Regardless of what you think of them, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is here to stay. Established in the time after 9/11, this division under the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (which also got its start post-9/11) is there to prevent dangerous materials and people from flying, and to help ensure passengers arrive at their destinations safely (their words, not mine).
TSA officers have a variety of responsibilities that include:
- Ensuring the safety and security of all travelers and areas
- Cooperating with other law enforcement officers to complete investigations
- Evaluating screening images to look for abnormalities
- Identifying dangerous objects in bags or on passengers
- Managing crowds of travelers and redirecting them for efficiency
- Monitoring travelers for potential threats
- Operating imaging equipment and electronic detection devices
- Patting down travelers when necessary
- Performing additional testing on items to confirm hazardous materials
TSA officers have been described as a lot of things by the public, and many of them aren’t nice. Probably the biggest complaint heard about them are customer service issues – people say they’re bossy, unfriendly, rude, etc. In general, “not very nice.”
People may wonder why or how people with such negative adjectives on their backs even get hired for positions that are part security, part dealing with the general public. I mean, do they even GET any training in customer service? I decided to find out.
I will admit that the training for TSA officers is quite a process:
Potential TSA agents are required to have at least a high school diploma or GED.
Although not required, it’s said that having a college degree, particularly in criminal justice, criminology, political science or sociology can help you stand out from other candidates. Having a history as a security guard or being in the military or law enforcement is also considered to be beneficial.
Where they apply for a TSA job
Positions are listed on this page of USAJobs.gov. Starting salary ranges from $16.90 to $31.12 per hour ($33,800 to $64,730 per year for F/T work) based on location (positions in Alaska overwhelmingly pay the most, while small-to-medium size towns throughout the country tend to pay the least).
Potential TSA agents are thoroughly vetted before they’re granted an interview. This includes a background check, color vision, credit check, criminal check, drug screening, hearing test, a medical evaluation and an X-ray interpretation test (I assume they mean for hand grenades in luggage, not, like, stress fractures or tuberculosis LOL).
If they pass the vetting, they’re then interviewed, and a decision about being hired or not is made.
TSA officers, once hired, go through classes via the government’s Online Learning Center (OLC), as well as intense fieldwork training at TSA Academy (TSA-A), which is located at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Glynco, GA (about halfway between Savannah and Jacksonville).
The OLC includes assignments such as scanner operations, operating machinery while scanning for explosives, body searches, and searching baggage. Other training also includes the appropriate way to handle and share sensitive information. During this time, TSA officers in training also take numerous written tests, third-party evaluations and image interpretation tests.
Once done with this part of training, the TSA officers go through Federal Law Enforcement Training. Topics they learn include:
- Detecting terrorist threats
- Screening policies (individuals, bags)
- Risk-based security
- Workplace environment
- Effective communication
- Command presence
- Explosive tracing, testing and detection
- Lists of prohibited/permitted items
- Checking travel documents
- Dealing with individuals with disabilities and/or medical conditions
- Divestiture officer
- Metal detector, imaging and X-ray technology and operation
- Threat image projection
- Critical thinking
- Handling sensitive information
- Keeping vigilant
Like many professions, even after landing the job, TSA officers need to maintain the certifications they earned while training. So periodic continuing education and testing continue throughout their careers.
So what about customer service?
I found several sites that helped me cull the information for this piece. Places such as TSA-A job prep sites. Education sites. All went into great detail about “safety” and “security” (Fun Fact! TSA-A students recite the TSA’s mission every morning before class: “To protect the nation’s transportation systems to ensure freedom of movement for people and commerce.”) Few mentioned anything about TSA-A teaching about interpersonal behavior.
Finally, I came across a 2016 article from Business Insider, which had a reporter get a first-eye view of the training offered at TSA-A. They specified that TSOs learn about the importance of professionalism and receive ethics training. Business Insider also said classroom walls at TSA-A have, “posters about effective communication and good listening and people skills.”
“Always say thank you. Never assume someone’s age. Never make physical contact with a person until you’ve already cleared it with them that this is what I’m going to do, and do you have any sensitive areas, any sore areas, do you have a broken leg or anything like that? And always put yourself in their situation. They’ve got a place they want to be and they want to get through there fast. Be effective, be fast, be courteous,” he [Willie Gilbreth, a TSO in training] said.
But Business Insider also stressed that the officers are taught that always – ALWAYS – while customer service and courtesy are important, safety comes first.
I can understand that. If you’ve ever spoken with, for example, a security guard, or a police officer, you may have noticed that when the threat level is generally low, they may be willing to drop their guard and be, well, likable. But if there’s a sudden threat, their entire demeanor will change – they’re going to go into, for lack of better wording, “professional mode.” And that friendliness you just saw will be hidden behind a front of attentiveness, alertness and caution.
I suspect that TSA officers are taught every customer and every bag could be a potential bomb or loaded gun inside a plane. Which, if you think about it, is true. So they constantly have to be vigilant and in “professional mode.”
Business Insider also made an excellent point:
An airport-security checkpoint is a fast-paced, high-stress environment, and on a daily basis TSOs need to stay focused amid multiple distractions, from irate, impatient, or clueless passengers to the loud noises from certain checkpoint machines.
Plus, remember that they’re taught to be courteous. Courtesy is not necessarily the same as being “friendly,” “nice” or even “likable.” And for some, a “lack of friendliness” is automatically interpreted as “rude.” That’s not the TSA’s fault.
TSA officers have always called me “Miss” or “Ma’am,” never “Hey You” or “Shorty” (if you’re new to our blog, I’m 4’6″ tall). When my bag has had to be swabbed, or if I’m the lucky winner of the random pat-down, they’ve always explained exactly what they’re going to be doing. That’s courtesy.
Sure, we’d all like TSA officers to smile more or at least be pretend friendly with a “How are you?” (“pretend” friendly because you know they don’t care. Neither do most of us when we ask how strangers are; it’s just being nice). But frankly, for the short interaction I have with these people, I’d rather they pay attention to the details of their job and prevent yet another loaded gun from getting onto a plane than ask me how my day’s been going.
The bottom line
So there you go. The training for TSA officers does cover professionalism, effective communication and listening/people skills. They’re taught to be courteous but “courtesy” and “friendliness” are not the same. However, the main role of TSA officers is to keep the traveling public safe in a fast-paced, high-stress environment, and the behaviors of TSA officers most often reflect that.
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