you had options. Why choose a job that invites misunderstanding, even resentment?"

"This is not Wal-mart," he said. "We don't stock shelves. We're the last line of defense to keep people off planes who would harm Americans. I never forget the awesome responsibility of that."

So there it was: service, as conventionally defined, had its limits, but Brett Cavanaugh had a higher calling. That confirmed the passion I had heard in the voices of other TSA screeners in class who said they had chosen this work because they had been deeply affected by 9/11.

I was curious: did others see this dimension, or did they view the screeners as agents of aggravation only?

I queried travelers waiting at the gate with me before flying out and I spoke with two ladies from Tampa. Both said they considered security "a pain." One of them, June, a diabetic, told how she had been forced to give up her medicine because she'd packed it in an eight ounce bottle instead of a three ounce bottle.

"Was the screener professional with you?"

"Yes, but I'm a middle aged lady. What makes me a threat to anyone?"

"They want to keep you safe," I said, and I told her about Brett Cavanaugh, about his tour of duty in Bosnia and his core belief that sees a link between screening and service to country.

I could see it in her eyes she was listening.

"Next time I will look at them differently," June said, after a pause.

She didn't say "him." She said "them."

Progress, I thought!

Tom Murphy, Director of the Human Resiliency Institute at Fordham University, is the author of "Reclaiming the Sky: 9/11 and the Untold Story of the Men and Women Who Kept America Flying."

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