Love them or hate them, Transportation Security Administration agents get a lot of criticism and media attention as they work to keep our skies safe.
No current TSA agents would talk to Airfarewatchdog.com about their job, either on or off the record; but we found a former agent who would. Here's what he told us during a recent interview.
Q: How long were you with the TSA?
A: Two years.
Q: Why did you choose to leave?
A: Plain and simple, I did not agree with the way they were asking me to treat travelers. While the policy is to be polite, but serious, my station took a more aggressive approach. I watched as my colleagues treated passengers as a factory assembly lineup as if people had no feelings or emotions. There is a way to provide top-notch security while being courteous and respectful. The mundane nature of the job and the constant barrage of security mandates force agents into a rut that turns you into a manic robot.
Q: What was the most difficult part of the job?
A: Definitely, the repetitive nature. It eats away at you. The only thing that keeps it interesting is the constant variety of people passing through. And when other agents turn that variety into a burden, it becomes too much to handle. I enjoyed talking with people, wondering where they were traveling to, observing their behaviors, and even watching strangers interact with each other. It really tells you something about society. My colleagues, however, wanted everyone to be uniform and flow through the system without a delay. When there was a hitch in that flow, it disrupted them. That hitch could be anything from an elderly traveler to a businessman with too many electronic gadgets
Q: What are some examples of things that irritated you about your colleagues?
A: When they would bark at people to push their belongings through the belt. There's no need to be mean about it. It was also frustrating how we forced people into a holding pen for secondary screening like cattle until we were ready for them. It's dehumanizing, and I was embarrassed every time I saw someone standing there. Is there not a better way? One of my colleagues refused to say please and thank you during secondary screenings. He'd tell people to lift their arms, show their feet, remove their belt, etc. in such a forceful way, it was offensive. He once told me that he was there to provide safety and security, not to run a charm school.
Q: What are some things that irritated you about passengers?
A: I always found it surprising that people did not know they had to remove shoes, laptops, liquids, etc. Sure, not everyone has the opportunity to travel, but have these people not picked up a newspaper, watched TV, or spoken with someone else who has flown in the past decade? Another thing people would do is empty all of their belongings into the bins at the beginning of the line and not move down to allow other travelers to do the same. They slowed down the entire process since they kept others from moving through the line. Sure it's tough to juggle multiple things at once, but at least tell people that they can go around you.
Q: What was one of the least enjoyable parts of your job?
A: Having to take away bottled drinks, expensive perfumes and lotions, homemade food items, and other personal belongings and throw them in the trash (usually in front of the passenger) while they wondered what it was all about. The liquid ban really consumes much of our screening activity, and perhaps sometimes, to the detriment of our efforts to search for other dangerous items.
Q: Why are so many agents seemingly unfriendly and almost barking their commands at travelers? Do they realize that they're part of the reason many travelers are opting to drive or not travel at all?
A: It really is the repetitive nature of the job. Try standing in the same spot having to repeat the same instructions to people and watch them make the same mistakes repeatedly. It's emotionally exhausting. Like with many jobs, the annoying repetition and confusion of travelers eventually turns into what seems like disinterest on the part of screeners. We really do care about safety, but it just takes its toll on you.
Q: How did passengers treat you?
A: Some are nice and courteous. Especially in the morning, people seem either cheery and warm or simply tired and indifferent. Rarely are they rude in the morning. As the day progresses and people presumably become more stressed from work or other personal situations that may have arisen, they become less friendly and sometimes snappy. We're very, very used to having people roll their eyes at us, make sarcastic comments, and treat us like it's our personal decision to make them adhere to these policies. We're just the ones charged with carrying out policies made by someone else.
Q: If agents are so focused and serious about security screening, why do travelers constantly watch and listen to screeners banter about their day, evening plans, a booty call from last weekend, or your favorite movie? Doesn’t that seem unprofessional? Why should we as travelers put faith and believe in an agency that seems to put little effort into presenting a professional image on the front line?
A: I agree. Agents are entirely unprofessional when they discuss their personal lives in front of passengers, yet you see it at almost every airport. The job is so monotonous, it's the only way to get through the day. Plain and simple. It's almost as if the passengers become invisible. We watch their baggage contents. We monitor them as they pass through the checkpoint. But, otherwise, it's as if the factory of bags and people keeps on moving. I believe half of the agents aren't even aware that passengers are listening to them.
Also in this series of candid interviews with travel industry workers:
George Hobica is a syndicated travel journalist and founder of the low-airfare listing site Airfarewatchdog.com.