Aviation Security:

TSA's Staffing Allocation Model Is Useful for Allocating Staff among Airports, but Its Assumptions Should Be Systematically Reassessed

GAO-07-299: Published: Feb 28, 2007. Publicly Released: Feb 28, 2007.

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Over 600 million people travel by air each year in the United States, and the screening of airline passengers and their carry-on and checked baggage is vital to securing our transportation security system. The Aviation and Transportation Security Act, enacted in November 2001, established the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and significantly changed how passenger and checked baggage screening is conducted in the United States. This act removed screening responsibility from air carriers and the contractors who conducted screening for them, and placed this responsibility with TSA. As a result, TSA hired and deployed about 55,000 federal passenger and baggage Transportation Security Officers (TSO)--formerly known as screeners--to more than 400 airports nationwide based largely on the number of screeners that the air carrier contractors had employed. Since August 2002, however, TSA has been statutorily prohibited from exceeding 45,000 full-time equivalent positions available for screening. The Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004, enacted in December 2004, required TSA to develop and submit to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, and the House of Representatives Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, standards for determining the aviation security staffing for all airports at which TSA provides or oversees screening services by March 2005. These standards are to provide the necessary levels of aviation security and ensure that the average aviation security related delay experienced by passengers is minimized. TSA submitted these standards, which form the basis of TSA's Staffing Allocation Model on June 22, 2005. The purpose of this optimization model, as identified by TSA, is to estimate the most efficient balance of TSOs needed to ensure security and minimize wait times. Models, in general, are expected to approximate the real world. These approximations must be validated to assure model users that their predictions are credible within the bounds of specific situations, environments, and circumstances. The Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act also mandated that we conduct an analysis of TSA's staffing standards. In particular, the congressional committees to which TSA submitted the staffing standards were interested in how TSA is using the Staffing Allocation Model to identify the number of TSOs needed across the more than 400 commercial airports and how the model ensures that TSA has the right number of TSOs at the right checkpoints at the right times. This report addresses the following questions: (1) How does TSA ensure that its Staffing Allocation Model provides a sufficient number of TSOs to perform passenger and checked baggage screening at each airport and what challenges has it faced while implementing the model? (2) How does TSA deploy its TSO allocation and what factors affect the model's effectiveness in helping TSA accomplish this deployment?

TSA aims to ensure that its Staffing Allocation Model provides a sufficient number of TSOs to perform passenger and checked baggage screening by: (1) building assumptions into its allocation model that are designed to calculate the necessary levels of TSOs to ensure security and minimize wait times, and (2) employing multiple monitoring mechanisms for the sufficiency of the model's outputs. However, TSA faces some challenges to effective implementation of the model, primarily in ensuring that the model's key assumptions reflect operating conditions across airports. The model determines the annual TSO allocation for each airport by first considering the workload demands unique to each airport based on an estimate of each airport's peak passenger volume. This input is then processed against certain TSA assumptions about screening passengers and checked baggage--including expected processing rates, required staffing for passenger lanes and baggage equipment based on standard operating procedures, and historical equipment alarm rates. To monitor the sufficiency of the model's allocation outputs, TSA has both field and headquarters-driven mechanisms in place. However, TSA does not have a mechanism, such as a documented plan, for selecting and prioritizing which assumptions to review each year and for assuring that all assumptions are periodically reviewed to help ensure that they are current with and reflect actual operating conditions. Without a plan for periodically validating all of the assumptions, TSA is at risk of assumptions becoming outdated, which could result in TSO allocations that do not reflect operating conditions. TSA has vested its FSDs with responsibility for deploying and managing to their TSO allocation in light of local circumstances, including those that might affect scheduling and pose challenges to most efficiently deploying their resource allocations. After receiving the annual staffing allocation from TSA headquarters, FSDs must prepare work schedules, which may include use of the Staffing Allocation Model's optional scheduling tool, to deploy TSO staff to meet screening demand. However, Federal Security Directors (FSD) we interviewed identified several challenges they faced in deploying their TSO workforce. These challenges involve factors outside the model's determination of overall TSO staffing levels and affect FSDs' ability to effectively deploy their TSO staff regardless of their allocation. Specifically, FSDs cited difficulties in achieving a 20 percent part-time TSO workforce, which the model has identified as the optimal ratio for scheduling efficiency; recruiting and retaining sufficient TSOs (both full-time and part-time) to reach their full allocations as determined by the model; staffing checkpoints appropriately given that some TSOs are unavailable due to absenteeism and injuries; and managing competing demands on TSOs' time, particularly with regard to operational support functions sometimes performed by TSOs and TSO training requirements. FSDs also had to manage around physical infrastructure limitations at some airports, such as lack of room for additional lanes or baggage check areas despite demand levels that would justify such added capacity. TSA headquarters officials and FSDs we interviewed reported having several efforts underway to help address challenges they face in deploying the TSO workforce. TSA officials at individual airports we visited are also working to address these challenges. TSA human capital officials told us that they plan to evaluate the effects of their workforce initiatives and use the results of the evaluations to make any needed changes to their approach.

Status Legend:

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To assist TSA in its efforts to identify TSO staffing levels that reasonably reflect the operating conditions at the individual airports and to help ensure that TSOs are effectively utilized, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Assistant Secretary for Transportation Security to establish a formal documented plan for reviewing all of the assumptions in the Staffing Allocation Model on a periodic basis to ensure that the assumptions result in TSO staffing allocations that accurately reflect operating conditions that may change over time.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation: Transportation Security Administration

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) developed a Staffing Allocation Model to guide its Transportation Security Officer (TSO) allocations across airports. In February 2007, we reported that TSA aims to ensure that its Staffing Allocation Model provides a sufficient number of TSOs to perform passenger and checked baggage screening by: (1) building assumptions into its allocation model that are designed to calculate the necessary levels of TSOs to ensure security and minimize wait times, and (2) employing multiple monitoring mechanisms (both headquarters and field driven) for the sufficiency of the model's outputs. However, we found that TSA does not have a mechanism, such as a documented plan, for selecting and prioritizing which assumptions to review each year and for assuring that all assumptions are periodically reviewed to help ensure that they are current with and reflect actual operating conditions. We identified that without a plan for periodically validating all of the assumptions, TSA is at risk of assumptions becoming outdated, which could result in TSO allocations that do not reflect operating conditions. At the time of our review, TSA officials responsible for the staffing model acknowledged that while they had a general idea of how they plan to approach future annual reviews of the model, a documented plan would help provide assurance that the assumptions are periodically reviewed and validated. To assist TSA in its efforts to identify TSO staffing levels that reasonably reflect the operating conditions at individual airports, we recommended that TSA establish a formal, documented plan for reviewing all of the model assumptions on a periodic basis to ensure that the assumptions result in TSO staffing allocations that accurately reflect operating conditions that may change over time. Consistent with our recommendation, in December 2007, TSA developed a Staffing Allocation Model Rates and Assumptions Validation Plan. The plan identifies the process TSA will use to review and validate the model's assumptions on a periodic basis.

    Recommendation: To assist TSA in its efforts to identify TSO staffing levels that reasonably reflect the operating conditions at the individual airports and to help ensure that TSOs are effectively utilized, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Assistant Secretary for Transportation Security to establish a policy for when TSOs can be used to provide operational support.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation: Transportation Security Administration

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In February 2007, we reported that TSA is using Transportation Security Officers (TSO) to perform operational support functions, such as payroll processing and distribution of uniforms. TSOs were spending varying amounts of time on operational support duties, some on a nearly full-time basis. We identified that TSA's use of TSOs to perform operational support functions may contribute to scheduling challenges because these TSOs are unavailable for their primary responsibilities to screen passengers and their checked baggage. Additionally, we reported that the use of TSOs to perform operational support functions may undermine TSA's investment in training them for screening functions since the TSO is not performing the job for which they were trained. At the time of our review, TSA had not determined under what circumstances it is appropriate to use TSOs to perform operational support functions or provided Federal Security Directors--the top ranking TSA authority responsible for security at each of the nation's commercial airports--with guidance on when TSOs can be used this way. To help ensure that TSOs are effectively utilized, we recommended that TSA establish a policy for when TSOs can be used to provide operational support. Consistent with the intent of our recommendation, in March 2007, TSA issued a management directive that provides guidance on assigning permanent TSA employees, including TSOs, through detail or permanent promotion, to duties of another position (other than their position of record) for a specified period of time. In addition, in May 2007, TSA established guidance and metrics for employees performing collateral duties. The guidance provides an approved listing of collateral duties for TSA airport employees, including TSOs.

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