Get rid of the TSA? The agency’s chief says not so fast

Transportation Security Administration Administrator John Pistole, right, speaks at the opening of a new TSA Pre-check application center in Virginia. In an interview, Pistole responds to the agency's critics and talks about the future of airport security.
(Win McNamee / Getty Images)

Do away with the Transportation Security Administration, critics implore. It’s all just security theater, useless measures meant to make people feel safe. No terrorist plot has ever been stopped by the TSA, they insist.

TSA Administrator John Pistole has heard all the criticism of his agency — created after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and charged with screening more than 630 million fliers per year. Pistole acknowledges TSA has made mistakes, and continues to adjust its policies and techniques to protect U.S. travelers.

In an interview, Pistole talked about the future of airport screening, and his efforts to switch from a system that treats all travelers the same to a program that focuses on high-risk fliers. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.


Last year, the TSA announced that it would allow passengers to carry small knives onto planes, but you rescinded that decision. Will you allow small knives on planes in the future?

Given the lobbying efforts against it and members of Congress weighing in against it, I decided to take it off the table as something that was not furthering our efforts to transform from a one-size-fits-all to a risk-based [system].

European airports are testing devices to analyze liquids carried by passengers for explosives. When will travelers in the U.S. be able to fly without having to toss away bottles of water, soda or other liquids?

We have over 900 what we call bottle liquid scanners that we use for such things as mother’s milk and certain medicines that are larger than 100 milliliters. We could allow any liquids to fly, but it’s a time-consuming process so we don’t have an efficient way of doing that. One of the options that we looked at is to have a dedicated lane for people who wanted to bring liquids aboard, but that might be a long line.

The TSA announced a contest recently to find new ideas to speed the passenger-screening system. Why is that such a big challenge?

Each of the 450 airports where we provide screening is unique. Most airports were built and designed pre-9/11 and security is kind of an afterthought. So we’ve tried to cobble our way into some pretty tight spaces.

Are there any data to show TSA is doing a better job of moving passengers through the screening lines?

If you look at wait times that compared Easter of last year to Easter of this year, the rate of people who are waiting 20 minutes or longer in the standard lane is 2.2% for last year compared to 0.75% this year. So it’s gone down substantially.

A recent passenger survey found that TSA screening is no longer the most annoying part about flying. Why is that?

I think we are doing a better job. Two years ago we initiated an integrity test program [to uncover stealing by TSA officers]. We’ve had over 3,500 integrity tests where we leave behind an iPhone, an iPad, a gold watch or a Montblanc pen. We’ve had 10 [TSA workers] steal the bait in two years. That’s still 10 too many.

There are some people who suggest we do away with the TSA. How do you respond?

There will always be some people who don’t see the utility or value added of the TSA or any government agency. If we granted these people their wishes and did away with the TSA, what an opportunity for the terrorists to take advantage of. It would only take one plane to get blown up or hijacked for people to say, “Wait a minute, where was security?”

The other alternative would be going back to the system we had before 9/11 where airlines did their own security screening. What about that?

I’m just following congressional mandates. Congress said create TSA in the aftermath of Sept. 11. Don’t let this happen again. Some would say there has been a hassle factor. Absolutely. That’s been the case where we are patting down 95-year-old great-grandmothers with cancer or taking a teddy bear from a 3-year-old. Those policies have been changed to reflect the intelligence that says those people are probably not terrorists. There is no perfect solution. That’s what I would say to those folks: “OK, if you want to do away with the TSA, then what’s your solution?” It’s easy to be the armchair quarterback.