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Transportation Security Administration

Remarks at the Aero Club of Washington

Administrator Peter Neffenger
Washington, D.C.
Wednesday, February 3, 2016
As Delivered

Evolving Transportation Security

Thank you, Margaret [Margaret Jenny, Aero Club President]. Thank you for that kind introduction and thanks for the opportunity to be here today.

I'm really thrilled to be at Aero Club because I am a lifelong aviation enthusiast. I've always liked things that go up in the air and then come back to the ground with me in one piece. My mother was, indeed, a pilot. She wasn't a commercial pilot – a private pilot. I grew up in a large family and all of us were required to learn to fly because she had this nagging fear that someday something would happen to her and one of us would be in the plane and she wouldn't get back to the ground safely. So, we all had to learn. I'm no longer current, but I did fly, and spent a lot of time being dragged off to the Fly-In at Oshkosh. She was a member of the AOPA [Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association], and I spent more time than I probably would have liked upside down in biplanes and being spun through barrel rolls and other corkscrew-like events, but it was a lot of fun. And some of you may wonder why I then had a maritime career – it may have been being upside down in the biplane piece that did it to me. That and the fact that I wear glasses and nobody in their right mind in the military would put me in a cockpit and allow me to land the aircraft.

So as Margaret said, I'm now seven months into my job as TSA Administrator, and a lot of people ask me why in the world I left the Coast Guard and came to TSA. I did so voluntarily. Some of that may be a proscription about answering the telephone without checking caller ID first, but there's usually not a caller ID attached to the phone call that asks you to become the TSA Administrator. But I will tell you that I have never looked back. It's been really a fascinating challenge. I'm very excited to be part of TSA.

What I'd really like to do today is just give you some of my impressions of the first seven months: what are some of the things we've worked on initially, and where do I think TSA is going, and, more importantly, how do I see our interaction with all of you and the importance of it. So thanks for being here.

I said yes to this mission. There are a couple reasons I said yes. First and foremost, I really like mission-driven organizations. I spent my career in the military before I came here. The Coast Guard is nothing, if not a mission-focused organization. TSA is nothing, if not a mission-focused organization, and, in my opinion, has one of the most important missions in the country: protecting our transportation system from those who might harm it. Transportation, as you know, underpins the entire economic health of this country, it's getting something from one place to another, whether it's a person, it's a thing, or it's an idea. It’s about going through a system that we all depend upon and hope it stays safe and secure. I'm excited by that mission. I'm also excited to work with any group of people that raise their hand, take an oath of office and say: I agree to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic. Never forget that every single person at TSA took that oath. They took an oath to do a job that is really challenging. Picture yourself putting on a TSA uniform and standing at a screening checkpoint and thinking about what every single screener sees, on average, about 13,000 or 14,000 different individuals a day, and think about some of the individuals you stood in line with in the airport, and then think about what they’re dealing with. I think we should all thank them for taking on what is really probably one of the hardest jobs in the nation.

We are bar none the retail face of government. I don't think there's anybody that can beat us. I will take bets on that. And, as such, I think that we owe it to ourselves to think about what that means in terms of the way we treat people and the respect and the dignity that we serve them. But I think it's also incumbent upon us, as travelers, to think about what it means to be that retail face and what it means to interact with them.

As I think about that, if you remember back in May of last year during the time that I had been nominated and had not yet gone through confirmation, we had an unfortunate release of some classified information with respect to covert testing that had been done by the DHS Inspector General. And that testing was designed to test specific elements of the passenger screening checkpoint. In particular, it was the machine called the Advanced Imaging [Technology] machine, which is the one you stand up with your hands up in the air. The details of that report are actually classified, and the numbers that were publically-released are still classified, so I'm not going to repeat those here. You all read the accounts, but let me just say this – without trying to excuse it – the rate of failure was a much higher rate than you'd expect to see and certainly not acceptable from what we expect. And it called into question the ability of TSA to do its primary mission in the aviation world.

Now I'm going to spend my time talking about aviation today mostly because that's the crowd I've got here. Remember that much of what I say does apply across the whole mission set. We think about all modes of transportation, but aviation is the one that we directly are responsible for. So it called into question our ability to do the mission that we have primary responsibility for, and that is the safety of the aviation system and screening of passengers. As soon as I came on, it actually provides you with an interesting opportunity. When you have a public crisis like that, you can go hide and hope it goes away or you can actually take it as an opportunity to take a look at your entire system.

There are a couple of ways that operating agencies typically react to a crisis or react to news of failure. One is to just go correct a failure at the point at which it occurred. That has to happen at some point, and we had done that apparently, repeatedly over time. We had a number of our own internal test[s] that had showed that we had less than acceptable results for our screening environment. And if you go back and you just correct that one event that may fix that checkpoint team or that checkpoint piece of equipment, or whatever else happened with respect to procedures, but it may not adjust what could be a systemic problem. So we took the opportunity to say we might actually have some systemic problems that are leading to what looked like failures, so let's look at this differently.

So I inherited a team that Secretary Johnson had established. He called it a tiger team. It's a team of frontline people, and people from across the agency, and from outside that were tasked with looking at what were the true root causes of what happened. Without going into a lot of detail, there was a great deal of work that went into that over about a four-month period. Here's what I'll tell you. We did have some systemic issues. And probably the most systemic issue is a very simple one. It starts with the very real premise that if you pay attention to something, that's what other people will pay attention to, and the higher up in the organization you pay attention to something, the more the organization as a whole will pay attention to it.

If you remember back in the mid-2000s, there was a lot of concern about the amount of time people were waiting in security lines. This was before TSA Pre✓®. We had really long wait times, hours-long wait times, and there was a justifiable concern over the amount of time that took, and the reason was a couple things. One, you don't want large numbers of people congregating outside the sterile area. That makes things challenging. It also puts a lot of pressure on the industry to figure out, to get flights out on time and so forth. There are lots of reasons why wait times can be a challenge if they grow too long. So a number of things were put into place to try to improve the flow of people through the checkpoint environment. And that's good, and some of those things were good. TSA Pre✓® came about as a result of that, and some other things happened, some redesign of the checkpoints and so forth.

The long story short is if you're not careful that can get translated, at the front end of the organization to the people who are actually delivering your mission, those screeners and officers in uniform, into it is about moving people through the checkpoint. And if you're not careful, moving people through the checkpoint becomes more important than clearing whatever alarms somebody might present. I said this in one of my confirmation hearings, and I said this in subsequent hearings – that essentially we had a disproportionate focus on efficiency over effectiveness. And over time, that got translated in the front lines as we have to clear the passenger and not resolve the alarm. And it's a very simple difference. If I say clear the passenger and you show up and you've got something that shows up on the machine and I say, “What is that?” And you tell me “that's my back brace,” I say, “oh, okay,” and let you go through, or I say, “Oh, well, we have to verify that.”

It's about resolving the alarm, not clearing the passenger. That's a fundamental, cultural shift in the way you think, and we're already seeing some dramatic differences in the way people respond. What we did is to try to embed some of that thinking. We looked at the focus of the agency. There are a lot of environmental stressors that have arrived at checkpoints now that were never there before. People were carrying more baggage to checkpoints than they did before. That baggage has a lot more stuff in it, and there are a lot more electronics in the world than there used to be, so there are all sorts of things inside bags that can look really challenging. You have to figure out what they are. We look at wires and masses and other things, and you want to make sure that they're wires and masses and things that are associated with your laptop and not associated with things that are not your laptop. And then there's the general way of thinking about the system, and the checkpoint doesn't exist in isolation. It exists as part of a larger aviation security system that really starts in a virtual way when you first make a reservation, and continues through a series of virtual and then physical and then other virtual methods and so forth. You have to think about how it all ties together. If you see long lines at the ticket counter for people to check bags, you can guarantee that those long lines are going to find their way into the checkpoint. Then they're going to find their way down to the gate and other things. All of those were pieces of how we looked at it, the system.

Then you have to train people to think differently. So we did a rolling stand-down across the whole organization, eight hours at a time. We trained the entire workforce, all the way up through management, me included. We said, what happened? What was the nature of what got through? How was it presented? What about the technology did we not understand? What about the processes that we had did we not understand? What about the people did we not train properly? We actually found that there were things we could do with respect to teaching people about how the technology works. If you hand somebody a piece of equipment, you really need to tell them how it works in order to make them use it properly. If you don't tell them how it works, I guarantee you they won't use it properly. So that's on us. There are procedures. If you have a 3,000 item standard operating procedure, you're probably not going to have people memorizing that many things, so you have to simplify the procedures. We did a lot of work on that. More importantly, you have to think mission first all the time.  And I tell people, you’ve got to wake up every day and think about the mission end of the organization first and work your way backwards.

The mission is delivered by the people in the very front of the organization. They're the people that really have to be thought about daily. That's part of what we tried to do, and we tried to build that into training, and then we dramatically changed the way we do training in TSA. We started, for the first time ever, thanks to some help from Congress in our appropriations this year, a TSA Academy.  For the first time ever in TSA's history, we're training all new hires at a TSA Academy, which is situated on the grounds of the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center down in Glynco, Georgia. That's huge, because that ties you to mission, it ties you to engagement in a larger organization, and it also ties you to a sense of what that oath you took really means. I think we're seeing some new things happening already. Then you have to go back and test yourself to make sure that all that stuff actually made a difference and you're not just making yourself feel good. So we've done some testing now to see whether that's made a difference. It's encouraging. We will go back and do real testing over the course of the next year. I'm sure the Inspector General intends to do some other real testing as well. But we're going to continue to improve that. I hope you're seeing a change. It might be subtle, it might be slow, but I hope you're seeing a change across our workforce as you interact with them and go through the airports.

But underlying all of this, so now what? So that's all the tactical stuff that I did for the first six months or so that I was onboard, but all of that points to larger questions about what you do next. The really interesting thing about operating agencies – and no operating agency is immune to this – is you always do the very next thing. Whether you're a police department, a fire department, the United States Coast Guard, TSA, Customs and Border Protection, an airline; anybody who has to operate generally has to do the very next thing, because the next thing shows up next. And you will always have to do the next thing. So it's an imperative. And it's very easy to get trapped in that next thing mentality. But the thing that's hard to remember is that the next thing is really the last thing that happened, and it doesn't really help you. It's a rearview mirror look every day. If all you do is the next thing, then you're not really going to change the way you do business. You're just going to keep doing the next thing.

          I was the first head of strategy in the Coast Guard, which may tell you something about doing the next thing. Somebody asked me something about strategy and I said, you know, there's not a strategic question we can't find a tactical answer for. So somebody asked what does the Coast Guard need in the Arctic? We'd say an icebreaker, and a helicopter would be good too. And I say that, half-jokingly. But it's really important – somebody's going to have to figure out what you need. But you also have to think about what you could need and where you could be.

I'm a big fan of thinking about where you could be. I know what we have. I know the way the equipment looks right now.  I know the way we manage checkpoints. I know what the footprint looks like. But the real question is, could it look differently or could it be different? Could we do something else?

Another question I used to ask is if we had the mission that we have today, we had all the authorities that we have, but we had none of this stuff -- if you were rebuilding TSA from scratch today, if you were rebuilding the Coast Guard from scratch today, if you were rebuilding your police department, or your airline from scratch today -- would you do everything the same, or would there be a better way to do it? What have you already learned? It's a thought experiment that forces you to say maybe there are some things that we could do differently. You may never get there, but you want to think unconstrained before you constrain yourself first. There are people in this audience who will constrain me. Where are my appropriator staffers here? They're out there somewhere. We all get constrained at some point.

What I want to do is provide what an unconstrained vision could look like, because I want people to think creatively. If you think about it, there's no more entrepreneurial place to be than in an agency that's designed to fight against an enemy that is constantly evolving. I want the most entrepreneurial thinking in the world, and then let somebody else constrain it. Let somebody tell me to be constrained and let me try to constrain it, but I don't want anybody working for me to be constrained in their thinking, because if you constrain at the front end, you've got nothing at the back end of the organization when it comes time to ask for things. We're trying to create that way of thinking in the organization, and we do that by looking further out. We're doing some exciting things I think.

The industry's growing tremendously. Passenger growth, last year alone, was six to seven percent. And no agency can keep up with that. I will tell you right now, given the state of federal budgeting right now, and the pressures on the federal budget, even if the Hill loved me and gave me everything I asked for, it would never be enough to keep up with that kind of growth if it continues into the future. You have to think about the threat. You have to think about how it's evolving, but, at the same time, you have to think about whether there are different ways to attend to that.

As I look at where we are right now, we are a smaller organization than we were four years ago by somewhere around 5,500 or 5,600 people in the screening workforce. We were slated to get smaller this year by about another 1,600 or so. I'm really fortunate in that the Congress passed the appropriations bill that allows me to keep those screeners that had been scheduled to go home. Because they don't all go home on the same day, we had already started to send some of those and already traded out some of those. So we're going to be hiring some people to keep with that goal. But I also can't build a workforce indefinitely. I only have a certain geographic footprint in every airport out there. Some are quite large, some are quite small. Many of you know what the small ones are, so there are some large airports with very small footprints for screening. It's simple arithmetic. If you've got more people coming to constrained checkpoints, if they're only of a certain size, sooner or later you're going to reach capacity, and in some places we do reach capacity in the peak periods. What we're trying to do is think if there is a different way to do business.

I worked with the Department's research and development division, the Office of Science and Technology, and we did a high-level study of what the potential future of passenger screening could look like. As part of that we asked: what are some things that we could do that could be different? There are actually some really promising new technologies out there. Not all of them mature enough to deploy; not all of them integrate into a system. But if you thought about it as a system, and not just as a series of boxes, could you do something different? What I'm happy to say is that we've got a couple of airports and a couple of airlines out there that are really interested in partnering with us to do something different. What I'd like to do is think about maintaining the same level of effectiveness – and I think we've increased our effectiveness dramatically. We've probably slowed you down a little bit getting through. But remember, we're slowing you down on purpose because I want you to be safe. I think of the risk to that aircraft, and I'm willing to increase wait times slightly -- and they have gone up slightly -- if it means, keeping you safer; particularly what is, as of now, a very complex and dynamic threat environment. And there's a lot going on in the threat world right now.

There are some things we can do I think that can move people more effectively through the systems. Many of you have traveled through Europe. Anybody been through Schiphol Airport recently? Schiphol's done some interesting things with respect to moving people more efficiently through this system, while at the same time trying to maintain the same level of effectiveness. I hope you'll see us, within the near term and beginning this year, start to do some things that are more innovative. That's, obviously, dependent upon resourcing.  It's dependent upon the rate or recapitalization that we can do, and it's also dependent upon the willingness of partners to work with us, but we're taking all people who say they're willing to work with us. And that means we've got to think about the whole system. We are one component of a very large system, and we don't own all of security.

I think that, to some extent, TSA has disadvantaged itself by taking on all of the aspects of security without thinking about all of the people who are required to be with us in that process. We really think about the true collaborative nature of the security environment and all the other elements and players of the system. I don't like saying layers of the system, because it's not a linear system and it's not like you pass one layer and you're through it and there's something else. It's really a series of elements that all interact with one another. We're looking at how we improve the efficiency of a checkpoint and maintain the same level of effectiveness going through, and then how to evolve TSA itself to keep up with those changes.  How do you keep a consistent and engaged workforce? How do you listen to what the front-end of your organization is saying so you understand what you need to do with the back-end?

I talked about the TSA Academy. I talked about the foundational nature of the training that we're doing. I'm very excited about what we're doing. You want to put this little thin layer of strategic thinking across your whole organization. I don't want to kill that ability to do the next thing, but I also don't want people to not think about the future. As we look at the risk in the whole system, when I think of risk-based security, I really think of total flight risk and all of the things that play into the risk of flight. As we go forward, I think you're going to see us talking more and more about that.

Let me just finish up with a few thoughts, and then I'd really be interested in any questions that you have. I think back to two very early mentors of mine in the Coast Guard. I was a young officer when one of my mentors said, when you think about leadership, don't just stand and point to where you want to go. He said you’ve got to go there. He said people will go with you. You may eventually find out it was the wrong direction, but they'll go with you, and you may actually get there. But if you stand there and point, he says, nobody's going to go because nobody's going to take the first step. You have to be willing to take that first step.

Another mentor of mine that was actually much more direct and tactile was the captain of the first ship that I was assigned to. When it's one of your first days, you're trying to qualify as a brand new officer of the deck, which means you've got control of this ship full of people, and one of the things they teach you in your training is you don't want to run into anything. You stay away from the hard stuff around the edges and the other stuff that's floating out there with you. So you're really intent on not running into anything when you're brand new. It's worse than the first time you get in a car by yourself, because you got like the biggest car in the world that you're driving. You have to remind yourself periodically you're only going about 12 knots, but it feels like you're speeding through the water. You spend a lot of time looking at charts and radars, and we were in a particularly crowded offshore environment. There were a lot of other vessels around so I had my head down in the radar screen trying to plot all the contacts. The captain walked up to me, and he tapped me on the back, and he grabbed me by the collar, and he sort of pulled my head up out of the radar screen, and he said, “Neffenger, the Coast Guard paid a lot of money for those windows. Sometimes it's really helpful just to look outside and see where you're going.”

That's what you want to do. You want to think about where you're going. You want to look down the road. You want to look out the windows. Remember that next thing is really the last thing. It's the past catching up with you. You really want to think about what it tells you about the future.

I could spend a lot of time looking in the rearview mirror to see what it told us, but now we really want to try to find our way forward. Here's what I ask of you: one, work with us when we come talk to you. Help us be the different agency that we're trying to be in terms of the way we think and the way we go forward. Give us ideas. Secondly, say “thank you” to those TSA officers, I mean that sincerely. Remember, they said yes to one of the hardest jobs in the country, and I don't think there's anybody in this room that would have said yes to that job. But they did. And it's not like the last resort job. They could have taken a lot of other jobs. They took the same oath that I took as a military officer, and we've asked them to renew that oath on a regular basis. I think that you've got a great, dedicated group of people out there, and my job is to support them as much as possible. With that, let me throw it to you for any questions that you may have.

Thanks again for the chance to be here.