Friday, March 01, 2013

TSA Doesn't have to Suck

My work took me to Columbus, OH this week for a two day trip. Actually, it took me about a world away from Columbus to a little town called McArtur where there is the only official light in the county. There is also one of the oldest companies still in existence in Ohio having been established in the late 1800's. Then manufactured dynamite for mining; they now manufacture much more powerful explosives. I had a unique opportunity to see their operations up close since I was installing some software that I had written to enable them to track product through manufacturing, packaging and onto a truck destined for European customers. In short, the gig was "a blast"!

When I left Atlanta Tuesday morning I had the usual unpleasant experience of walking through Atlanta's TSA gang. While the lady who was checking passports and boarding tickets was very pleasant it all ended there. As one approaches the scanners they're greeted with somber-faced agents who tend to command and yell rather than instruct. I get it - they deal with clueless travelers all day. They don't get it - we're clueless cause the rules change and not everyone travels that often.

Traditionally we've had to walk through metal detectors. They now have these body scanners that require you to walk in, face a certain way, and raise your hands above your head as if you were a criminal. Humiliating and demeaning that it is, what is worse is when (literally) three agents yell at you to raise your hands. You're powerless to even look at them for fear they'll ID you as a terrorist and pounce on you. I escaped security with my usual frustration and resentment.

When I left the plant I changed to street shoes, changed my pants, changed my shirt and washed my hands. I had been warned that I might set off the detectors at the airport. I did. The body scanner detected something and so the gentleman told me he needed to do a pat down. I have a good sense of humor and they all seemed friendly. When he patted my rear-end side I went "woo!" in fake enjoyment. They all laughed. He says, "Oh, great - right in front of my supervisor." It was fun. Then he swabbed my hands and headed to the machine. Says I, "Oh boy - if you knew where I'd been the last two days." Jokes he back, "Not sure I want to know."

And the machine started screaming - "Explosives! High Explosives! Grab the guy." And I reply, "Yup - I was afraid that would happen."

The next 15 minutes or so were one of the best experiences of both professional and simple human interaction. They, naturally, did their job and followed procedure. But they were very friendly and polite about it. They knew where I had been, having seen other employees and their family come through and set off the detectors. They did a full pat down, and searched all my stuff. They explained what they were doing every step of the way, and even the beefy security guys that showed up (appearing to be ex-military) were friendly. They were focused and professional - had I been a bad guy there is no way I'd have made it through. But they were also quite willing to laugh, smile, and answer my questions.

What is the difference between the TSA in Columbus, OH and Atlanta? There are some, for sure. One set seem to have a chip on their shoulder and thrive on the power they have while the others are simply Americans doing a very important job. One group could care less to leave you with some dignity while the other respects you as a fellow American deserving of respect.

TSA doesn't have to suck. TSA agents don't have to be nasty, grumpy and bossy. They can instruct you as to what they need you to do in a manner and tone that allows you to endure the delay with dignity and respect. In return, I believe that travelers will show them respect and will go through the security-experience with patience.

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