An Undercover Look at Airport Security and the TSA’

Even before the Memorial Day weekend exodus now underway, bottlenecks have been forming at security screening checkpoints in airports around the country. The pressure of pent-up demand for travel in the United States is starting to push against the limits of the Transportation Security Administration’s labor force — with the agency now reportedly behind on its planned hiring of 6,000 new officers before Labor Day.

And as Shawna Malvini Redden notes in 101 Pat-Downs: An Undercover Look at Airport Security and the TSA (Potomac Books, an imprint of the University of Nebraska Press), new transportation security officers tend to be particularly cautious about the screening process: “In fact, TSOs face regular assessments of their contraband-catching abilities, which can lead to some on-the-job paranoia.” They are subject to “tests designed to trip them up at every facet of their jobs, from taking tickets and checking IDs to viewing the X-ray images or patting down passengers.”

Few of the new hires will be able to remember — or even believe — that you could once board a flight at a United States airport without ever having to show anyone a picture ID, following a perfunctory scan of your carry-on items by a metal detector that was pretty low-tech even by the standards of the day. (I hardly trusted my own memories of doing so in the 1980s and early ’90s until a number of people confirmed them.) For most people, a “return to normal” in air travel will mean going back to the order of things Malvini Redden describes in her book, based on research that began in the late ’00s for her dissertation, also presented in papers appearing in Management Communication Quarterly and Communication Monographs. The author is an associate professor of communication studies at California State University, Sacramento.

It sounds like the kind of research that might get red-flagged at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security before you got very much of it done. Besides taking detailed notes on interactions at TSA checkpoints in 18 international airports in the course of 133 flights, Malvini Redden “conducted approximately 200 informal ethnographic interviews and formal interviews with 31 passengers and 15 TSOs, each averaging an hour.” The 15 TSOs were difficult specimens to collect, since the vast majority of those approached for an interview were anxious to check with the higher-ups. Whether or not they ever did so, that was usually the end of it. Nor did the agency itself respond to her inquiries. The preferred demeanor for TSA personnel is to project “a commanding presence” (as one of the interview subjects puts it), meaning they’ll be the ones asking questions and expecting answers.

A few TSOs discussed their experience, even so; like everyone else interviewed, they are quoted at length from behind pseudonyms. The author’s stated intention is to build up the sort of “thick description” of security-checkpoint interaction that Clifford Geertz made central to ethnographic cultural studies.

In this case, the description is of a small but highly charged portion of social space that only took shape after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, becoming institutionalized in a way that other responses of that era — the color-coded scale of threat levels, for example — did not. In it, the flow of a moving mass of bodies passes through a dense set of machines and personnel following protocols that are, for all practical purposes, beyond appeal. The experience of being screened can seem impersonal or highly invasive, or both, with a potential for conflict that is constantly renewed given that the rules seem both arbitrary (why would 3.5 ounces of a gel be potentially dangerous while 3.4 is not?) and variable (absolutely everyone must remove shoes! Wait, now those aged 75 or older needn’t bother).

Malvini Redden sorts the people converging at security checkpoints into categories according to how familiar and compliant they are with the routines, in the case of passengers, and how strongly they identify with the organization or how strictly they enforce their understanding of the rules, in the case of TSOs. But character typologies give only a rather schematic account of how participants communicate and behave.

Control of the emotions in a situation of high strain is expected on both sides of the process; at the same time, it leads to passengers complaining that TSOs are robotic while the latter return the favor with references to “sheeple.” It’s possible to have serious reservations about the legitimacy, efficacy and fairness of the whole process while also moving through the routine as compliantly as possible. The large share of the public that seldom travels by air is prone to feeling intimidated by TSOs, but they may also grow infuriated at having to surrender firearms. And the history of TSA’s response to the existence of transgender people has yet to be written, but Malvini Redden’s interviews suggest it is a complex one.

The author’s field is communication studies — arguably the most humanities-ish region of the social sciences, or vice versa. The volume’s methodology is entirely qualitative, meaning that it never frames questions of how representative a sample her interview subjects may be. (You have to wonder if any factor was at work in the self-selection of the 15 TSOs she was able to interview.) These aren’t objections to 101 Pat Downs, just an indication of where it diverges from other sorts of organizational culture research.

One point I do wish the author had developed further is her observation that the norms of the American consumer society clash with the requirements of getting through security. A checkpoint is, she writes, “one of the few places where the customer service script is flipped and we encounter compulsory interactions with steep differences in power between us and the folks in charge … [who] could arbitrarily decide to punish us if they chose to. Whereas Americans endorse a ‘the customer is always right’ mentality, the fact is that we are not customers when we are in airport security.“ Acting angry and entitled and demanding to see the manager is only going to mean missing your flight.

Indeed, one of the frequent-flying business travelers Malvini Redden interviews in the book regards this as the TSA’s main problem. He thinks it really ought to develop a commitment to improved customer service. But the rest of the book amounts to another, more challenging suggestion. Suppose, instead, we held both the customer service script and the trauma-induced security fetishism of the TSA up for questioning and reconsideration? Forget about a return to normal. Can’t we do better than that?

Leave a Reply