Air Passenger Screening:

Transportation Security Administration Could Improve Complaint Processes

GAO-13-43: Published: Nov 15, 2012. Publicly Released: Nov 15, 2012.

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What GAO Found

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) receives thousands of air passenger screening complaints through five mechanisms, but does not have an agencywide policy or consistent processes to guide receipt and use of such information. For example, from October 2009 through June 2012, TSA received more than 39,000 screening complaints through its TSA Contact Center (TCC). However, the data from the five mechanisms do not reflect the full nature and extent of complaints because local TSA staff have discretion in implementing TSA's complaint processes, including how they receive and document complaints. For example, comment cards are used at four of the six airports GAO contacted, but TSA does not have a policy requiring that complaints submitted using the cards be tracked or reported centrally. A consistent policy to guide all TSA efforts to receive and document complaints would improve TSA's oversight of these activities and help ensure consistent implementation. TSA also uses TCC data to inform the public about air passenger screening complaints, monitor operational effectiveness of airport security checkpoints, and make changes as needed. However, TSA does not use data from its other four mechanisms, in part because the complaint categories differ, making data consolidation difficult. A process to systematically collect information from all mechanisms, including standard complaint categories, would better enable TSA to improve operations and customer service.

TSA has several methods to inform passengers about its complaint processes, but does not have an agencywide policy or mechanism to ensure consistent use of these methods among commercial airports. For example, TSA has developed standard signs, stickers, and customer comment cards that can be used at airport checkpoints to inform passengers about how to submit feedback to TSA; however, GAO found inconsistent use at the six airports it contacted. For example, two airports displayed customer comment cards at the checkpoint, while at two others the cards were provided upon request. Passengers may be reluctant to ask for such cards, however, according to TSA. TSA officials at four of the six airports also said that the agency could do more to share best practices for informing passengers about complaint processes. Policies for informing the public about complaint processes and mechanisms for sharing best practices among local TSA officials could help provide TSA reasonable assurance that these activities are being conducted consistently and help local TSA officials learn from one another about what practices work well.

TSA's complaint resolution processes do not fully conform to standards of independence to ensure that these processes are fair, impartial, and credible, but the agency is taking steps to improve independence. Specifically, TSA airport officials responsible for resolving air passenger complaints are generally in the same chain of command as TSA airport staff who are the subjects of the complaints. TSA is developing a new process that could help ensure greater independence by TSA units referring air passenger complaints directly to its Ombudsman Division and by providing passengers an independent avenue to make complaints to that division. TSA also plans to initiate a program by January 2013 in which selected TSA airport staff are to be trained as passenger advocates as a collateral duty. It is too early to assess the extent to which these initiatives will help mitigate possible concerns about independence.

Why GAO Did This Study

TSA, which screens or oversees the screening of over 650 million air passengers per year, has processes for addressing complaints about air passengers’ screening experience at checkpoints, but concerns have been raised about these processes. The Conference Report accompanying the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2012, directed TSA to ensure the traveling public is aware of these processes and GAO to review TSA’s policies and procedures for resolving passenger complaints. This report addresses the extent to which TSA has (1) policies and processes to guide the receipt of air passenger screening complaints and use of this information to monitor or enhance screening operations, (2) a consistent process for informing passengers about how to make complaints, and (3) complaint resolution processes that conform to independence standards. To address these objectives, GAO reviewed TSA documentation, analyzed complaint data from October 2009 through June 2012, and interviewed TSA officials from headquarters offices and six airports selected for type of security, among other things. The airport interviews are not generalizable but provide insights.

What GAO Recommends

GAO recommends that TSA, among other actions, establish (1) a consistent policy for receiving complaints, (2) a process to systematically analyze information on complaints from all mechanisms, and (3) a policy for informing passengers about the screening complaint processes and mechanisms to share best practices among airports. TSA concurred and is taking actions in response.

For more information, contact Stephen M. Lord at (202) 512-4379 or lords@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In response to our recommendation, in November 2012, the Assistant Administrator of TSA's Office of Civil Rights & Liberties, Ombudsman and Traveler Engagement provided a memorandum to the Assistant Administrator, Office of Security Operations (OSO), setting forth the policy pursuant to receipt of passenger civil rights and civil liberties complaints at airports, including guidance for referring such complaints for follow up. In addition, in December 2012, TSA convened an Integrated Process Team to review all passenger complaint processes and procedures. In November 2013, TSA issued a Management Directive describing the roles and responsibilities of all involved offices in headquarters and the field that handle passenger complaints. The directive includes policy and processes for receiving, tracking, and reporting air passenger screening complaints, including the screening complaints that passengers submit locally at airports through comment cards or in person at security checkpoints. The directive should better position TSA to provide 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.

    Recommendation: To improve TSA's oversight of air passenger screening complaint processes, consistent with standards for internal control, the Administrator of TSA should establish a consistent policy to guide agencywide efforts for receiving, tracking, and reporting air passenger screening complaints.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: Transportation Security Administration

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In March 2013, TSA told us that it was taking steps to increase its analysis of passenger complaint information in response to our recommendation. Specifically, the TSA Contact Center (TCC) was working with other TSA offices to review all mechanisms that the agency utilizes to collect complaint data, including the various systems in place that support intake, tracking, and resolution. In November 2013, TSA issued a Management Directive that included guidance on types of information that is to be collected for all air passenger screening complaints, such as names of complainant, flight, gate, and contact information; names and contact information of TSA employees who were involved in the incident; and copies of video and CCTV, if available. The directive also described processes for centrally reporting and tracking complaints and specified that complaints received at airports are to be entered into the Airport Information Management (AIM) system to be further compiled and categorized in TSA's central database to facilitate documenting, sharing and tracking of complaint information with involved airports and headquarters' offices. In December 2014, TSA told us that its Office of Security Operations had worked with its metrics group to make changes to the AIM database and to develop user guidance for the input of complaint information from airports nationwide. TSA also revised an operations directive in August 2014 to provide instructions for field personnel concerning the processing and handling of passenger screening inquiries and to specify that the AIM database Customer Service Module must be used to track all customer inquiries. These actions will provide TSA with standardized data from multiple sources that can be used to improve its operations and customer service.

    Recommendation: To improve TSA's oversight of air passenger screening complaint processes, consistent with standards for internal control, the Administrator of TSA should establish a process to systematically compile and analyze information on air passenger screening complaints from all complaint mechanisms.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: Transportation Security Administration

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In November 2012, we reported that the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) did not have an agency focal point to guide the receipt of air passenger screening complaints or to use complaint information to inform management about the nature and extent of the screening complaints to help improve screening operations and customer service. We recommended that the agency designate such a focal point. In commenting on a draft of our report, TSA concurred with this recommendation and stated that the Assistant Administrator for the Office of Civil Rights & Liberties, Ombudsman and Traveler Engagement has the primary responsibility and is the focal point for overseeing the key TSA entities involved with processing passenger screening complaints. In a March 2013 letter, TSA indicated that the key TSA entities with whom the Assistant Administrator coordinates include the Traveler Engagement Division (and the TSA Contact Center (TCC)), the Disability and Multicultural Division (including the Disability Branch and the Multicultural Branch), and the Ombudsman Division. In addition, according to TSA, the Assistant Administrator works closely with the Office of Security Operations regarding passenger screening procedures and the Office of Public Affairs to develop and share data with the public on passenger complaint screening processes. We are closing this recommendation as implemented. However, we note that the Assistant Administrator will also need to coordinate with the Office of the Executive Secretariat (which is not mentioned in TSA's letter) given the thousands of air passenger complaints that this office receives, as well as with other Department of Homeland Security (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.

    Recommendation: To improve TSA's oversight of air passenger screening complaint processes, consistent with standards for internal control, the Administrator of TSA should 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.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: Transportation Security Administration

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In March 2013, TSA told us that the agency continues to leverage several avenues in an effort to more efficiently and effectively share information about the complaint process with the public. On a monthly basis, according to TSA, the Office of Security Operations sponsors a Customer Service Manager conference call with airport and headquarters offices (including the TSA Contact Center) to address a variety of topics regarding passenger screening issues and complaints, to include data collection, information sharing, best practices, website development, training, and new initiatives. TSA said it also provides training through its Passenger Support Specialist program, which is designed to provide more focused interaction with passengers at airports. In addition, according to TSA, the TSA Contact Center reviewed the various internal and external information sharing mechanisms and worked with the Office of Security Operations and Office of Public Affairs to improve public awareness about the screening complaint process. In November 2013, TSA issued a Management Directive that clarified roles and responsibilities for various TSA offices for receiving, documenting, and referring passenger screening complaints, and in August 2014 it issued an Operations Directive to its Federal Security Directors that provided instructions for field personnel concerning the processing and handling of passenger screening inquiries and specified that the Airport Information Management database Customer Service Module must be used to track all customer inquiries. In November 2014, TSA provided additional instructions to its Federal Security Directors to use a standardized TSA customer comment card in all airports. In February 2015, TSA told us that as part of the rollout of the Airport Information Management system, weekly teleconferences were held for airports to discuss system functionality and to share best practices for handling passenger screening complaints. According to TSA, regularly scheduled monthly calls continue to be held with those airport personnel assigned to handle passenger screening complaints for sharing best practices. In addition, TSA said that its Management Objective Report contains a metric for response to passenger screening complaints, which has increased discussion across the agency on various practices to address customer complaints.

    Recommendation: To improve TSA's oversight of air passenger screening complaint processes, consistent with standards for internal control, the Administrator of TSA should 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.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: Transportation Security Administration

 

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