oversight

Air Passenger Screening: Transportation Security Administration Could Improve Complaint Processes

Published by the Government Accountability Office on 2012-11-15.

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

                United States Government Accountability Office

GAO             Report to Congressional Committees




November 2012
                AIR PASSENGER
                SCREENING
                Transportation
                Security
                Administration Could
                Improve Complaint
                Processes




GAO-13-43
                                               November 2012

                                               AIR PASSENGER SCREENING
                                               Transportation Security Administration Could
                                               Improve Complaint Processes
Highlights of GAO-13-43, a report to
congressional committees




Why GAO Did This Study                         What GAO Found
TSA, which screens or oversees the             The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) receives thousands of air
screening of over 650 million air              passenger screening complaints through five mechanisms, but does not have an
passengers per year, has processes             agencywide policy or consistent processes to guide receipt and use of such
for addressing complaints about air            information. For example, from October 2009 through June 2012, TSA received
passengers’ screening experience at            more than 39,000 screening complaints through its TSA Contact Center (TCC).
checkpoints, but concerns have been            However, the data from the five mechanisms do not reflect the full nature and
raised about these processes. The              extent of complaints because local TSA staff have discretion in implementing
Conference Report accompanying the             TSA’s complaint processes, including how they receive and document
Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2012,
                                               complaints. For example, comment cards are used at four of the six airports GAO
directed TSA to ensure the traveling
                                               contacted, but TSA does not have a policy requiring that complaints submitted
public is aware of these processes and
GAO to review TSA’s policies and
                                               using the cards be tracked or reported centrally. A consistent policy to guide all
procedures for resolving passenger             TSA efforts to receive and document complaints would improve TSA’s oversight
complaints. This report addresses the          of these activities and help ensure consistent implementation. TSA also uses
extent to which TSA has (1) policies           TCC data to inform the public about air passenger screening complaints, monitor
and processes to guide the receipt of          operational effectiveness of airport security checkpoints, and make changes as
air passenger screening complaints             needed. However, TSA does not use data from its other four mechanisms, in part
and use of this information to monitor         because the complaint categories differ, making data consolidation difficult. A
or enhance screening operations, (2) a         process to systematically collect information from all mechanisms, including
consistent process for informing               standard complaint categories, would better enable TSA to improve operations
passengers about how to make                   and customer service.
complaints, and (3) complaint
resolution processes that conform to           TSA has several methods to inform passengers about its complaint processes,
independence standards. To address             but does not have an agencywide policy or mechanism to ensure consistent use
these objectives, GAO reviewed TSA             of these methods among commercial airports. For example, TSA has developed
documentation, analyzed complaint              standard signs, stickers, and customer comment cards that can be used at
data from October 2009 through June            airport checkpoints to inform passengers about how to submit feedback to TSA;
2012, and interviewed TSA officials            however, GAO found inconsistent use at the six airports it contacted. For
from headquarters offices and six              example, two airports displayed customer comment cards at the checkpoint,
airports selected for type of security,        while at two others the cards were provided upon request. Passengers may be
among other things. The airport                reluctant to ask for such cards, however, according to TSA. TSA officials at four
interviews are not generalizable but           of the six airports also said that the agency could do more to share best practices
provide insights.                              for informing passengers about complaint processes. Policies for informing the
                                               public about complaint processes and mechanisms for sharing best practices
What GAO Recommends                            among local TSA officials could help provide TSA reasonable assurance that
GAO recommends that TSA, among                 these activities are being conducted consistently and help local TSA officials
other actions, establish (1) a consistent      learn from one another about what practices work well.
policy for receiving complaints, (2) a
process to systematically analyze              TSA’s complaint resolution processes do not fully conform to standards of
information on complaints from all             independence to ensure that these processes are fair, impartial, and credible, but
mechanisms, and (3) a policy for               the agency is taking steps to improve independence. Specifically, TSA airport
informing passengers about the                 officials responsible for resolving air passenger complaints are generally in the
screening complaint processes and              same chain of command as TSA airport staff who are the subjects of the
mechanisms to share best practices             complaints. TSA is developing a new process that could help ensure greater
among airports. TSA concurred and is           independence by TSA units referring air passenger complaints directly to its
taking actions in response.                    Ombudsman Division and by providing passengers an independent avenue to
                                               make complaints to that division. TSA also plans to initiate a program by January
View GAO-13-43. For more information,
contact Stephen M. Lord at (202) 512-4379 or   2013 in which selected TSA airport staff are to be trained as passenger
lords@gao.gov.                                 advocates as a collateral duty. It is too early to assess the extent to which these
                                               initiatives will help mitigate possible concerns about independence.
                                                                                       United States Government Accountability Office
Contents


Letter                                                                                    1
              Background                                                                  6
              Lack of an Agencywide Policy, Consistent Processes, and Agency
                Focal Point Limits TSA’s Ability to Receive and Use Complaint
                Information                                                             14
              TSA Has Several Methods to Inform Air Passengers about Making
                Screening Complaints, but Does Not Consistently Implement
                Them                                                                    27
              TSA’s Complaint Resolution Process Lacks Independence, but TSA
                Is Taking Steps to Increase Independence                                31
              Conclusions                                                               36
              Recommendations for Executive Action                                      37
              Agency Comments and Our Evaluation                                        38

Appendix I    Comments from the Department of Homeland Security                         42



Appendix II   GAO Contact and Staff Acknowledgments                                     45



Figures
              Figure 1: TSA Headquarters Units and Local TSA Airport Staff
                       Responsible for Receiving and Addressing Air Passenger
                       Screening Complaints                                              7
              Figure 2: Example of TSA Customer Comment Card                            10
              Figure 3: Numbers of Monthly Air Passenger Screening Complaints
                       That TSA Received from October 2009 through June 2012            15
              Figure 4: Total Numbers of Air Passenger Screening Complaints
                       That the TCC Received from October 2009 through June
                       2012, by Category                                                17
              Figure 5: Numbers of Air Passenger Screening Complaints That the
                       TCC Received from October 2009 through June 2012, by
                       Category (Four Largest Categories)                               18
              Figure 6: Numbers of Air Passenger Screening Complaints That the
                       Multicultural Branch Processed as Cases from October
                       2009 through June 2012, by Category                              19
              Figure 7: Numbers of Air Passenger Screening Complaints That the
                       Disability Branch Processed as Cases from October 2009
                       through June 2012, by Category                                   21




              Page i                            GAO-13-43 Air Passenger Screening Complaints
Figure 8: Numbers of Air Passenger Screening Complaints That
         Talk to TSA Received from April 2011 through June 2012,
         by Category                                                                      22
Figure 9: Examples of TSA Efforts to Inform Air Passengers about
         Procedures for Making Screening Complaints                                       28
Figure 10: Simplified Organizational Chart Depicting TSA Chain of
         Command at a Typical Category X Airport                                          34




Abbreviations

AFSD              Assistant Federal Security Director
ATSA              Aviation and Transportation Security Act
CSQIM             Customer Support and Quality Improvement Manager
DHS               U.S. Department of Homeland Security
FSD               Federal Security Director
GSA               U.S. General Services Administration
SPOT              Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques
SPP               Screening Partnership Program
TCC               TSA Contact Center
TSA               Transportation Security Administration
TSO               Transportation Security Officer




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Page ii                                     GAO-13-43 Air Passenger Screening Complaints
United States Government Accountability Office
Washington, DC 20548




                                   November 15, 2012

                                   Congressional Committees

                                   The Transportation Security Administration (TSA), established by the
                                   Aviation and Transportation Security Act (ATSA), provides for, or
                                   oversees the provision of, security screening operations at the nation’s
                                   commercial airports. 1 In accordance with ATSA, all air passengers and
                                   their accessible property must pass through a security checkpoint and
                                   undergo screening before entering the sterile area of an airport. 2 TSA
                                   currently screens or oversees the screening of over 650 million air
                                   passengers per year at 752 security checkpoints at over 440 commercial
                                   airports nationwide. 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
                                   (commonly referred to as a full body scanner, which screens air
                                   passengers for weapons, explosives, and other objects concealed under
                                   layers of clothing) and introducing enhanced pat-down procedures to
                                   screen air passengers who, for example, opt out of Advanced Imaging
                                   Technology-based screening. Air passenger screening complaints reflect
                                   a wide range of concerns, including those related to the use of Advanced
                                   Imaging Technology and concerns about enhanced pat-down procedures




                                   1
                                    See Pub. L. No. 107-71, 115 Stat. 597 (2001). For this report, we use the term “air
                                   passengers” to include ticketed passengers, individuals accompanying ticketed
                                   passengers, airline crew members, and any other individuals who pass through security
                                   checkpoints employing TSA-approved screening procedures at TSA-regulated airports. In
                                   this report, we use the term “commercial airports” to refer to all TSA-regulated airports
                                   operating under TSA-approved security programs in accordance with 49 C.F.R. pt. 1542
                                   and at which TSA or private sector screeners who are subject to TSA oversight screen air
                                   passengers and their property.
                                   2
                                    The sterile area is that portion of an airport specified in the airport security program that
                                   provides passengers access to boarding aircraft and to which the access generally is
                                   controlled through the screening of persons and property. See 49 C.F.R. § 1540.5.




                                   Page 1                                        GAO-13-43 Air Passenger Screening Complaints
being unnecessarily intrusive. 3 TSA has various processes for receiving
and resolving complaints that air passengers may have about their
screening experience at security checkpoints; however, public concerns
have been raised about these processes.

The Conference Report accompanying the Consolidated Appropriations
Act, 2012, directed TSA to make every effort to ensure that members of
the traveling public are aware of the procedures and processes for
making complaints about air passenger screening. 4 The Conference
Report also directed that we review TSA’s policies and procedures for
resolving passenger complaints, including an assessment of
organizational independence. In response, this report addresses the
following questions: (1) To what extent does TSA have policies and
processes in place to guide the receipt of air passenger screening
complaints and use this information to monitor or enhance screening
operations? (2) To what extent does TSA have a consistent process for
informing air passengers about how to make screening complaints? (3)
To what extent does TSA have complaint resolution processes that
conform to standards of independence to ensure that these processes
are fair, impartial, and credible?

To address the first objective, we reviewed TSA documentation on the
processes for receiving and documenting complaints at different offices
within TSA headquarters and locally at airports. We also obtained
documentation on TSA’s use of air passenger screening complaints, such
as complaint data that TSA provides to the U.S. Department of
Transportation for publication in its monthly Air Travel Consumer Report.
We interviewed officials from TSA, the U.S. Department of Homeland
Security (DHS), and a nonprobability sample of eight aviation industry


3
 For purposes of this review, “screening complaints” include any documented expression
of dissatisfaction or request for redress that TSA or its contractors receive orally (and that
is subsequently documented) or in writing at the airport checkpoints or through mail, e-
mail, telephone, agency websites, or other means, related to agency and contractor
screening systems, procedures, and staff deployed at airport security checkpoints.
Complaints about prescreening of air passengers through the Department of Homeland
Security’s Traveler Redress Inquiry Program, complaints about screening of checked
baggage, and air passenger claims for lost, stolen, and damaged property are not
included in our scope.
4
 See H.R. Rep. No. 112-331, at 975 (2011) (accompanying H.R. 2055, 112th Cong. (1st
Sess. 2011), enacted as the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2012, Pub. L. No. 112-74,
125 Stat. 786 (2011)).




Page 2                                       GAO-13-43 Air Passenger Screening Complaints
groups to obtain their perspectives on TSA’s processes for receiving and
documenting air passenger screening complaints and for using this
information to monitor or enhance screening operations. 5 The views of
these industry groups are not generalizable to all members of the aviation
industry but provided us with additional perspective and insights. The
groups were selected to include organizations representing airlines,
airports, travel agencies, and travelers, among others. In addition, we
interviewed officials from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s
Aviation Consumer Protection Division. We also obtained and analyzed
air passenger screening complaint data from October 2009 through June
2012 from four TSA headquarters units. 6 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. 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. 7 This database became operational in April 2011,
according to TSA officials. 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.

In addition, we selected a nonprobability sample of six airports—including
one airport participating in TSA’s Screening Partnership Program (SPP)—
at which to interview TSA airport officials (and contractors’
representatives) about their processes for receiving and documenting air



5
 The TSA offices include the following: Office of Security Operations; Office of Civil Rights
& Liberties, Ombudsman, and Traveler Engagement; Office of the Executive Secretariat;
Office of Public Affairs; Office of Inspections; and Office of Legislative Affairs. The DHS
offices include the Office of Civil Rights & Civil Liberties, the Privacy Office, and the Office
of the Inspector General. The aviation industry groups include Airlines for America;
Airports Council International-North America; American Association of Airport Executives;
Business Travel Coalition, Inc.; FlyersRights.Org; Global Business Travel Association;
Regional Airline Association; and U.S. Travel Association.
6
 These units are the TSA Contact Center Branch, the Office of the Executive Secretariat,
the Disability Branch, and the Multicultural Branch.
7
 This portal, which resides on TSA’s website, e-mails screening complaint information
directly to designated TSA airport staff.




Page 3                                        GAO-13-43 Air Passenger Screening Complaints
passenger screening complaints and for using this information to inform
screening operations and improve customer service. 8 We also obtained
supporting documentation and data from officials at these six airports. We
selected these airports based on airport security category 9 and types of
screening equipment and initiatives at the airports, such as the use of
Advanced Imaging Technology and TSA’s enhanced behavior detection
pilot program. 10 The selected airports are located in the Washington,
D.C.; Detroit; and Los Angeles metropolitan areas; and the SPP airport is
located in the San Francisco metropolitan area. We visited and observed
security checkpoints at four of the airports. 11 At the five airports where
TSA performs the screening function, we interviewed TSA Federal
Security Director (FSD) staff responsible for screening and customer
service, such as TSA screening supervisors and managers and TSA
Customer Support Managers. At the SPP airport, we interviewed TSA
FSD staff responsible for customer service and contractor officials
responsible for screening. While the information gathered from the
interviews cannot be generalized to all commercial airports, it provided
important perspective to our analysis of air passenger screening
complaint processes, which is focused on airports at which TSA staff
conduct screening. At the TSA headquarters units and airports we


8
 In general, TSA employees (referred to as Transportation Security Officers) perform the
screening function at the nation’s commercial airports. Through SPP, however, employees
of private companies under contract to TSA perform the screening function, following the
same screening procedures at checkpoints used by Transportation Security Officers. See
49 U.S.C. § 44920. Sixteen airports currently participate in SPP, with six additional
airports approved in fiscal year 2012 for participation in the program. We are currently
conducting a separate review of SPP and plan to report on the results of this work later
this year.
9
 TSA classifies the nation’s commercial airports into one of five categories (X, I, II, III, and
IV) based on various factors such as the number of takeoffs and landings annually, the
extent of passenger screening at the airport, and other security considerations. In general,
category X airports have the largest number of passenger boardings and category IV
airports have the smallest.
10
  We have ongoing work reviewing TSA’s Screening of Passengers by Observation
Techniques (SPOT) program and its enhanced behavior detection pilot program and plan
to report the results of this work in early 2013. The SPOT program is a behavior
observation and analysis program designed to provide the TSA Behavior Detection
Officers who interact with air passengers at the security checkpoints with a means of
identifying persons who pose or may pose potential transportation security risks by
focusing on behaviors indicative of high levels of stress, fear, or deception.
11
  We interviewed staff from the other two airports, including the SPP airport, by phone,
and therefore did not visit checkpoints at those airports.




Page 4                                        GAO-13-43 Air Passenger Screening Complaints
interviewed, we compared TSA’s processes for receiving and
documenting air passenger screening complaints and for using the
information to monitor and enhance screening operations and improve
customer service against Standards for Internal Control in the Federal
Government. 12

To address the second objective, we reviewed TSA documentation on
how the agency informs passengers about its air passenger complaint
processes, such as agency guidance, website information, comment
cards, and signs. We also interviewed officials at TSA and the selected
airports about the agency’s methods for informing air passengers about
TSA’s processes for making screening complaints (and about TSA’s
contractor’s complaint processes). We compared these methods with
Standards for Internal Control in the Federal Government. 13

To address the third objective, we obtained and analyzed TSA guidance
for resolving air passenger screening complaints, as well as the
organizational structure of TSA offices responsible for resolving screening
complaints. We compared this information with pertinent criteria from
Standards for Internal Control in the Federal Government and other
standards for independence, such as ombudsman standards for
governmental organizations, 14 to assess the extent to which TSA’s
screening complaint resolution processes are independent from those
responsible for conducting screening at airport checkpoints so as to
ensure that these processes are fair, impartial, and credible. We
interviewed TSA officials responsible for resolving screening complaints,
including customer support managers at the selected airports, as well as
aviation industry group representatives. We also interviewed TSA officials
about the agency’s plans for creating an external ombudsman function to
resolve screening complaints.

We conducted this performance audit from February 2012 to November
2012 in accordance with generally accepted government auditing


12
  GAO, Standards for Internal Control in the Federal Government, GAO/AIMD-00-21.3.1
(Washington, D.C.: November 1999).
13
 GAO/AIMD-00-21.3.1.
14
  GAO/AIMD-00-21.3.1; American Bar Association, Revised Standards for the
Establishment and Operation of Ombuds Offices (February 2004); and United States
Ombudsman Association, Governmental Ombudsman Standards, (Dayton, OH: October
2003).




Page 5                                   GAO-13-43 Air Passenger Screening Complaints
                             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 the evidence obtained provides a reasonable basis for our findings
                             and conclusions based on our audit objectives.

Background
Roles and Responsibilities   TSA has various processes for receiving and addressing air passenger
for Receiving and            complaints about the screening systems, procedures, and personnel at
Addressing Screening         airport security checkpoints. 15 Specifically, several TSA headquarters
                             units and local TSA airport staff have responsibility and processes for
Complaints
                             receiving and addressing these complaints, and, if necessary, referring
                             these complaints to other TSA offices for resolution. 16 Figure 1 depicts the
                             four primary TSA headquarters units and the local TSA airport staff who
                             are responsible for receiving and addressing air passenger screening
                             complaints. 17




                             15
                               Complaint processes at the airport level differ somewhat between airports at which TSA
                             has direct responsibility for screening and SPP airports. For example, while screeners at
                             both types of airports follow the same standard operating procedures for screening air
                             passengers, the contractor responsible for screening at the SPP airport also has general
                             responsibility for addressing complaints submitted to the contractor at the checkpoint,
                             while TSA staff at that airport are generally responsible for addressing complaints
                             submitted through TSA’s Contact Center or the Talk to TSA web-based portal. For the
                             purposes of this report, we are referring to airports at which TSA has direct responsibility
                             for screening in discussions of roles, responsibilities, and processes for addressing
                             complaints at the airport level.
                             16
                               When airport authorities, airlines, and other federal agencies, such as the U.S.
                             Department of Transportation, receive air passenger screening complaints, they typically
                             refer them to TSA, according to officials that we contacted at these entities.
                             17
                               Other TSA headquarters offices can also play a role in addressing screening complaints.
                             For instance, the Office of Legislative Affairs handles congressional inquiries and
                             correspondence that relate to screening complaints. As we discuss later in this report, the
                             TSA Ombudsman is working on an initiative to begin addressing screening complaints. In
                             addition, we discussed the TSA Contact Center’s customer service efforts in GAO,
                             Managing for Results: Opportunities to Strengthen Agencies’ Customer Service Efforts,
                             GAO-11-44 (Washington, D.C.: Oct. 27, 2010).




                             Page 6                                      GAO-13-43 Air Passenger Screening Complaints
Figure 1: TSA Headquarters Units and Local TSA Airport Staff Responsible for Receiving and Addressing Air Passenger
Screening Complaints




                                        Page 7                                 GAO-13-43 Air Passenger Screening Complaints
Note: According to TSA officials, if air passengers cannot submit screening complaints in writing
because of disability, medical condition, or language barrier, the Disability and Multicultural Branches
will accept their complaints by telephone or other means and then create written versions of the
complaints for processing.


As highlighted in figure 1, the TSA Contact Center (TCC) receives,
documents, and helps resolve screening complaints that air passengers
make by telephone and e-mail. The TCC is TSA’s primary point of contact
for collecting, documenting, and responding to public questions,
concerns, or complaints regarding TSA security policies, procedures, and
programs; reports and claims of lost, stolen, or damaged items; and
employment issues. 18

At the local level, TSA screening supervisors and managers oversee
screening systems, procedures, and Transportation Security Officers at
the airport security checkpoints and are responsible for receiving and
addressing complaints that air passengers orally submit as they proceed
through the checkpoints. 19 TSA customer service representatives are
responsible for receiving and addressing screening complaints that air
passengers make through customer comment cards, telephone calls, or a
Talk to TSA web-based feedback form. 20 (See an example of a customer
comment card in fig. 2.) The customer service representatives serve as
the primary TSA representatives at the airports for all customer service
initiatives, including customer complaint resolution activities. Some of
these representatives are Customer Support Managers, which are full-
time positions at category X airports and an ancillary duty of the FSD or


18
   The TCC addresses inquiries from air passengers on claims for damaged, lost, or stolen
property and advises these passengers on how to file a claim when appropriate. However,
it is the Claims Management Branch and the Office of the Chief Counsel that resolve
these claims.
19
  These officials include Lead and Supervisory Transportation Security Officers as well as
Transportation Security Managers. At SPP airports, they include supervisory contractor
officials. FSDs and Assistant Federal Security Directors are responsible for overseeing
TSA security programs at all commercial airports. According to the Assistant Administrator
of TSA’s Office of Civil Rights & Liberties, Ombudsman and Traveler Engagement, the
agency is working on an initiative under which an unspecified number of TSA staff will
receive training as “passenger advocates” and begin working in this capacity to address
air passenger complaints at security checkpoints by January 2013.
20
  According to TSA officials, air passengers may submit other written screening
complaints to customer service representatives by mail using the information for mailing
customer comment cards. Also, air passengers may submit screening complaints to these
representatives by e-mail, although the e-mail contact information for these
representatives is not always provided in the customer comment cards.




Page 8                                            GAO-13-43 Air Passenger Screening Complaints
screener staff at other commercial airports. 21 Customer Support
Managers work in conjunction with other FSD staff to resolve customer
complaints and communicate the status and resolution of complaints to
air passengers. They are also responsible for ensuring security
procedures and practices are consistently and effectively communicated
to air passengers, to the extent permitted by law and regulation. 22




21
  The official title for this position is Customer Support and Quality Improvement Manager
(CSQIM) but it is commonly referred to as Customer Support Manager. TSA had 115
Customer Support Managers as of October 2012.
22
  In addition to Customer Support Managers, some airports may also have TSA
Stakeholder Relations Managers, who deal primarily with airlines, local law enforcement,
and airport tenants. The Stakeholder Relations Manager is not directly tied to customer
service, but depending on the airport, may have a customer support role, according to
TSA and airport officials we interviewed. The type and number of positions as well as the
reporting structure of these positions varies at each airport based on the size of the airport
and passenger numbers, according to TSA officials.




Page 9                                       GAO-13-43 Air Passenger Screening Complaints
Figure 2: Example of TSA Customer Comment Card




Page 10                             GAO-13-43 Air Passenger Screening Complaints
Complaint Referral and   TSA has an operations directive that specifies roles, responsibilities, and
Resolution               time frames for resolving and responding to screening complaints that air
                         passengers submit to the TCC and FSD staff. 23 This directive does not
                         apply to complaints received through other mechanisms, as we discuss
                         later in this report. The agency has also given TSA headquarters units
                         and FSDs discretion in addressing these complaints at airports under
                         their jurisdiction, according to TSA officials. This operations directive
                         provides instructions for processing public inquiries, including air
                         passenger screening complaints, received by the TCC and FSD staff. 24
                         The directive indicates that inquiries received by the TCC will be
                         answered by the TCC or will be forwarded to the appropriate FSD staff for
                         response, and that inquiries received by FSD staff will be answered by
                         FSD staff or will be forwarded to the TCC for response. In addition, the
                         operations directive provides several time frames for responding to
                         complaints. For example, TSA should respond within 48 hours for e-mail
                         inquiries addressed by the TCC, and within 72 hours for telephone
                         inquiries addressed by the TCC.

                         Overall, upon receiving a complaint, TSA headquarters units and local
                         TSA airport staff may address the complaint directly or refer it to other
                         offices for review and resolution after determining which one has the
                         necessary expertise and knowledge to address the alleged incident. For
                         example, according to TSA officials, if an air passenger submits the
                         complaint through the TCC, TCC staff attempt to resolve it by providing a
                         response to the air passenger using pertinent template language that
                         explains TSA policy and screening procedures. Alternatively, the TCC
                         may refer screening complaints for resolution to other TSA headquarters
                         offices, depending on the specific allegation. For example, complaints
                         alleging discrimination on the basis of a disability or medical condition are




                         23
                          See TSA Operations Directive: Processing Inquiries Received by the TSA Contact
                         Center, TSA Claims Management Office, and Federal Security Director Staffs, OD-400-5-
                         1A, September 15, 2005.
                         24
                           As defined in the operational directive, an inquiry is defined as any communication, letter
                         mail, facsimile, electronic mail, or telephone call received by the TCC or by FSD staff that
                         requires a response. To complement this operations directive, TSA staff at one of the six
                         airports that we contacted during our review had additional written instructions for
                         processing public inquiries, such as air passenger screening complaints.




                         Page 11                                     GAO-13-43 Air Passenger Screening Complaints
referred to the Disability Branch. 25 Also, the TCC may forward complaints
about customer service to the customer service representative at the
airport identified in the complaint for investigation and resolution. 26
Alternatively, if an air passenger submits a complaint directly to TSA staff
at the airport, it is the responsibility of these staff members to investigate
and resolve the complaint or, if necessary, refer it to TSA units at
headquarters, such as the Disability Branch. For example, according to
TSA officials, if an air passenger makes a complaint in person at the
checkpoint, TSA supervisors and managers are to attempt to resolve the
complaint at the checkpoint before the situation escalates.

Regardless of whether a complaint is initially received by a TSA
headquarters unit or at the airport at which the incident took place,
according to TSA officials, local TSA airport officials generally conduct
most follow-up investigations since they are well placed to collect
additional airport-specific information and interview local staff. However,
specific actions taken to investigate and resolve complaints vary by
airport. For example, customer service representatives may be involved
in reviewing screening complaints, obtaining additional information from
the air passengers to determine when and where the incident took place,
and reviewing video footage of the incident to help identify additional
details of the incident, such as the identity of the screener(s) who may
have been involved in the incident and what had actually happened
during the incident. If the situation warrants it, the customer service
representative may forward the complaint as well as the video footage to
the TSA screening supervisor or manager for additional review and
action. The supervisor or manager may review the video footage and
obtain a statement from the screener to determine what happened during
the incident and the extent to which the screener may have been at
fault—for example, whether the screener violated TSA standard operating


25
  The Disability and Multicultural Branches work with DHS’s Office of Civil Rights & Civil
Liberties in addressing some air passenger screening complaints. For example, the office
generally refers screening complaints that it receives from air passengers to the branches
for resolution, according to TSA officials. Also, the office may offer technical assistance to
the branches when handling screening complaints. In the case of disability screening
complaints, according to TSA officials, the Disability Branch provides weekly information
on these complaints to this office, and air passengers can appeal the decisions of the
Disability Branch to this office.
26
  For the purpose of this report, “investigation” refers to actions taken to gather
information needed to resolve a complaint, and “complaint investigator” refers to the
person responsible for gathering that information.




Page 12                                      GAO-13-43 Air Passenger Screening Complaints
procedures, or behaved unprofessionally or inappropriately toward the air
passenger.

Depending on the nature and severity of the allegation, TSA airport staff
may also elevate the complaint and evidence to the airport’s Assistant
Federal Security Director (AFSD) for Screening or to TSA headquarters
units, such as the Disability Branch or the Office of Inspections, for formal
investigation. 27 If the investigation were to find fault with the screener, the
screener’s supervisor or manager is to determine the corrective action to
be taken. 28 Corrective actions specified in TSA’s guidance range from
mandating the screener to take additional training to correct the behavior
to terminating the screener’s employment for multiple repeat offenses or
single egregious actions, such as theft of air passenger property. 29
Following the outcome of the investigation and any resulting corrective
actions, the TSA headquarters unit or the FSD or his/her staff, such as a
customer service representative, is to communicate the status of the
resolution to the air passenger—such as by reiterating that TSA
procedures were followed or by issuing an apology and informing the air
passenger that corrective actions were taken.




27
  According to officials from the Office of Inspections, their office has not conducted formal
investigations of air passenger screening complaints.
28
  We previously reported that complaint resolution processes in federal agencies should
help ensure that the subjects of complaints receive appropriate training or disciplinary
action, when necessary, in order to help prevent a problem from occurring again. GAO,
Crime Victims’ Rights Act: Increasing Awareness, Modifying the Complaint Process, and
Enhancing Compliance Monitoring Will Improve Implementation of the Act, GAO-09-54
(Washington, D.C.: Dec. 15, 2008).
29
  TSA, Guidelines on Using the Table of Offenses and Penalties for Appropriate Discipline
for Common Offenses, September 26, 2011. The Disability and Multicultural Branches can
also recommend that screeners receive additional training, if appropriate.




Page 13                                      GAO-13-43 Air Passenger Screening Complaints
                          TSA’s five centralized mechanisms for receiving air passenger screening
Lack of an                complaints provide the agency with a significant amount of information it
Agencywide Policy,        can use to monitor or enhance screening operations. However, TSA does
                          not have agencywide policy, consistent processes, or an agency focal
Consistent Processes,     point to guide the receipt of these complaints or to use complaint
and Agency Focal          information to inform management about the nature and extent of the
Point Limits TSA’s        screening complaints to help improve screening operations and customer
                          service.
Ability to Receive and
Use Complaint
Information

Five Mechanisms Receive   TSA receives and documents screening complaints that air passengers
Thousands of Air          submit through four headquarters units—the TCC, the Executive
Passenger Complaints      Secretariat, the Multicultural Branch, and the Disability Branch—as well
                          as the Talk to TSA web-based feedback mechanism, which e-mails the
                          screening complaint information directly to designated TSA airport staff.
                          As shown in figure 3, the number of complaints submitted through these
                          mechanisms fluctuated somewhat from October 2009 through June 2012.
                          The major exception was a very large increase in the number of
                          complaints submitted to three mechanisms in November and December
                          2010, which may be attributed to several factors, including a November
                          2010 public opt-out campaign reported by the media to protest the use of
                          Advanced Imaging Technology and enhanced pat-down procedures for
                          screening air passengers.




                          Page 14                            GAO-13-43 Air Passenger Screening Complaints
Figure 3: Numbers of Monthly Air Passenger Screening Complaints That TSA Received from October 2009 through June 2012




                                       Page 15                              GAO-13-43 Air Passenger Screening Complaints
Note: Complaint data from the Office of the Executive Secretariat include complaints about screening
and other matters. Also, complaints that a TSA unit refers to another unit, such as complaints that the
TCC refers to the Disability Branch, may be counted in each unit’s data.


The volume of complaints that TSA received through each of its five main
mechanisms varied from October 2009 through June 2012. Also, because
these mechanisms use different categories for screening complaints and
have different capabilities for data analysis, we were not able to combine
the data from these mechanisms to discuss overall patterns and trends in
volume or categories of complaints. A discussion of complaint information
in each mechanism follows.

The TCC received the bulk of the air passenger screening complaints that
the agency documented during this time period. Using TCC data, TSA
has reported that it receives about 750,000 public inquiries annually
through the TCC and that 8 percent of these inquiries involve air
passenger complaints (including complaints about screening). As noted
below, however, this information does not include complaint data from
other TSA complaint mechanisms. Specifically, the TCC received a total
of 39,616 screening complaints that air passengers submitted by e-mail
and telephone from October 2009 through June 2012. The TCC divides
screening complaints into seven main categories, five having multiple
subcategories. Figure 4 shows the total numbers of screening complaints
by the seven main TCC categories, such as 17,153 complaints about pat-
down procedures.




Page 16                                           GAO-13-43 Air Passenger Screening Complaints
Figure 4: Total Numbers of Air Passenger Screening Complaints That the TCC
Received from October 2009 through June 2012, by Category




Note: Five of the seven main categories in the TCC database contain multiple subcategories.


Figure 5 depicts the numbers of screening complaints that the TCC
received from October 2009 through June 2012 by the four main TCC
categories having the most complaints. As shown in figure 5, the numbers
of screening complaints in these four categories remained relatively
stable over this period. The major exception was a very large increase in
the number of complaints about pat-down procedures in November and
December 2010 and continuing periods of a relatively higher level of pat-
down complaints through September 2011. As mentioned before, this
increase in complaints may be attributed to several factors, including the
November 2010 public opt-out campaign reported by the media to protest
the use of Advanced Imaging Technology and enhanced pat-down
procedures for screening air passengers.




Page 17                                         GAO-13-43 Air Passenger Screening Complaints
Figure 5: Numbers of Air Passenger Screening Complaints That the TCC Received from October 2009 through June 2012, by
Category (Four Largest Categories)




                                       The Office of the Executive Secretariat received 4,011 complaints that air
                                       passengers submitted by mail. 30 For instance, these complaints include
                                       screening complaints related to, among other issues, Advanced Imaging
                                       Technology and enhanced pat-down procedures. 31



                                       30
                                        According to officials in this office, the Executive Secretariat database does not have the
                                       capability to differentiate between screening and nonscreening-related complaints based
                                       on the information it has on complaint subject categories.
                                       31
                                          Although this database and the TCC database have certain categories with similar or
                                       identical names, other categories are specific to each database. For example, the
                                       Executive Secretariat database includes a category for inappropriate screening, while this
                                       type of complaint could be categorized in the TCC database as inconsistent screening or
                                       as screening process, among other categories.




                                       Page 18                                     GAO-13-43 Air Passenger Screening Complaints
The Multicultural Branch received 2,899 written screening complaints
alleging violations of civil rights and civil liberties, 469 of which it
processed as cases. 32 Figure 6 shows the number of cases, by 11
categories, that the branch processed, such as 141 cases related to
allegations of discrimination based on race or ethnicity.

Figure 6: Numbers of Air Passenger Screening Complaints That the Multicultural
Branch Processed as Cases from October 2009 through June 2012, by Category




Note: The TCC database has a category for civil rights complaints, but its subcategories are not
directly comparable with the Multicultural Branch categories. For example, TCC includes
subcategories for harassment, perceived discrimination, and perceived racial profiling, among others.




32
   According to TSA officials, the branch refers screening complaints that it does not
process as cases to other TSA units. The Multicultural Branch does not record categories
for the complaints that it does not process as cases, so we did not include them in figure
6.




Page 19                                          GAO-13-43 Air Passenger Screening Complaints
The Disability Branch received 920 written screening complaints alleging
discrimination on the basis of disability and medical condition. From
these, the branch processed 1,233 cases. 33 Figure 7 shows the number
of cases, by 27 categories, that the branch processed, such as 201 cases
related to inappropriate screening.




33
  If the screening complaint submitted by an air passenger includes complaints that fall
under different categories of disabilities, the branch would process each one of them as a
separate case. Thus, there are more cases processed than complaints received by the
Disability Branch from October 2009 through June 2012.




Page 20                                     GAO-13-43 Air Passenger Screening Complaints
Figure 7: Numbers of Air Passenger Screening Complaints That the Disability Branch Processed as Cases from October 2009
through June 2012, by Category




                                       Note: The TCC database has a category for disability complaints, but its subcategories for these
                                       complaints are not directly comparable with the Disability Branch categories. For example, the TCC
                                       database includes a subcategory for diabetes, while the Disability Branch has a category for insulin
                                       pumps. Also, more than half of the screening cases in the “Other” category are from fiscal year 2010
                                       because for that year the database did not have enough categories defined, according to TSA
                                       officials. The Disability Branch added additional categories to the database for fiscal year 2012 to
                                       avoid overusing the “Other” category.


                                       The Talk to TSA web-based mechanism received 4,506 air passenger
                                       screening complaints from April 2011 through June 2012. When
                                       submitting complaints through this mechanism, air passengers can select
                                       up to five complaint categories from a list of 20 possible categories.
                                       Figure 8 shows the number of screening complaints by 20 categories that




                                       Page 21                                          GAO-13-43 Air Passenger Screening Complaints
                                        the branch received, such as 1,512 complaints about the professionalism
                                        of TSA staff during the screening process. 34

Figure 8: Numbers of Air Passenger Screening Complaints That Talk to TSA Received from April 2011 through June 2012, by
Category




                                        Note: When submitting complaints through this mechanism, air passengers can select up to five
                                        complaint categories from a list of 20 possible categories. If a passenger selects more than one
                                        category, each category is counted as a separate complaint when the complaints are reported by
                                        category. Thus, there are more than 4,506 complaints included in this figure. The TCC database has
                                        some categories and subcategories that are similar to the Talk to TSA categories, but others are
                                        unique to each database. For example, TCC does not have categories or subcategories
                                        corresponding to the Talk to TSA categories of carry-on property out of view, permitted/prohibited
                                        items, expert traveler and family lanes, or liquids, among others.




                                        34
                                          If a passenger selects more than one category, each category is counted as a separate
                                        complaint when the complaints are reported by category. Thus, there are more than 4,506
                                        complaints included in figure 8.




                                        Page 22                                        GAO-13-43 Air Passenger Screening Complaints
No Agencywide Policy,      TSA has established five centralized mechanisms for receiving air
Consistent Processes, or   passenger complaints, but it has not established an agencywide policy,
Focal Point for Guiding    consistent processes, or a focal point to guide receipt and use of this
                           information to inform management about the nature and extent of the
Receipt and Use of Air     screening complaints to help improve screening operations and customer
Passenger Screening        service.
Complaint Information
Exists                     With regard to agencywide policy, TSA has not established a policy to
                           guide airports’ efforts to receive air passenger complaints. In the absence
                           of such a policy, TSA officials at airports have wide discretion in how they
                           implement TSA’s air passenger complaint process, including how they
                           receive and document the complaints. For example, at the six airports
                           that we contacted, the use of customer comment cards, which the U.S.
                           General Services Administration (GSA) considers a relatively inexpensive
                           means for government agencies to receive customer feedback, varied by
                           airport. 35 Specifically, customer comment cards were not used at two of
                           the six airports we contacted, according to TSA officials at those airports,
                           while at the other four airports customer comment cards were used to
                           obtain air passenger input in varying ways. At two of these four airports,
                           customer comment cards were on display at counters in the security
                           checkpoints. At the other two airports, neither customer comment cards
                           nor information about the cards was on display, but the cards were
                           available to air passengers upon request, according to TSA airport
                           officials. Passengers who are concerned about being late for their flight or
                           about appearing uncooperative may be reluctant to ask for such cards,
                           however.

                           In addition, when TSA receives a customer comment card, either through
                           air passengers mailing the cards, giving them to TSA screening
                           supervisors or managers, or depositing the cards in a box at the security
                           checkpoint, the card is to go to a customer service representative at the
                           airport. However, TSA does not have a policy requiring that customer
                           service representatives track these comment card submissions or report
                           them to one of TSA’s five centralized mechanisms for receiving


                           35
                             TSA officials at the airports can use a TSA customer comment card to obtain feedback
                           from air passengers. The contractor at the SPP airport we contacted uses its own
                           customer comment card to obtain this feedback. See the website of GSA’s Office of
                           Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies for guidance on government use of
                           customer comment cards at
                           http://www.howto.gov/customer-service/collecting-feedback/comment-cards-fact-
                           sheet#cost.




                           Page 23                                   GAO-13-43 Air Passenger Screening Complaints
complaints if the card includes a complaint. As a result, TSA does not
know the full nature and extent of the complaints that air passengers
make through customer comment cards. Also, TSA officials reported that
the agency does not require TSA airport staff to collect and document
information on the screening complaints that air passengers submit in
person at the airport level because the agency has given these officials
broad discretion in addressing these screening complaints. 36 However,
without an agencywide policy to guide the receipt and tracking of
screening complaints at the airport level, TSA does not have reasonable
assurance that headquarters and airport entities involved in the
processes of receiving, tracking, and reporting these complaints are
conducting these activities consistently.

Further, TSA does not have a process to use all the information it
currently collects in its efforts to inform the public of the nature and extent
of air passenger screening complaints, monitor air passenger satisfaction
with screening operations, and identify patterns and trends in screening
complaints to help improve screening operations and customer service.
For example, TSA has five centralized mechanisms through which it
receives air passenger complaints, but the agency does not combine
information from all of these sources to analyze the full nature and extent
of air passenger screening complaints. TSA officials have noted that the
agency receives about 750,000 contacts per year from the public by e-
mail and telephone through the TCC, and that about 8 percent of these
contacts are related to complaints. However, this information does not
include data on complaints received through other headquarters units or
the Talk to TSA web-based form. We recognize that differences in
complaint categories among the various databases could hinder any
efforts by TSA to combine the complaint data, which we discuss further
below.

TSA informs the public of the nature and extent of air passenger
screening complaints through the U.S. Department of Transportation’s
monthly Air Travel Consumer Report, but the number TSA reports in this
publication only includes complaints received through the TCC and does
not include the complaints TSA received through its other four


36
  TSA staff at the airports we contacted told us that if air passengers make screening
complaints that have the potential to attract the attention of the media, TSA screening
supervisors or managers or customer service representatives would generally collect
some information about the complaints in case they have to answer questions about them.




Page 24                                   GAO-13-43 Air Passenger Screening Complaints
mechanisms. The July 2012 report, for example, noted that TSA had
received about 900 air passenger screening complaints in May 2012, with
screening complaints about courtesy and personal property constituting
the bulk of the complaints and screening complaints about processing
time and screening procedures constituting the rest of the complaints. 37
Further, TSA is using only the complaints received through the TCC to
calculate an air passenger satisfaction indicator in its Office of Security
Operations’ Executive Scorecard. According to TSA, the purpose of this
scorecard is for FSD management and staff to monitor operational
effectiveness of airport security checkpoints and make changes as
needed, such as to improve screening operations and customer service.
TSA officials further stated that the agency has primarily been using the
TCC because the TCC information on air passenger screening
complaints is readily available. According to the Assistant Administrator of
TSA’s Office of Civil Rights & Liberties, Ombudsman and Traveler
Engagement, partly as a result of our review, the agency began
channeling information from the Talk to TSA database to the TCC in early
October 2012. However, it is unclear whether the agency 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. It is also unclear whether these efforts will
include data on screening complaints submitted locally through customer
comment cards or in person at airport security checkpoints.

In addition, as discussed earlier, because TSA does not have a
consistent process for categorizing air passenger complaints data,
including standardized categories of complaints, it is unable to compile
and analyze all of the data to identify patterns and trends. Specifically,
each of the five centralized mechanisms has different screening
complaint categories and different capabilities to analyze the data. As a
result, TSA cannot compile information from all five mechanisms to
identify patterns and trends in air passenger complaints and monitor its
efforts to resolve complaints on a systemic basis. For example, while the
TCC database and the Talk to TSA database each may have categories
with identical or similar names, such as Advanced Imaging Technology



37
  U.S. Department of Transportation, Office of Aviation Enforcement and Proceedings,
Aviation Consumer Protection Division, Air Travel Consumer Report, July 2012. The
report does not define these categories of screening complaints or the extent to which
these categories include information on all the categories of screening complaints in the
TCC database.




Page 25                                     GAO-13-43 Air Passenger Screening Complaints
and pat-downs, other categories are unique to certain databases. For
instance, the TCC database does not have categories or subcategories
corresponding to the Talk to TSA categories of carry-on property out of
view, permitted/prohibited items, expert traveler and family lanes, or
liquids, among others. As a result, TSA cannot combine the data from
different databases to identify whether particular aspects of the screening
experience may warrant additional attention or whether TSA’s efforts to
improve customer service are having any effect on the number of
complaints.

Standards for Internal Control in the Federal Government calls for
agencies to develop control activities, such as policies, procedures,
techniques, and mechanisms that enforce management’s directives. 38 A
consistent policy to guide local TSA officials’ efforts to receive, track, and
report complaints would help provide TSA reasonable assurance that
these activities are being conducted in a consistent manner throughout
commercial airports and provide the agency with improved ability to
oversee these local efforts. Moreover, a process to systematically collect
information on air passenger complaints from all mechanisms, including
standardization of the categories of air passenger complaints to provide a
basis for comparison, would give TSA a more comprehensive picture of
the volume, nature, and extent of air passenger screening complaints and
better enable the agency to improve screening operations and customer
service.

Further, TSA has not designated a focal point for coordinating
agencywide policy and processes related to receiving, tracking,
documenting, reporting, and acting on screening complaints. Standards
for Internal Control in the Federal Government calls for an agency’s
organizational structure to clearly define key areas of authority and
responsibility and establish appropriate lines of reporting. 39 An
agencywide policy and process would help standardize how TSA receives
complaints and how TSA analyzes and uses the information it collects,
but without a focal point at TSA headquarters, the agency does not have
a centralized entity to guide and coordinate these efforts, or to suggest
any additional refinements to the system. We discuss issues related to a
focal point in more detail later in this report. TSA headquarters officials we


38
 GAO/AIMD-00-21.3.1.
39
 GAO/AIMD-00-21.3.1.




Page 26                              GAO-13-43 Air Passenger Screening Complaints
                          interviewed stated that the five mechanisms were designed at different
                          times and for different purposes, and they agreed that the agency could
                          benefit from a consistent complaints policy, a process to collect
                          information from all mechanisms, and a focal point to coordinate these
                          efforts.


                          TSA has several methods to inform air passengers about its processes
TSA Has Several           for making screening complaints; however, as with receipt and use of
Methods to Inform Air     screening complaint data, it does not have an agencywide policy,
                          guidance, and a focal point to guide these efforts, or mechanisms to
Passengers about          share information on guidance and best practices among TSA airport staff
Making Screening          to ensure consistency in making air passengers aware of TSA processes
                          for submitting complaints about the screening process.
Complaints, but Does
Not Consistently
Implement Them

Methods at Headquarters   At the headquarters level, TSA’s primary method for providing information
and Airports              to air passengers about TSA screening policies and processes is through
                          the agency’s website. During fiscal year 2012, TSA made improvements
                          to its website to make it easier for air passengers to find information about
                          how to provide feedback to TSA, including compliments and complaints,
                          according to TSA officials. For example, the home page of TSA’s website
                          currently displays an icon that allows air passengers to ask questions or
                          submit feedback directly to TSA staff via an electronic form. The home
                          page also displays an icon that provides information for air passengers to
                          contact the TCC, which receives the majority of documented air-
                          passenger-screening-related complaints, and other TSA units involved in
                          addressing screening complaints. At the airport level, TSA has developed
                          several methods that local TSA staff can use to provide information at the
                          checkpoints for air passengers to submit feedback to TSA, such as
                          displaying signs and stickers and providing customer comment cards that
                          contain information for contacting TSA and that allow air passengers to
                          submit compliments and complaints.

                          Figure 9 shows examples of TSA’s methods for informing air passengers
                          on how to submit feedback to the agency.




                          Page 27                              GAO-13-43 Air Passenger Screening Complaints
Figure 9: Examples of TSA Efforts to Inform Air Passengers about Procedures for Making Screening Complaints




                                        Note: (A) Home page of TSA website displaying links to the electronic feedback form and contact
                                        center, (B) TSA’s electronic feedback form, (C) sign placed at airport checkpoint advertising how to
                                        provide feedback to TSA, (D) stickers placed at airport checkpoints advertising TSA’s electronic
                                        feedback form, (E) customer comment card drop box provided near airport checkpoint.




Inconsistent                            TSA has developed standard signs, stickers, and customer comment
Implementation at Airports              cards that can be used at airport checkpoints to inform air passengers
                                        about how to submit feedback to the agency; however, in the absence of
                                        agencywide policy and guidance to inform air passengers, FSDs have
                                        discretion in how and whether to use these methods. As a result, there
                                        was inconsistent implementation of these methods at the six airports we
                                        contacted. For example, at one airport we visited, all four checkpoints had



                                        Page 28                                          GAO-13-43 Air Passenger Screening Complaints
visible signs and stickers advertising TSA’s contact information, while at
another airport, we did not observe any signs or visible materials at the
checkpoints advertising how to contact TSA, and at a third airport, we
observed signs that were partially obscured from air passengers’ view.
Specifically, at one checkpoint at that third airport, we observed a sign
with a quick response code for providing feedback to TSA about
passengers’ screening experience. 40 However, this sign was placed in a
corner away from direct air passenger traffic. Also, as previously
discussed, at two of six airports we contacted, customer comment cards
were displayed at the checkpoint, while at two other airports customer
comment cards were provided only to air passengers who specifically ask
for the cards or TSA contact information or who request to speak with a
screening supervisor or manager, according to TSA airport officials. As
mentioned earlier, passengers who are concerned about being late for
their flight or about appearing uncooperative may be reluctant to ask for
such cards, however. At the remaining two airports, customer comment
cards were not used, according to TSA officials at those airports.
Representatives from four of the eight aviation industry groups that we
interviewed also stated that the type and amount of information provided
to air passengers about feedback mechanisms, such as how to submit
complaints, vary among airports.

TSA airport officials we interviewed at three of the six airports we
contacted stated that the agency could take additional actions to enhance
air passenger awareness of TSA’s complaint processes, such as posting
information on shuttle buses or providing fact sheets or brochures to air
passengers earlier in the screening process or during airport check-in.
For example, an official at one airport suggested that TSA display audio
or video materials describing TSA’s complaint process, rather than
posting more signs. Also, as we previously discussed, TSA’s screening
complaint processes entail taking corrective actions to improve screening
systems, procedures, and staff. However, if air passengers wish to submit
screening complaints but are not aware of the processes for doing so, air
passengers may be less likely to submit complaints to the agency, thus
potentially limiting the agency’s efforts to identify systemic issues and
take corrective actions or make any needed improvements to the
screening process.



40
  Upon scanning the code using a smartphone, the air passenger can use the Talk to TSA
electronic feedback form on TSA’s website.




Page 29                                  GAO-13-43 Air Passenger Screening Complaints
The Conference Report accompanying the Consolidated Appropriations
Act, 2012, directed TSA to make every effort to ensure members of the
traveling public are aware of the procedures and process for making
complaints about passenger screening. 41 Moreover, Standards for
Internal Control in the Federal Government states that in order to ensure
effective communication to achieve agency goals, management should
ensure there are adequate means of communicating with, and obtaining
information from, external stakeholders that may have a significant impact
on the agency’s achieving its goals. 42 The standards also call for
agencies to develop control activities, such as policies, procedures,
techniques, and mechanisms that enforce management’s directives. TSA
has methods and made efforts to inform air passengers about complaint
processes, but opportunities exist to increase air passenger awareness,
such as through greater use of the TSA website and brochures or other
materials displayed or provided at airport checkpoints, as well as through
more consistent implementation of these efforts at airports. TSA officials
at four of the six airports we contacted also said that the agency could do
more to share best practices among customer service representatives for
addressing passenger complaints, including for informing air passengers
about complaint processes. For example, TSA holds periodic conference
calls for Customer Support Managers to discuss customer service.
However, Customer Support Managers have not used this mechanism to
discuss best practices for informing air passengers about processes for
submitting complaints, according to the officials we interviewed. Also,
TSA has not sponsored other information-sharing mechanisms, such as
training or conferences, for Customer Support Managers to learn about
best practices for informing air passengers, among other things. TSA
officials also recognize that passengers may intentionally choose not to
submit their complaints to TSA at the airport checkpoint because of the
perception that raising a complaint could result in being unfairly subjected
to additional screening or being treated rudely by screening officials. In
addition, TSA does not have a focal point to coordinate agencywide policy
for informing air passengers about complaint processes, or to suggest
additional refinements to the overall process for increasing air passenger
awareness of the complaints mechanisms.




41
 H.R. Rep. No. 112-331, at 975 (2011).
42
 GAO/AIMD-00-21.3.1.




Page 30                                  GAO-13-43 Air Passenger Screening Complaints
                       Accordingly, greater awareness of TSA complaint processes could help
                       alleviate passengers’ potential reluctance to submit complaints at the
                       checkpoint. An agencywide policy to inform the public about the
                       processes for making complaints, a focal point for developing this policy
                       and guiding TSA’s efforts to implement it, and mechanisms for sharing
                       best practices among local TSA officials could help provide TSA
                       reasonable assurance that these activities are being conducted in a
                       consistent manner across commercial airports and help local TSA officials
                       better inform the public by learning from one another about what practices
                       work well.


                       TSA’s complaint resolution processes do not fully conform to standards of
TSA’s Complaint        independence established to help ensure that these types of processes
Resolution Processes   are fair, impartial, and credible. Specifically, at the airport level, TSA
                       officials who are responsible for resolving air passenger complaints
Lack Independence,     (referred to in this report as complaint investigators) are not independent
but TSA Is Taking      of the TSA airport staff who are the subjects of the complaints. Instead,
Steps to Increase      complaint investigators are generally located in the same airport and
                       report to the same chain of command as the individuals who are cited in
Independence           the complaints. As previously discussed, TSA receives the bulk of the
                       documented screening complaints via the TCC, and, if necessary, these
                       complaints are ultimately investigated and resolved at the local airport
                       level. Under TSA’s process, complaints may be referred to other TSA
                       offices, such as TSA’s Disability and Multicultural Branches. These TSA
                       branches address complaints from all air passengers with disabilities or
                       medical conditions or from air passengers alleging violations of other civil
                       rights or civil liberties. However, all screener-related complaints are
                       investigated at the airport level, even for complaints that are initially
                       referred to the Disability or Multicultural Branch.

                       The American Bar Association Revised Standards for the Establishment
                       and Operation of Ombuds Offices, which can be used to guide federal
                       complaint processes, states that a key indicator of independence is
                       whether anyone subject to the ombudsman’s jurisdiction can control or
                       limit the ombudsman’s performance of assigned duties. 43 Further, the


                       43
                         American Bar Association, Revised Standards for the Establishment and Operation of
                       Ombuds Offices (February 2004). The American Bar Association developed these
                       standards to provide advice and guidance on the structure and operation of ombuds
                       offices so that ombuds may better fulfill their functions and so that individuals who avail
                       themselves of their aid may do so with greater confidence in the integrity of the process.




                       Page 31                                      GAO-13-43 Air Passenger Screening Complaints
ombudsman is to conduct inquiries and investigations in an impartial
manner, free from initial bias and conflicts of interest. Similarly, the U.S.
Ombudsman Association advocates that to maintain independence, the
ombudsman should have the discretion to prescribe how complaints are
to be made, received, and acted upon, including the scope and manner of
investigations. 44 Moreover, to ensure impartiality, the ombudsman should
absent himself or herself from involvement in complaints where a conflict
of interest or the appearance of conflict of interest may exist. These
standards maintain that independence and impartiality are important
when addressing complaints because they establish confidence that the
process is fair and credible. While TSA is not required to comply with
ombudsman standards, these voluntary standards can serve as a useful
guideline for implementing the core principles of an effective complaint-
handling process. In addition, Standards for Internal Control in the
Federal Government states that key duties and responsibilities need to be
divided or segregated among different people. 45

At all six airports that we contacted, TSA Customer Support Managers
stated that they receive air passenger complaints, review video footage of
the incident, and communicate with complainants about the status and
resolution of their complaints. Customer Support Managers also stated
that they do not conduct formal investigations to determine the cause of a
complaint or whether the screener involved in the complaint was at fault
or the air passenger was misinformed. Rather, at the five airports that we
contacted at which TSA has direct responsibility for screening operations,
the Customer Support Managers collect information about the facts and
circumstances related to the complaint and forward this information to the
screener’s supervisory chain. 46 At these five airports, the TSA screener
supervisor or manager is responsible for obtaining the screener’s
statement and determining fault as well as any corrective actions that
may be taken against the screener. However, TSA Customer Support



44
  United States Ombudsman Association, Governmental Ombudsman Standards,
(Dayton, OH: October 2003).
45
     GAO/AIMD-00-21.3.1.
46
   At the SPP airport that we contacted, the TSA Customer Support Manager is
responsible for addressing screening complaints related to policy and standard operating
procedures. The contractor is responsible for collecting information about the facts and
circumstances related to complaints about a passenger’s screening experience as well as
resolving these complaints or, if necessary, referring them to TSA for resolution.




Page 32                                   GAO-13-43 Air Passenger Screening Complaints
Managers as well as all TSA screening personnel, including TSA
screening supervisors and managers, report to FSDs, and are therefore
in the same chain of command as the subjects of air passenger
complaints. Because FSDs may be concerned about complaints reflecting
negatively on their management of TSA screening operations, this raises
questions about independence and the appearance of impartiality and
their ability to conduct credible, unbiased investigations. Figure 10 depicts
a simplified example of the typical reporting structure at airports at which
TSA has direct responsibility for screening operations.




Page 33                              GAO-13-43 Air Passenger Screening Complaints
Figure 10: Simplified Organizational Chart Depicting TSA Chain of Command at a
Typical Category X Airport




Note: According to TSA officials, the Customer Support Managers and Stakeholder Relations
Managers can report directly to the FSD, to the Deputy FSD, to the AFSD for Screening, to the AFSD
for Operations, or to the AFSD for Mission Support depending on the airport. TSA classifies
commercial airports into one of five categories (X, I, II, III, and IV) based on various factors, such as
the total number of takeoffs and landings annually, the extent to which passengers are screened at
the airport, and other special security considerations. In general, category X airports have the largest
number of passenger boardings, and category IV airports have the smallest.



Page 34                                           GAO-13-43 Air Passenger Screening Complaints
TSA officials stated that the desire to resolve complaints locally led to
TSA’s decision to allow complaint investigators to be located in the same
airport with those whom they are investigating. Also, TSA officials noted
that resource constraints may limit the agency’s ability to send TSA
officials from headquarters offices to conduct independent investigations
of complaints at each airport. However, the lack of independence of the
complaint investigators creates the potential for a conflict of interest to
arise between the investigator and the individual under investigation. For
this reason, in accordance with ombudsman standards, it is important for
the structure of the complaint process to ensure the independence of
complaint investigators in order to maintain impartial investigations, as
well as to maintain the appearance of impartiality during investigations,
not only to ensure that they are being fair, but also to uphold the
credibility of the complaint process. Having a more independent complaint
resolution process would better position TSA to make informed and
unbiased decisions about complaints and ensure that corrective actions
are taken, as needed, against screeners who are reported to have
exhibited unprofessional or inappropriate behavior with air passengers.

While TSA has an Ombudsman Division that could help ensure greater
independence in the complaint processes, it primarily focuses on handling
internal personnel matters and is not yet fully equipped to address
external complaints from air passengers, according to the head of that
division. However, recognizing the importance of independence in the
complaint processes, TSA is developing a new process for referring air
passenger complaints directly to this office from airports and for providing
air passengers an independent avenue to make complaints about airport
checkpoint screening. In August 2012, during the course of our review,
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. The Assistant Administrator of TSA’s Office of Civil Rights
& Liberties, Ombudsman and Traveler Engagement stated that she
expected the Ombudsman Division to begin addressing a greater number
of air passenger complaints as a result. According to the Assistant
Administrator, the division will not handle complaints for which there
exists an established process that includes an appeal function, such as
disability complaints or other civil rights or civil liberties complaints, in
order to avoid duplication of currently established processes. Since the
external function of the Ombudsman Division has not yet been fully
implemented, it is too early to assess the extent to which this new
function of the complaints resolution process will conform to professional


Page 35                              GAO-13-43 Air Passenger Screening Complaints
              standards for organizational independence, and help mitigate possible
              concerns about impartiality and objectivity.

              TSA is also in the process of developing a Passenger Advocate Program,
              which the agency plans to begin implementing by January 2013,
              according to the Assistant Administrator of TSA’s Office of Civil Rights &
              Liberties, Ombudsman and Traveler Engagement. This program will entail
              training selected TSA airport staff to take on a collateral passenger
              advocate role, according to that official. Passenger advocates will
              respond in real time to identify and resolve traveler-related screening
              complaints quickly, consistent with TSA policies and screening
              procedures, according to the Assistant Administrator. Advocates will also
              respond to air passenger requests, assist air passengers with medical
              conditions or disabilities, and be prepared to assist air passengers who
              provide advance notification to TSA via the national TSA Cares helpline.
              According to the Assistant Administrator, the Passenger Advocate
              Program will work in conjunction with the new external complaint function
              of the Ombudsman Division and provide air passenger advocates with the
              option to refer air passengers directly to the Ombudsman Division.
              Because passenger advocates are to serve under the FSD chain of
              command, this arrangement also raises questions about whether there is
              a lack of independence between passenger advocates and the subjects
              of air passenger complaints. The Assistant Administrator explained that
              any perception of lack of independence would be addressed by training
              passenger advocates to explain to air passengers that they may submit
              complaints directly to the Ombudsman, who is outside of the airport chain
              of command. Because this program has not yet been approved by the
              TSA Administrator or implemented, it is too early to assess the extent to
              which passenger advocates will help mitigate possible concerns about
              impartiality and objectivity in the complaint processes.


              According to available data, TSA receives a relatively small number of
Conclusions   complaints considering the millions of air passengers the agency screens
              each month. However, the agency’s ability to understand the full nature
              and extent of those complaints is limited because TSA does not
              systematically collect some of the screening complaint data at the airport
              level, uses only some of the data it has available to it in its reports and
              analysis, and collects the data in a manner that makes it difficult for the
              agency to aggregate and analyze the data for trends. Further, the
              inconsistent nature of implementation of the screening complaint
              processes at commercial airports limits TSA’s ability to oversee these
              efforts. Thus, a policy to consistently guide agencywide efforts to receive,


              Page 36                              GAO-13-43 Air Passenger Screening Complaints
                      track, and report air passenger screening complaints would help provide
                      TSA reasonable assurance that TSA headquarters and airport entities are
                      conducting these activities consistently. Moreover, a consistent process
                      to systematically analyze information on air passenger screening
                      complaints from all mechanisms for receiving complaints, including
                      standardized screening complaint categories and capabilities for data
                      analysis, would give TSA a more comprehensive picture of the volume,
                      nature, and extent of air passenger screening complaints and better
                      enable the agency to improve screening operations and customer
                      service. In addition, designating a focal point for developing and
                      coordinating agencywide policy on air passenger screening complaint
                      processes, guiding the analysis and use of the agency’s screening
                      complaint data, and informing the public about the nature and extent of
                      screening complaints would help ensure that these efforts are
                      implemented consistently throughout the agency. Finally, TSA has a
                      number of methods to inform the public about its processes for submitting
                      screening complaints, but does not have an agencywide policy to guide
                      these efforts or mechanisms for sharing best practices for informing air
                      passengers about screening complaint processes, which could help TSA
                      staff—particularly at the airport level—better inform the public by learning
                      from one another about what is working well.


                      To improve TSA’s oversight of air passenger screening complaint
Recommendations for   processes, we recommend that the Administrator of TSA take the
Executive Action      following four actions, consistent with standards for internal control, to

                      •   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;
                      •   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; and
                      •   establish agencywide policy to guide TSA’s 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.




                      Page 37                              GAO-13-43 Air Passenger Screening Complaints
                     We provided a draft of this report to the Department of Homeland Security
Agency Comments      (DHS) for comment. DHS, in written comments received October 16,
and Our Evaluation   2012, concurred with the recommendations and identified actions taken,
                     under way, or planned to implement the recommendations. Written
                     comments are summarized below, and official DHS comments are
                     reproduced in appendix I. In addition, DHS provided written technical
                     comments, which we incorporated, as appropriate.

                     In response to our recommendation that TSA establish a consistent policy
                     to guide agencywide efforts for receiving, tracking, and reporting air
                     passenger screening complaints, DHS concurred with the
                     recommendation and 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 efforts of headquarters and field
                     locations in receiving, tracking, and reporting air passenger screening
                     complaints. We believe that these are beneficial steps that would address
                     our 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.

                     In response to our recommendation that TSA establish a process to
                     systematically compile and analyze information on air passenger
                     screening complaints from all complaint mechanisms, DHS concurred
                     with the recommendation and stated that TSA, through the TCC, is taking
                     steps to increase its analysis of passenger complaint information and will
                     build on this effort to further compile and analyze information on air
                     passenger screening complaints. However, DHS did not provide
                     additional details on the steps TSA is taking, so we cannot comment on
                     the extent to which these steps will fully address our recommendation. In
                     its technical comments, TSA stated that the agency began channeling
                     information from the Talk to TSA database to the TCC on October 3,
                     2012, and we updated our report accordingly. However, it is still unclear
                     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. It is also unclear how TSA will address the difficulties we
                     identified in collecting standardized screening data across different
                     complaint categories and mechanisms. As highlighted in our report,
                     establishing a consistent process to systematically compile and analyze


                     Page 38                              GAO-13-43 Air Passenger Screening Complaints
information on air passenger screening complaints will help provide TSA
with a more comprehensive picture of the volume, nature, and extent of
air passenger screening complaints and better enable the agency to
improve screening operations and customer service for the traveling
public.

In response to our recommendation that TSA designate a focal point for
the complaints identification, analysis, and public outreach process, DHS
concurred with the recommendation and stated that the Assistant
Administrator for the Office of Civil Rights & Liberties, Ombudsman and
Traveler Engagement is the focal point for overseeing the key TSA
entities involved with processing passenger screening complaints. We are
encouraged that the agency has identified a focal point for these efforts
but note that the Assistant Administrator only oversees the TSA’s
complaint-related processes in the Office of Civil Rights & Liberties,
Ombudsman and Traveler Engagement. Thus, it will be important for the
Assistant Administrator to coordinate with other TSA offices when acting
as the TSA focal point to address the weaknesses we identified in our
report. For example, as mentioned in DHS’s comment letter, it will be
important for the Assistant Administrator to work closely with 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. The Assistant Administrator for the Office of Civil Rights &
Liberties, Ombudsman and Traveler Engagement will also need to
coordinate with the Office of the Executive Secretariat, which is not
mentioned in DHS’s comment letter, given the thousands of air passenger
complaints that this office receives, as well as with other DHS and TSA
offices that have a role in the air passenger complaint processes—
including, but not limited to, the TSA Office of Inspections, TSA Office of
Legislative Affairs, and the DHS Office of the Inspector General.

In response to our recommendation that TSA establish agencywide policy
to guide TSA’s 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. DHS stated that TSA would develop a policy to better
inform air passengers about the screening complaint processes, to
include mechanisms for identifying and sharing best practices for
implementing these processes at the airport level. We will continue to
monitor TSA’s progress in implementing this recommendation.


Page 39                             GAO-13-43 Air Passenger Screening Complaints
We are sending copies of this report to the Secretary of Homeland
Security, the TSA Administrator, appropriate congressional committees,
and other interested parties. In addition, the report is available at no
charge on the GAO website at http://www.gao.gov.

If you or your staff have any questions concerning this report, please
contact me at (202) 512-4379 or at lords@gao.gov. Contact points for our
Offices of Congressional Relations and Public Affairs may be found on
that last page of this report. GAO staff who made major contributions to
this report are listed in appendix II.




Stephen M. Lord
Director
Homeland Security and Justice Issues




Page 40                            GAO-13-43 Air Passenger Screening Complaints
List of Committees

The Honorable Mary Landrieu
Chairman
The Honorable Dan Coats
Ranking Member
Subcommittee on Homeland Security
Committee on Appropriations
United States Senate

The Honorable Robert B. Aderholt
Chairman
The Honorable David E. Price
Ranking Member
Subcommittee on Homeland Security
Committee on Appropriations
House of Representatives




Page 41                        GAO-13-43 Air Passenger Screening Complaints
Appendix I: Comments from the Department
             Appendix I: Comments from the Department of
             Homeland Security



of Homeland Security




             Page 42                                   GAO-13-43 Air Passenger Screening Complaints
Appendix I: Comments from the Department of
Homeland Security




Page 43                                   GAO-13-43 Air Passenger Screening Complaints
Appendix I: Comments from the Department of
Homeland Security




Page 44                                   GAO-13-43 Air Passenger Screening Complaints
Appendix II: GAO Contact and Staff
                  Appendix II: GAO Contact and Staff
                  Acknowledgments



Acknowledgments

                  Stephen M. Lord, (202) 512-4379 or lords@gao.gov
GAO Contact
                  In addition to the contact named above, Jessica Lucas-Judy (Assistant
Staff             Director), Carissa Bryant, and Juan Tapia-Videla made significant
Acknowledgments   contributions to the work. Also contributing to this report were David
                  Alexander, Lydia Araya, Tom Lombardi, Lara Miklozek, and Linda Miller.




(441056)
                  Page 45                              GAO-13-43 Air Passenger Screening Complaints
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