oversight

Air Passenger Screening: Transportation Security Administration Needs to Improve Complaint Processes

Published by the Government Accountability Office on 2012-11-29.

Below is a raw (and likely hideous) rendition of the original report. (PDF)

                              United States Government Accountability Office

GAO                           Testimony
                              Before the Subcommittee on Aviation,
                              Committee on Transportation and
                              Infrastructure, House of
                              Representatives
                              AIR PASSENGER
For Release on Delivery
Expected at 10:00 a.m. EST
Thursday, November 29, 2012

                              SCREENING
                              Transportation Security
                              Administration Needs to
                              Improve Complaint
                              Processes
                              Statement of Stephen M. Lord, Director
                              Homeland Security and Justice Issues




GAO-13-186T
United States Government Accountability Office
Washington, DC 20548




                                   Chairman Petri, Ranking Member Costello, and Members of the
                                   Subcommittee:

                                   I am pleased to be here to discuss the findings of our November 2012
                                   report assessing the Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA)
                                   efforts to improve the air passenger screening complaints processes. 1
                                   TSA screens or oversees the screening of more than 650 million air
                                   passengers per year at 752 security checkpoints in more than 440
                                   commercial airports nationwide, and must attempt to balance its aviation
                                   security mission with competing goals of efficiency and respecting the
                                   privacy of the traveling public. The agency relies upon multiple layers of
                                   security to deter, detect, and disrupt persons posing a potential risk to
                                   aviation security. These layers focus on screening millions of passengers
                                   and pieces of carry-on and checked baggage, as well as tons of air cargo,
                                   on a daily basis.

                                   Given TSA’s daily interaction with members of the traveling public, air
                                   passenger screening complaints reflect a wide range of concerns about,
                                   for example, the systems, procedures, and staff that TSA has used for
                                   screening air passengers at security checkpoints. This includes concerns
                                   related to the use of Advanced Imaging Technology and enhanced pat-
                                   down procedures. 2 TSA has processes for addressing complaints about
                                   air passengers’ screening experience at security checkpoints, but
                                   concerns have been raised about these processes. Also, TSA is
                                   implementing a Pre✓™ program to expedite screening at security
                                   checkpoints.

                                   My statement today is primarily based on our November 2012 report and,
                                   like the report, discusses the extent to which TSA has (1) policies and
                                   processes to guide the receipt of air passenger screening complaints, and
                                   uses this information to monitor or enhance screening operations, (2) a


                                   1
                                    GAO, Air Passenger Screening: Transportation Security Administration Could Improve
                                   Complaint Processes, GAO-13-43 (Washington, D.C.: Nov. 15, 2012).
                                   2
                                     The December 2009 terrorist attempt to detonate an explosive device during an
                                   international flight bound for Detroit prompted TSA to implement changes to air passenger
                                   screening, including accelerating the nationwide deployment of Advanced Imaging
                                   Technology (body scanners) and introducing enhanced pat-down procedures in October
                                   2010 to screen air passengers who, for example, opt out of Advanced Imaging
                                   Technology-based screening.




                                   Page 1                                                                      GAO-13-186T
consistent process for informing passengers about how to make
complaints, and (3) complaint resolution processes that conform to
independence standards to help ensure that these processes are fair and
impartial. 3 As requested, my statement also describes TSA’s recent
efforts to make the screening process more risk-based and selective
through use of TSA’s Pre✓™ program.

For our November 2012 report, we obtained and analyzed air passenger
screening complaint data from October 2009 through June 2012 from four
TSA headquarters units. 4 In addition, we obtained and analyzed air
passenger screening complaint data from April 2011 through June 2012
from a database TSA uses to document screening complaints collected
through TSA’s Talk to TSA web-based portal. 5 On the basis of information
from and discussions with TSA officials related to the controls in place to
maintain the integrity of TSA’s complaint data, we determined that the
data from each database were sufficiently reliable for our purposes. We
also reviewed TSA documentation and interviewed TSA officials from
headquarters offices and 6 airports selected for the type of security and
screening equipment used, among other things. The airport interviews are
not generalizable, but provide insights. Additional details on the scope
and methodology, including our assessment of data reliability, can be
found within that report. To obtain information about TSA’s Pre✓™
program, we analyzed TSA program documentation, interviewed TSA
officials, and reviewed TSA’s website information in November 2012. We
discussed this information with TSA officials and incorporated their
technical comments as appropriate. We conducted all of this work in
accordance with generally accepted government auditing standards.
Those standards require that we plan and perform the audit to obtain
sufficient, appropriate evidence to provide a reasonable basis for our
findings and conclusions based on our audit objectives. We believe that




3
GAO-13-43.
4
 The TSA units are the TSA Contact Center, the Office of the Executive Secretariat, the
Disability Branch, and the Multicultural Branch. We selected October 2009 as the starting
point because it was the first month of the fiscal year that included the December 2009
terrorist attempt to detonate an explosive device during an international flight bound for
Detroit, which prompted TSA to implement changes to its air passenger screening
operations.
5
This database became operational in April 2011, according to TSA officials.




Page 2                                                                        GAO-13-186T
the evidence obtained provides a reasonable basis for our findings based
on our audit objectives.

In summary, TSA receives thousands of air passenger screening
complaints through five central mechanisms, but does not have an
agencywide policy, consistent processes, or a focal point to guide receipt
and use of such information. Also, while the agency has several methods
to inform passengers about its complaint processes, it does not have an
agencywide policy or mechanism to ensure consistent use of these
methods among commercial airports. In addition, TSA’s complaint
resolution processes do not fully conform to standards of independence
to ensure that these processes are fair, impartial, and credible, but the
agency is taking steps to improve independence. To address these
issues, we made four recommendations to TSA with which the agency
concurred, and it indicated actions it is taking in response. Finally, TSA
officials stated that the agency is undertaking efforts to focus its
resources and improve the passenger experience at security checkpoints
by applying new intelligence-driven, risk-based screening procedures,
including expanding its Pre✓™ program. TSA plans to have this program
in place at 35 airports by the end of the calendar year and estimates that
it has screened more than 4 million passengers to date through this
program.




Page 3                                                          GAO-13-186T
                         TSA receives thousands of air passenger screening complaints through
Lack of an               five centralized mechanisms but does not have an agencywide policy,
Agencywide Policy,       consistent processes, or an agency focal point to guide the receipt of
                         these complaints, or “mine” these data to inform management about the
Consistent Processes,    nature and extent of the screening complaints to help improve screening
and Agency Focal         operations and customer service. 6 For example, TSA data indicate the
                         following:
Point Limits TSA’s
Ability to Receive and   •   From October 2009 through June 2012, TSA received more than
                             39,000 screening complaints through its TSA Contact Center (TCC),
Use Complaint                including more than 17,000 complaints about pat-down procedures. 7
Information              •   From October 2009 through June 2012, TSA’s Office of the Executive
                             Secretariat received approximately 4,000 complaints that air
                             passengers submitted by mail.
                         •   From April 2011 (when it was launched) through June 2012, the
                             agency’s Talk to TSA web-based mechanism received approximately
                             4,500 air passenger screening complaints, including 1,512 complaints
                             about the professionalism of TSA staff during the screening process. 8
                         However, the data from the five centralized mechanisms do not reflect the
                         full nature and extent of complaints because local TSA staff have
                         discretion in implementing TSA’s complaint processes, including how they
                         receive and document complaints. For example, comment cards were
                         used in varying ways at 6 airports we contacted. 9 Specifically, customer
                         comment cards were not used at 2 of these airports, were on display at 2
                         airports, and were available upon request at the remaining 2 airports we
                         contacted. TSA does not have a policy requiring that complaints
                         submitted using the cards be tracked or reported centrally.




                         6
                          TSA’s five centralized mechanisms include TSA’s Contact Center, Office of the Executive
                         Secretariat, Disability Branch, Multicultural Branch, and Talk to TSA web-based
                         mechanism.
                         7
                          The TCC receives, documents, and helps resolve screening complaints that air
                         passengers make by telephone or e-mail. The TCC is TSA’s primary point of contact for
                         collecting, documenting, and responding to public questions, concerns, or complaints
                         regarding, among other things, TSA security policies, procedures, and programs.
                         8
                          For further information on the complaint data from TSA’s five centralized mechanisms,
                         see GAO-13-43.
                         9
                         We visited 4 of the 6 airports that we contacted.




                         Page 4                                                                      GAO-13-186T
We concluded that a consistent policy to guide all TSA efforts to receive
and document complaints would improve TSA’s oversight of these
activities and help ensure consistent implementation. TSA also uses TCC
data to inform the public about air passenger screening complaints,
monitor operational effectiveness of airport security checkpoints, and
make changes as needed. However, TSA does not use data from its
other four mechanisms, in part because the complaint categories differ,
making data consolidation difficult. A process to systematically collect
information from all mechanisms, including standard complaint
categories, would better enable TSA to improve operations and customer
service. Further, at the time of our review, TSA had not designated a focal
point for coordinating agencywide policy and processes related to
receiving, tracking, documenting, reporting, and acting on screening
complaints. Without a focal point at TSA headquarters, the agency does
not have a centralized entity to guide and coordinate these processes, or
to suggest any additional refinements to the system.

To address these weaknesses, we recommended that TSA

•   establish a consistent policy to guide agencywide efforts for receiving,
    tracking, and reporting air passenger screening complaints;
•   establish a process to systematically compile and analyze information
    on air passenger screening complaints from all complaint
    mechanisms; and
•   designate a focal point to develop and coordinate agencywide policy
    on screening complaint processes, guide the analysis and use of the
    agency’s screening complaint data, and inform the public about the
    nature and extent of screening complaints.
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) concurred with the
recommendations and indicated actions that TSA had taken, had
underway, and was planning to take in response. For example, DHS
stated that TSA would review current intake and processing procedures
at headquarters and in the field and develop policy, as appropriate, to
better guide the complaint receipt, tracking, and reporting processes. We
believe that these are beneficial steps that would address the
recommendation, provided that the resulting policy refinements improve
the existing processes for receiving, tracking, and reporting all air
passenger screening complaints, including the screening complaints that
air passengers submit locally at airports through comment cards or in
person at security checkpoints.




Page 5                                                           GAO-13-186T
                        In commenting on a draft of our November 2012 report, TSA also stated
                        that the agency began channeling information from the Talk to TSA
                        database to the TCC in October 2012. However, DHS did not specify in
                        its letter whether TSA will compile and analyze data from the Talk to TSA
                        database and its other centralized mechanisms in its efforts to inform the
                        public about the nature and extent of screening complaints, and whether
                        these efforts will include data on screening complaints submitted locally at
                        airports through customer comment cards or in person at airport security
                        checkpoints. DHS also did not provide sufficient detail for us to assess
                        whether TSA’s planned actions will address the difficulties we identified in
                        collecting standardized screening data across different complaint
                        categories and mechanisms. DHS stated that the Assistant Administrator
                        for the Office of Civil Rights & Liberties, Ombudsman and Traveler
                        Engagement was now the focal point for overseeing the key TSA entities
                        involved with processing passenger screening complaints. It will be
                        important for the Assistant Administrator to work closely with, among
                        others, the office of the Assistant Administrator of Security Operations
                        because this office oversees screening operations at commercial airports
                        and security operations staff in the field who receive screening complaints
                        submitted through customer comment cards or in person at airport
                        security checkpoints. We will continue to monitor TSA’s progress in
                        implementing these recommendations.


                        TSA has several methods to inform passengers about its complaint
TSA Has Several         processes, but does not have an agencywide policy or mechanism to
Methods to Inform Air   ensure consistent use of these methods among commercial airports. For
                        example, TSA has developed standard signs, stickers, and customer
Passengers about        comment cards that can be used at airport checkpoints to inform
Making Screening        passengers about how to submit feedback to TSA; however, we found
                        inconsistent use at the 6 airports we contacted.
Complaints, but Does
Not Consistently        For example, customer comment cards were displayed in the checkpoints
                        at 2 airports, while at 2 others the cards were provided upon request.
Implement Them          However, we found that passengers may be reluctant to ask for such
                        cards, according to TSA. TSA officials at 4 of the 6 airports also said that
                        the agency could do more to share best practices for informing
                        passengers about complaint processes. For example, TSA holds periodic
                        conference calls for its Customer Support Managers—TSA staff at certain
                        commercial airports who work in conjunction with other local TSA staff to
                        resolve customer complaints and communicate the status and resolution
                        of complaints to air passengers—to discuss customer service. However,
                        Customer Support Managers have not used this mechanism to discuss


                        Page 6                                                           GAO-13-186T
                       best practices for informing air passengers about processes for
                       submitting complaints, according to the officials we interviewed. Policies
                       for informing the public about complaint processes and mechanisms for
                       sharing best practices among local TSA officials could help provide TSA
                       reasonable assurance that these activities are being conducted
                       consistently and help local TSA officials learn from one another about
                       what practices work well.

                       We recommended that TSA establish an agencywide policy to guide its
                       efforts to inform air passengers about the screening complaint processes
                       and establish mechanisms, particularly at the airport level, to share
                       information on best practices for informing air passengers about the
                       screening complaint processes. DHS concurred with the recommendation
                       and stated that TSA would develop a policy to better inform air
                       passengers about the screening complaint processes. We will continue to
                       monitor TSA’s progress in implementing this recommendation.


                       TSA’s complaint resolution processes do not fully conform to standards of
TSA’s Complaint        independence to ensure that these processes are fair, impartial, and
Resolution Processes   credible, but the agency is taking steps to improve independence.
                       Specifically, TSA airport officials responsible for resolving air passenger
Do Not Fully Conform   complaints are generally in the same chain of command as TSA airport
to Standards of        staff who are the subjects of the complaints. While TSA has an
                       Ombudsman Division that could help ensure greater independence in the
Independence, but      complaint processes, the division primarily focuses on handling internal
TSA Is Taking Steps    personnel matters and is not yet fully equipped to address external
                       complaints from air passengers, according to the head of the division.
to Increase
Independence           TSA is developing a new process for referring air passenger complaints
                       directly to the Ombudsman Division from airports and for providing air
                       passengers an independent avenue to make complaints about airport
                       security checkpoint screening. In August 2012, TSA’s Ombudsman
                       Division began addressing a small number of air passenger complaints
                       forwarded from the TCC, according to the head of that division. TSA also
                       began advertising the division’s new role in addressing passenger
                       screening complaints via the TSA website in October 2012. According to
                       the Assistant Administrator of TSA’s Office of Civil Rights & Liberties,
                       Ombudsman and Traveler Engagement, the division will not handle
                       complaints for which there exists an established process that includes an
                       appeals function, such as disability complaints or other civil rights or civil
                       liberties complaints, in order to avoid duplication of currently established
                       processes. According to the Assistant Administrator, the agency also


                       Page 7                                                              GAO-13-186T
                       plans to initiate a Passenger Advocate Program by January 2013, in
                       which selected TSA airport staff will be trained to take on a collateral
                       passenger advocate role, respond in real time to identify and resolve
                       traveler-related screening complaints, and assist air passengers with
                       medical conditions or disabilities, among other things. It is too early to
                       assess the extent to which these initiatives will help mitigate possible
                       concerns about independence.


                       TSA officials stated that the agency is undertaking efforts to focus its
TSA Is Expanding Its   resources and improve the passenger experience at security checkpoints
Risk-Based Programs,   by applying new intelligence-driven, risk-based screening procedures and
                       enhancing its use of technology.
Including the Pre✓™
Program                One component of TSA’s risk-based approach to passenger screening is
                       the Pre✓™ program, which was introduced at 32 airports in 2012, and
                       which the agency plans to expand to 3 additional airports by the end of
                       the calendar year. The program allows frequent flyers of five airlines, as
                       well as individuals enrolled in other departmental trusted traveler
                       programs—where passengers are pre-vetted and deemed trusted
                       travelers—to be screened on an expedited basis. This program is
                       intended to allow TSA to focus its resources on high-risk travelers.
                       According to TSA, more than 4 million passengers have been screened
                       through this program to date. Agency officials have reported that with the
                       deployment of this program and other risk-based security initiatives, such
                       as modifying screening procedures for passengers 75 and over and
                       active duty service members, TSA has achieved its stated goal of
                       doubling the number of passengers going through expedited screening.
                       According to TSA, as of the end of fiscal year 2012, over 7 percent of
                       daily passengers were eligible for expedited screening based on low risk.
                       However, the estimated number of passengers that will be screened on
                       an expedited basis is still a relatively small percentage of air passengers
                       subject to TSA screening protocols each year. We plan to begin an
                       assessment of TSA’s progress in implementing the TSA Pre✓™ program
                       in 2013. 10




                       10
                        This work is at the request of the Chairmen of the Subcommittees on Transportation
                       Security and Oversight, Investigations, and Management of the Committee on Homeland
                       Security, House of Representatives.




                       Page 8                                                                  GAO-13-186T
                  Chairman Petri, Ranking Member Costello, and Members of the
                  Subcommittee, this concludes my prepared remarks. I look forward to
                  responding to any questions that you may have.


                  For questions about this statement, please contact Steve Lord at (202)
GAO Contact and   512-4379 or lords@gao.gov. Contact points for our Offices of
Staff             Congressional Relations and Public Affairs may be found on the last page
                  of this statement. Individuals making key contributions to this statement
Acknowledgments   include Jessica Lucas-Judy (Assistant Director), David Alexander,
                  Thomas Lombardi, Anthony Pordes, and Juan Tapia-Videla.




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                  Page 9                                                        GAO-13-186T
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