The Transportation Safety Administration is charged with protecting our mass transportation services from threats foreign and domestic.

They suck at it.

Even when they’re good at it, people hate them.

The TSA has taken the position that, while their services can sometimes be frustrating to encounter, it’s all for the greater good. From their point of view, as long as the skies and railways are safe, the citizenry can afford a bit of inconvenience and frustration. Everyone hates them, but at least their policies and procedures are keeping people safe, right? If only…

Today I’m sitting at gate E-15, my flight having been cancelled and my new flight delayed almost 3 hours. Good thing too, if my flight had been on time I would most certainly have missed it. The TSA’s horribly mismanaged security checkpoint would have been to blame. Let’s take a look and some of the poor assumptions, convoluted procedures, and obviously absurd off-the-cuff decisions that plague the average TSA airport checkpoint. I’m not going to be a complainer, I want to offer actual solutions to the problems the TSA faces that will ensure security while also easing travelers’ difficulties and maybe, just maybe, make the public appreciate the TSA for what they do for us rather than resent them for it.

Full Body Scanners

Everyone’s favorite privacy violation, cause for countless acts of protest, including several people stripping naked, and most recently, shown to be incredibly easy to defeat. But, for the sake of the user experience, let’s assume that full body scanners are effective at intercepting contraband and preserving the privacy of the travelers that are put into them.

At terminal 2 security at Chicago O’Hare there were three lines for security: The first line was for first class passengers, the second line was for coach class passengers, and the third line was for military and airport personnel.

In user experience design, we first look at the problems we’re trying to solve and the personas involved. The simplified problem for air travelers and their related personas is thus: Terrorists, criminals and other unsavories want to disrupt, hijack, blow up, and transport illicit materials on our aircraft, causing all manner of terrible.

Analyzing the full body scanner as part of the solution to the problem (and assuming it’s a near perfect deterrent as mentioned above), several conditions must be met in order for the scanner to be effective:

1. All passengers must go through the scanner – This a no brainer. If a passenger is not scanned, there’s no expectation that their illicit materials or intentions have been stopped. When facing security, all passengers are equal.

2. No passengers should be exempt from scan, unless pre-qualified by robust security criteria – A sky marshal or airport employee, for example, but:

3. Exempting passengers from a scan must follow a well-defined and valid criteria – Random selection isn’t effective in any way. You may get lucky by volume, but you’re not being scientific about it.

Assuming the above 3 conditions, lets take a look my experience at Chicago O’Hare. As noted above, there were 3 lines. At its face, not a big deal. Paying for a shorter line is a valid practice, until you hit the scanner, when all passengers are equal right? Not at O’Hare. At the security checkpoint I braved, the first class line was ushered straight through the metal detectors and on their way, while the much longer coach class line was directed exclusively through the slower full body scanner. Are first class passengers more trustworthy?

While waiting with my shoes in a bin to go through the full body scanner, I heard a TSA agent say this to the crowd: “We’re using the scanners today, please make sure your pockets are completely empty and all your metallic objects are placed in a bin.” Today? TODAY?! Why today? What set of procedures determined that today you’d use the scanner for your coach class passengers? More likely, there was need of an extra line, and some industrious (idiotic) TSA manager acted on his false assumption that first class passengers were less of a threat and opened another lane.

I’ll be traveling again in a couple of weeks. Stay tuned, part 2 of this article is coming soon…