Saturday, May 24, 2008

A Little Respect

One of the most common complaints about security is the rudeness of the screeners. I typed out a whole lot of theorizing on customer service in the US and Canada, southern USA hospitality, the British class system, French culture, the effect of competition on corporate attitudes towards customer service, and the public face of police services. But in the end I deleted it most of it. Simply put, the public expects smiles, please, thank you, and deference. The screeners expect orderly, respectful compliance. Both groups are very disappointed by what actually happens.

Security screeners are stuck with the dual and daunting task of preventing potentially dangerous objects from going onboard aircraft, and acting as the public face of the inconvenience of airports. I imagine that many of them try to face each new customer with cheer, or at least guarded neutrality, but after five hours of scowling, whining, eye-rolling passengers, they're probably doing well not to actually swear back at you. The public are incredibly rude to the screeners. The screeners are rude back. The whole process becomes self-perpetuating pit of nastiness.

My strategy: be nice. If I have to, I pretend that the screeners are behaving as reasonable human beings, and respond accordingly to my fantasies. The aim is for an Academy Award level performance, not sarcastic pseudoniceness. The first step in being nice is to follow the rules. I mean really, the rules don't hurt me. It's a nuisance to get my laptop, my boarding pass, my baggie, my shoes and my parka all organized on the belt, but that nuisance is not the fault of the screener.

I smile and say hello to any screener who looks at me. I say excuse me, and please, if I have a question. I say thank you if they give me an instruction or a bin. If they thank me, I tell them they're welcome. If I discover that I've accidentally packed something I shouldn't have, I apologize, and admit to knowing better. Everyone knows that throwing a tantrum will not result in being able to keep the prohibited item. And I know I feel better after an encounter if I think I've behaved in a civilized manner. It's a game. I score points if the screener is nice back to me.

A little bit of niceness goes a long way, in both directions. Some of the poor screeners are so starved for love that their gratitude shows. Some of them are so hardened in their ways you'd think I swore at them. It's like those studies showing that people are happier when they give money away as opposed to spending it on themselves. Is it my being polite that makes me happy, or someone else's being polite to me?

On a recent trip, I decided to try WestJet's e-Boarding Pass. I followed the instructions on their site and they e-mailed me a boarding pass. Not a boarding pass to be printed out, but a paperless one. At security, I displayed it as instructed on my computer screen. The screener looked at it, looked confused, and called another screener. They told me it was not adequate. It didn't qualify as a boarding pass because it didn't have a barcode.

I went back to the check in area and used a kiosk to get a paper boarding pass. I returned to the screening area and got the same screener. She was openly grateful for my easy acceptance of the original decision. I won't tell you what I got away with because of it.

I wonder if I put a big tinfoil happy face inside the bottom of my carry on, if it would show up as a happy face on the x-ray machine. Maybe I'll try it next trip.

The picture is of a bilingually labelled, CATSA-issue one-litre plastic bag. These are available free in most Canadian airports, from a table in front of security. I've also seen bags for sale in US airports. They should also have a vending machine for little mailing boxes, and postage, so you could mail things you weren't allowed to carry. I think a lot of US airports don't have mailboxes, though, so that would be a barrier.


dpierce said...

The majority of my experiences with the US TSA in the last year or so have been unremarkable. I think they've improved a lot over the years and gotten rid of many who don't maintain a professional bearing. I've seen service in some cities consistently better than others.

A fairly senior military cop I knew would've agreed with your earlier assertion that the threat environment is omnipresent, but he once told me that if you're in the security business and you can't do your job professionally, respectfully, and courteously, it's your first sign you don't have the mentality for the job. That's not an exact quote, but I think I got the gist of it right.

Again, I think the TSA is *generally* improving. I would've been interested to hear your thoughts on American, Canadian, and European customer service expectations, as this is a conversation I tend to get into a lot. It sounds like it might've been quite a rant.

Anonymous said...

An American company was offering a service where you could buy their mailer at the airport frmo a little kiosk and drop your offending item and it's sealed mailer into the kliosk, sort of like drugstore photo processing. They would ship it to your destination and bill you, all automated, but everything routed through their facilities. Have not heard nor seen it myself.

Colin said...

It always amazed me to read the stories of the people being herded onto trains by the Nazis in the ghettos because some of them were polite.

The security at airports is pointless. Or, perhaps, it has nothing to do with security. It is a show. For the six months I flew after 9.11 I carried a blade that was longer than the ones the hijackers used. It was never discovered. My nine year old regularly comes up with ways to circumvent security, most of which would work. Ceramic kitchen knives go right through and you can get REALLY big knives of that material.

Makes you feel safe, doesn't it, knowing that a nut like me is armed on the plane, right?

The most important fact, though, came from the top air force security expert who a friend bumped into in civilian clothes at a party in Florida. It was a little while after the shoe bomber. My friend said, "The shoe bomber was foiled by passengers. There have been a number of other incidents. It seems like the days of getting away with the hijacking are over." The air force guy said, "Well, we can't say it publicly, but we know that the terrorists will never again be able to take over an airliner."

Personally, I would just kill all the security. The next guy that stood up with a gun would be shot before he had the safety off.

Anonymous said...

I had a good experience at Hamburg, when returning from a business trip with a tape measure. The tape is a 300 ft, contained in a thin disc with a diameter of about 25 cm. Looks a bit like a mine really. You could see confusiona and panic appearing on the screeners face, which turned to relief when they saw what it was!


Anonymous said...

I would hardly compare waiting in line for TSA folks, who quickly screen you and your luggage, to a one way trip to Buchenwald. If you think we have stringent screening, try El Al...and those folks know from Buchenwald.
It seems sort of an expensive hobby to buy airline tickets just to sneak aboard contraband which does not even yield a profit (just kidding).

Rob said...

I have done a lot of traveling as of late and I have to tell you that there are reasons the Americans ask you to take off your shoes, and reasons for the limits on liquids.

Since I work in the word of Security I am probably more aware as to what some of the threats are, than the regular person.

I go into every check with a positive attitude and a smile, and I've never had a problem. I use positive language and actually thank them for their service.

These people are paid a low wage and have a tough job to do with a minimal amount of training to do it.

God forbid some nut job successfully takes a Canadian plane down. Most people would then realize that the threat is real and that security checks are in place to protect us.

Anonymous said...

I too have been flying a bit recently (in Europe). You just accept that you have to take the laptop out, put all your phones etc into your bag, take off the belt.... I never have an issue with liquids, as they are either in my checked-in luggage, or in my belly!

The most annoying thing I find is the lack of provision (in some places) of space etc to sort everything out AFTER the screening... you need space to put the laptop back in the bag, to put your belt back on (along with the bits you have on that.... I have a belt-mounted wallet for example).

And of course, if you have to remove shoes, you need a seat....

And because there IS no space in many cases, this delays the other passengers trying to pass through the screening, raising blood pressures all around.

And THAT is why I so like the smaller airports... things are just so much quieter.

(yesterday, at Antwerp - a VERY small airport - the baggage belt at checkin had broken down, so they just put the luggage onto a couple of trollies (yes THAT small a place!!!) and put it through the normal passenger XRay scanner! No big deal...)

Anonymous said...

I think the TSA has improved a lot, and I think people have gotten used to it more. Now, I think the rules are kind of stupid, but I'm not the one making them, so I might as well follow them. What really bothers me is secret rules, the ones that exist but they can't tell you about.

James said...

I worked as a CATSA screening part-time while in undergrad. While understanding that going through security was not the most pleasant experience for passengers, I would do my best to be friendly and even crack jokes. I think I was lucky in that I only did it one or two days a week. As you've mentioned, both passengers and screeners can be some grumpy/rude people.

I think the main problem is that in most of the Western World, you are innocent until proven guilty. Basic beliefs and assumptions of rights are based on that premise. However, going through screening at the airport, you are guilty until proven innocent. This throws a lot of people off (especially when they get bossed around by a screener who's having a bad day).

The number one response I got from people when doing a secondary screen (with the 'wand') was -"What? Do I look like a terrorist?"

I think that there a lot of problems with security, but definitely agree with this post. If even one was just a little bit nicer and gave each other more respect, it'd be a much better experience.

Anonymous said...

Hi Aviatrix,

I appreciate your sentiments on mutual respect; this is all too often missing, and as you succinctly point out, the multiple stresses of being at a commercial airport are many and add to it.

However, I have some serious issues with the TSA, and their parent organization, the Department of "Homeland Security" (a name that in itself really bothers me).

The main issue is that I perceive security as purely reactionary. A terrorist, whether successful or not, tries a unique method to wreak havoc. The TSA does a good job at immediate response to an event, similar to the proverbial Dutch boy poking a finger into a single hole in the Dyke. The shoe and liquids game are, I think, the latest examples of that.

This is where I have the problem: The front-line screeners focus on these little 'plugged holes' like it is their prime directive. I believe that there are many other holes, in fact too many to plug while scrutinizing particular objects.

As sick as it is, the 9/11 attacks demonstrate an organized group of people with the necessary mental tools to succeed despite the TSA: Organization, funding, education, etc. I believe that if a group of people has the desire and means to do evil, they'll probably find a new method that our pre-occupied security staff isn't watching for.

So, whats the solution? I don't know. Perhaps an El Al airlines type approach? That wouldn't make getting on a commercial flight happen any faster, but they've done a reasonably good job of avoiding hijackings looking not at shoes so much as the behavior of passengers. Not to mentioned armed guards on each flight.

As a family member told me about airport security many years before 9/11: "Its not safety, its compliance". He continues to be right.

Anonymous said...

Security is one of the latest areas in modern life where customer has no input on the quality of service. People with skills enough to land a job that requires asking "do you want fries with that?" gain respect and attitude with extremely little control. At the same time, their bosses make obscene amount of money by inventing new threats and new security measures.

I am wondering how less safe we would be if we still applied the security measures there were in force in Europe in late 90's. I feel inclined to believe the difference would be negligible.

amulbunny's random thoughts said...

A great deal of checkpoint security is Kabuki theater. Concentrating on small insignificant things while missing the big things. I've seen testers go through each line at a checkpoint and out of 6 xray checks, only 2 picked up the IED components, and 1 picked up the knife. Not very comforting. When asking a supervisor at a checkpoint who does the TSA serve, it wasn't passengers it was the DHS. So passengers aren't the main concern.

And now with AA saying they'll charge 15$ for the first bag and 25$ for the second, you know the 2 item minimum is going to be pushed to the limit, causing longer lines, angrier passengers and ticked off gate agents and flight attendants who will have to gate check oversized bags and who's going to collect the money for that?

Trust me, I am no fan of the TSA because of their treatment of their employees and the non compliance to rules that every airport is supposed to comply with.

mini rant over. I hope the CATSA is better with people than the TSA.

Anonymous said...

Hey, Aviatrix, here's your opportunity to play at working in Airport Security:

Have fun!