Today I begin a series of posts that will use documents obtained from the TSA following a FOIA request. I asked for, and got, complaints sent to the agency in the last year by active duty military personnel or combat-wounded military veterans. To the TSA’s credit, I filed my request in August, and – very much to my surprise – got 216 pages of documents in early October. While the agency has fiercely resisted transparency, they got this one right. And the documents I received are pretty revealing.
First thing the documents tell us: when you complain to the TSA, you aren’t complaining to the TSA. Whether you call or use their website to write to them, your complaint is processed and answered by an employee of K4 Solutions, the TSA’s call center contractor. This form does not send information directly to the TSA. If you use it, you’re writing to a corporation. To be sure, the forms often indicate that the complaints have been sent on to TSA officials at the appropriate airport, but K4 Solutions is a layer of insulation. It is not TSA headquarters, and your complaints don’t go directly to TSA headquarters. The contractor controls the messages, and decides where and if to route them.
Second, news stories about TSA outrages always contain the obligatory statement from the TSA press office, and it’s always a meaningless jumble of lines read from a script: the TSA takes passenger safety very seriously and has multiple layers of security. The responses to TSA complaints are exactly the same. The K4 employee who reads or hears your complaint has a scripted set of available responses, and cuts and pastes a set of paragraphs to answer your call or letter. The amount of thought that goes into that cutting and pasting is, let’s put this charitably, negligible.
Take a look at this complaint and response, which I’ve posted on Scribd. It’s from a U.S. Army colonel, traveling through the Tampa airport. (Tampa is the home of CENTCOM, so that airport surely sees a great deal of military traffic.) The complaint specifically and explicitly relates to the unprofessional behavior of a TSA employee who wore three stripes on his epaulets and identified himself as a supervisor, often and loudly. Not only that, but the complaint says that the colonel asked other TSA officers to get a supervisor, and they all told him that the person he wanted to complain about was the only available on-site supervisor.
The cut-and-paste response appears over and over again in the complaint responses I have obtained from the TSA:
“Please be advised that a passenger can always request to speak with the Supervisory Transportation Security Officer at the checkpoint to address any complaint regarding security procedures.”
There is no way you can send that response if you’ve bothered to spend a single minute actually reading and comprehending the short complaint that it purports to address. Your complaint goes to a private corporation, and not even that private corporation is listening. They are mindlessly processing words on a screen, and pasting canned answers into a form.
Or take a look at this complaint, a passenger’s attempt to follow up an earlier complaint (that I have been unable to pair with this one) after receiving a canned response:
“I was physically assaulted and threatened and this must be investigated.”
Look at page 2 of this complaint to see that it’s being handled by Amber Sizemore, Supervisor, at K4 Solutions. The TSA contractor’s response to a complaint about the alleged physical assault of a passenger and threats from a TSA employee?
“If you are writing to find out if you can pack a certain item in your carry-on or checked bags, you can use our ‘Can I bring my ____ through the security checkpoint?’ tool located on the www.tsa.gov homepage.”
An automated computer system could do a better job than this mechanical plugging-in of canned messages. They are not listening to passenger complaints. At all. And it’s not an accident or an omission: It’s the TSA’s system for processing passenger complaints, as it was carefully and deliberately designed.