Speeding Security

The TSA operation in Albuquerque finds that a focus on customer service leads to happier travelers-and improved security.

Jennifer Ayers, a 22-year-old part-time Transportation Security Administration screener and full-time student in her senior year at the University of New Mexico, takes the security part of that equation very seriously. Ayers, who views her work as a potential springboard to advancement in TSA or a federal law enforcement career, says, "I took this job because I want to help keep people safe. . . .That means if I'm not comfortable putting my family on a plane with an item, I'm not going to let it go through" the security checkpoint.

The civility part, Ayers says, means remaining professional and cool with passengers-even when they "throw something at you, like their wallet or keys." Out of view of passengers, in a Southwest Airlines baggage room, John Mulder, another TSA screener, runs checked baggage through a scanning machine, a mission he views as just as critical as screening passengers and their hand-carried luggage on the concourse. Mulder relies as much on his instincts as the machine when it comes to ensuring questionable items are not loaded onboard an aircraft. Though the equipment has built-in software to help determine the difference between a benign item in a bag and something potentially deadly, he says, "you can't believe implicitly in the machine."

Mulder reaches into a bag and pulls out a thick tourist brochure on Santa Fe, N.M. "I see about 20 of these a day," he says, explaining that the scanning machine picks up a chemical used in the brochure's ink. Though Mulder has a hunch that the "hit" is the brochure, he still opens the bag to make sure he's right, and then speeds it to its waiting flight. His deft touch ensures that if a bag contains crisply ironed shirts, they will arrive still crisp. Mulder, Ayers and their supervisors in Albuquerque are refuting the notion that security and civility are mutually exclusive.

Quiet, Please

Maggie Santiago, the deputy federal security director in Albuquerque, who previously spent two decades as the airport's public relations director, says the security operation strives for "world-class customer service." Such an approach, she says, actually results in better security, too. For example, for screeners and supervisors, the checkpoint is a no-yelling zone. That, says Margarita Westphal, assistant federal security director for screening, results in "better situational awareness." A quieter checkpoint makes it "easier to spot passengers with a malicious intent," Westphal says.

Keeping calm means being patient with passengers who may be frustrated or angry due to the stressful nature of travel these days. If someone "is having a bad day, it probably started before they got to the airport," says David Howell, a screening manager who works the morning rush hour shift. Howell, who started his career as a screener when TSA began operations in 2002, says he has applied his extensive background in retail operations-including a stint as a manager with K-Mart-to improve customer service at the airport.

Even though Howell is a manager, he spends his shift not in an office but at the security checkpoint, working to get passengers through the process as quickly as possible. This means he is constantly on the move, shifting travelers from long lines to shorter ones, stacking and moving bins, adjusting flexible barriers to manage flow, and working with screeners and passengers to resolve problems. That sometimes includes reuniting passengers with laptop computers they have left behind. Howell says that on average he ends up with four orphaned laptops and 10 to 20 cell phones a week on his shift alone.

Front-line management is the rule here, Andler says. He and his top deputies spend at least four hours a day at the checkpoint, which was built in February 2006.

Unlike security areas at Washington Dulles International Airport or Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, which were grafted onto concourses and have their share of flaws, the 30,000-square foot, $15 million checkpoint financed by the City of Albuquerque was designed from the ground up to speed the flow of passengers.

Before the new checkpoint was installed, passenger waiting lines could snake halfway through the concourse and down an escalator to street level, Howell says. Now lines are much more manageable. But even a new checkpoint needs occasional tweaks. For that, Andler draws on the experience of Westphal, whose background as an industrial engineer helps ensure that changes in the screening process mandated nationally by TSA do not impede efficiency in Albuquerque.

In February, TSA stopped using security contractors to check tickets and identification before passengers enter the security area at airports, and turned that job over to its screening staff. Managers in Albuquerque initially set up podiums for employees to handle the process at the start of the security line. But, Westphal says, that created a bottleneck of passengers fumbling for tickets and identification. So she moved the podiums to the midpoint in the line, just before they entered another line for screening, speeding up the process.

Albuquerque's security checkpoint has become an ad hoc national test bed for TSA due its new eight-lane design, Andler says. TSA tested its detection trace portal machines-which blow puffs of air at passengers to check for residue from explosives-as well as three types of X-ray machines to scan hand-carried bags at Albuquerque, Andler says.

In 2007, the agency installed advanced X-ray machines at the airport, but Westphal detected an ergonomic problem with the equipment; its keyboard can't be adjusted to accommodate screeners of different heights. She says she'd like the keyboard apparatus changed so it can move. Mark Laustra, a vice president at Smiths Detection, the machine's manufacturer, said his company is working with TSA to resolve the problem.

The Smiths Detection machines sport dual monitors that provide overhead and side views. That, Ayers says, speeds the screening process, because she no longer has to run some bags or plastic bins containing shoes, coats and carry-on items through the machine twice, as she did with older models that had only one monitor. Ayers said the monitors on the Smiths Detection machines also have higher resolution, which makes it easier to identify prohibited items such as liquids, gels, guns, knives and explosives.

As anyone who has been through airport security knows, screeners expend a lot of time and effort moving plastics bins from one end of the X-ray machines to the other. Westphal says she'd like to see this process automated. Laustra says Smiths Detection introduced X-ray machines with an automated bin-handling system in October 2007. They're in use in Europe, but not yet in the United States.

Compliments and Complaints

Another efficiency issue involves infrequent travelers, who can slow security processing. Andler says he has tapped Santiago, with her public relations background, to convey the basics of security procedures through local media to the travelers who pack the airport on peak days such as Thanksgiving weekend. The idea of the outreach effort, Santiago says, is to let infrequent travelers know what to expect when they get to the airport and some of the simple rules they need to follow, such as limits on liquids and gels in carry-on bags.

Santiago says she also strives to inform passengers that "they should not take out their frustrations on the transportation security officers [even though] the easiest place to put the blame for a delay is on the checkpoint. Once-a-year travelers have to be patient and not think they are being singled out." Overall, Howell says, "99 percent [of passengers] are in a good mood. . . . I get more compliments than complaints."

Albuquerque is the biggest city in a state where some counties have 100 times more cows than people, but in many respects it's a small, family-oriented town. That's a real plus for TSA managers and employees alike. Santiago's mother, Esperanza Roybal, works at the Black Mesa Coffee Co. shop on the concourse. Andler grew up in Albuquerque before starting his federal career with the Agriculture Department in 1989, and then transferred to the Federal Aviation Administration, where he worked for 17 years before joining TSA in 2002.

Andler has a wealth of experience in aviation security, including a 1996 FAA assignment in Brussels, Belgium, where he served as special agent and team leader for foreign airport and air carrier security assessments in Europe, Africa and the Middle East. Prior to returning to Albuquerque, he worked as FAA's security liaison officer for Russia, the former Soviet States, Belgium, Switzerland and Luxembourg. It was a good job, but the call of family and the challenges of working for a startup agency lured him home.

He has high praise for his managers and the 250 TSA officers who work in Albuquerque, including the part-timers who make up 30 percent of the screener workforce. They are essential to managing peak passenger flows and serve as a trained replacement pool for filling full-time jobs. Screeners' jobs are difficult, demanding and stressful, Andler says, but the focus on customer service makes their lives easier, too. The emphasis on service helps to "defuse already stressed passengers before they get to screeners," he says. That, in turn, enables the screeners to focus on their primary mission-ensuring the security of all travelers.

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