Summer Air Traffic Delays – Warnings vs. Reality

The aviation system remains a prime target for terrorists. The traveling public, airlines, and airports grew impatient in the face of long security lines. As a result, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) was often in the news, until its leaders undertook a systematic process of transformation to both enhance security and minimize inconvenience for the traveling public.

The strategy TSA adopted has lessons applicable to the whole of the homeland security enterprise. In spring 2016, the upcoming summer months appeared ominous for airline travelers. Long security lines plagued major airports, including Atlanta (Georgia), Minneapolis (Minnesota), and Dallas (Texas). Customers missed flights, which infuriated the airlines. Passengers were advised to arrive hours before their flight, pruning air travel efficiencies. Forecasts for a record volume of summer air traffic made the situation even more foreboding.

By mid-May, stalled TSA security lines reached crisis proportions in Chicago, Illinois. Passengers waited hours to board flights. Furious, Mayor Rahm Emmanuel called a press conference to denounce the agency.

Summer Air Traffic Woes

With the summer gone, the question is, “What happened?” Memorial Day travelers were warned of huge delays that never materialized. The summer proved “smooth sailing” at most airports. When problems arose, they were quickly resolved. Mayor Emmanuel held another press conference in August, this time to commend the “heroic” efforts of TSA. “When things get messed up, people always report it. When they get fixed and addressed, they should also be reported,” he said. When so much of the public has lost confidence in government, explaining this quick and dramatic turnaround is important. As the nation marks 15 years since 9/11, the TSA experience also informs how the country can improve homeland security.

The National Preparedness Leadership Initiative (NPLI), based at Harvard University, was asked by TSA to examine and assist in addressing mounting leadership challenges. This government-academic connection allowed NPLI to systematically assess leadership questions and develop a leadership curriculum to assist agency transformation. 

A New Leader at TSA

The story begins in June 2015. A leaked Inspector General report revealed that security officers missed dangerous items – including guns and explosives – 95 percent of the time. TSA had placed a premium on reducing wait times. The agency lost track of its mission.

One month later, Coast Guard Vice-Commandant Admiral Peter Neffenger was confirmed as the new TSA administrator. Neffenger was a graduate of Harvard’s executive education program. The NPLI had studied his leadership as deputy national incident commander during the 2010 Gulf oil spill.

Neffenger’s first priority at TSA was reorienting the agency: ensuring the security of the traveling public. Rather than emphasizing quick security lines, passenger anomalies were thoroughly checked, including liquids, guns, and other risks. The trade-off was security over speed. At the same time, the agency faced a congressionally imposed nine percent reduction in its workforce alongside a nine percent increase in passenger volume. It became a simple math problem translating into longer wait times.

TSA’s senior leadership team was able to turn the situation around. First, when a problem spiked at an airport, Neffenger and senior leaders immediately met with local airport and airline officials, political leaders, and TSA managers to determine what happened and seek fixes. One such meeting occurred in Atlanta in March. Delta Airlines executives were surprised by the administrator’s visit. The long lines, they concurred, were bad for business, security, and the traveling public. Delta agreed to work with TSA to alleviate the problems. They provided staff to assist TSA in non-security functions. They paid for and installed new automated security lanes in Atlanta, testing a screening technology promising long-term improvements in speed and effectiveness. Following that lead, American, United, and other airlines also joined in.

To meet growing volume, the TSA workforce had to be significantly expanded. The workforce required training. With information in hand, congressional leaders quickly got on board delivering the necessary funding and authorizations.

Back at TSA headquarters, a new system was established to monitor the volume of passengers. Airline passengers fly with reservations, so ebbs and flows can be anticipated. With that, TSA can strategically shift and surge their workforce to meet demands. TSA inaugurated a daily call with major airports and airlines to assess and forecast problems. Together, TSA, airlines, and airports worked to stem problems even before they occurred. And when glitches arose, corrective actions and adjustments were easily made.

The Lesson for the Broader Homeland Security Enterprise

Leaders across the aviation security ecosystem transitioned beyond the blame. They partnered, transforming antagonisms into collaborative working relationships. TSA established close linkages with its allied stakeholders: employees, Congress, related government agencies, airlines, airports, law enforcement, and private sector organizations.

In the midst of these wait line troubles, international threats against aviation escalated. Terrorists attacked airports in Brussels, Belgium, and Istanbul, Turkey. Explosives were detonated on aircrafts in Egypt and Somalia. Aviation continues as a prized target.

By forging a stronger web among security entities, TSA is fortifying the protective shield that detects, deters, and defeats those who pose a threat to passengers. This task cannot be accomplished by one agency alone. At the national level and at airports across the country, the leadership that solved one problem is being adapted to solve an even bigger one. For those who would do harm, a close-knit weave of partnerships is more difficult to penetrate. This strategy, forging stronger connectivity of effort, is what the Harvard NPLI calls “meta-leadership.”

TSA was established to combat “Terrorism 1.0” against a clearly defined adversary. The system now faces the more dynamic environment of “Terrorism 2.0”: homegrown and international terrorists; lone wolves or those loosely connected to terrorist groups; and others who are difficult to detect. Working together, the TSA and its related stakeholders are demonstrating agility through connectivity. The TSA transformation provides lessons for the broader homeland security enterprise as it appropriates resources and attention to this evolving and more complex threat profile.

Leonard J. Marcus

Leonard J. Marcus is co-director of the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative (NPLI), a joint program of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. In collaboration with colleagues and through extensive research, he has pioneered development of the conceptual and pragmatic bases for meta-leadership, the Walk in the Woods method for interest-based negotiation, and applications of systematic dispute resolution for multidimensional problem solving.



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