TSA Lacks Proper Monitoring, Investigation of Air Passenger Complaints, Federal Audit Finds

By Fred Lucas | November 21, 2012 | 3:02 PM EST

In this Monday, Oct. 29, 2012, photo, travelers on Delta Airlines look at a departure screen, in Detroit. Major airlines scrapped flights in and out of the New York area Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2012, as the region gets socked with the second significant storm in little more than a week. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

(CNSNews.com) – The Transportation Security Administration lacks a centralized system to monitor the complaints from air travelers, doesn’t factor numerous complaints when evaluating its customer satisfaction scorecards and faces a potential conflict of interest in investigating many complaints, according to a federal audit.

Ahead of the holiday travel season, the Government Accountability Office released a report on Nov. 15 that found problems with the TSA’s complaint process. The report says that 39,616 complaints were made to the TSA Contact Center, or TCC, from October 2009 through June 2012. However, the TCC is just one of five avenues for air travelers to make complaints and it is the only one evaluated by the TSA in doing its annual scorecard.

Of those complaints to the TCC – 17,153 – pertain to pat-downs, according to the GAO. Almost 10,000 pertained to customer service issues, while nearly another 10,000 dealt with screening. Other sources of complaints dealt primarily with the advanced imaging technology – which despite its controversy just logged 1,853 of the complaints – disability and civil rights complaints.

The other sources for air passengers screening complaints are the Office of the Executive Secretariat that address complaints sent by mail, the multicultural branch that deals with civil rights matters, the disability branch, and the local TSA airport staffs.

The report says, “TSA is using only the complaints received through the TCC to calculate an air passenger satisfaction indicator in its Office of Security Operations’ Executive Scorecard.”

“TSA does not use data from its other four mechanisms, in part because the complaint categories differ, making data consolidation difficult,” said the report compiled by Stephen Lord, director of homeland security and justice issues for the GAO.

The report went on to say, “An agency wide policy and process would help standardize how TSA receives complaints and how TSA analyzes and uses the information it collects, but without a focal point at TSA headquarters, the agency does not have a centralized entity to guide and coordinate these efforts, or to suggest any additional refinements to the system.”

With regards to looking into customer complaints, the report said, “the lack of independence of the complaint investigators creates the potential for a conflict of interest to arise between the investigator and the individual under investigation.” But it says that process could be improving.

“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,” the report said. “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.”

Currently, however, the TSA complaint resolution process does not comply with independent investigation standards established by either the American Bar Association or the U.S. Ombudsman Association.

“Having a more independent complaint resolution process would better position TSA to make informed and unbiased decisions about complaints and ensure that corrective actions are taken, as needed, against screeners who are reported to have exhibited unprofessional or inappropriate behavior with air passengers,” the GAO report says.

The TSA is a division of the Department of Homeland Security, which concurred with the GAO recommendations to establish an agency-wide system to collect more uniform data on customer complaints.

In a letter stating that the TSA screens about 650 million travelers each year, Jim H. Crumpacker, director of the GAO-Office of Inspector General Liaison Office for the DHS, said that improving screening is a priority for the agency.

The letter said that the TSA is establishing a Passenger Advocate Program to begin in 2013 and already launched a “TSA Cares” hotline for passengers to call in November 2011.

“While the majority of passengers approved of TSA’s handling of security screening, TSA takes all complaints seriously,” wrote Crumpacker, who reviewed a draft of the GAO report before the final version was issued. “According, TSA has several initiatives underway to systemically collect, analyze, report and share screening complaint data.”

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