The Aviation Subcommittee today conducted a hearing to examine the impact that Transportation Security Administration (TSA) regulations and policies have on the aviation passenger experience and the free flow of aviation commerce. While government, industry, labor and consumer advocacy witnesses provided testimony on how improvements to TSA procedures and programs could benefit users of the aviation system, the TSA declined to participate in today's hearing.
Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John L. Mica (R-FL) and Aviation Subcommittee Chairman Tom Petri (R-WI) questioned the security agency's unwillingness to cooperate with their Congressional panels.
"Sadly the TSA Administrator is stonewalling this committee and refuses to work with us, and that's part of the problem with this agency," Mica said. "He and other agency officials are protecting one the biggest government bureaucracies, which has grown now to more than 66,000 employees."
Mica continued, "Unfortunately, as this mushrooming agency has spun out of control, passengers have not been well served. We've had numerous security meltdowns, including in Honolulu, Los Angeles, Newark, Fort Myers, Charlotte and elsewhere. When I helped establish this agency, Congress intended it to operate a risk-based system, but the TSA is best known for shaking down little old ladies and others who pose no security risk.
"Now that airports can opt out of the all-federal screening system with more certainty and have private screeners operating under federal supervision and oversight, we have a mechanism in place that can allow TSA to become the leaner, risk-based, effective agency it was intended to be," Mica said.
Chairman Petri said, "If we want more government stove piping, the TSA's attitude and actions regarding this hearing achieve that end. But if we want better government and more coordination between government activities, Congress must be able to fulfill its oversight responsibilities. In the case of this subcommittee, the TSA's operations and policies clearly impact civil aviation, including commerce, safety, airport operations, airlines, and passengers.
"Unfortunately, if they continue down this path of non-transparency and
arrogance, the TSA will end up eliminating the very thing it is supposed to be protecting," Petri added. "Their absence today demonstrates why the public is so frustrated with the TSA. These officials are public servants, and their attitude should reflect this fact."
Before proceeding to the testimony of the witnesses who did participate in today's hearing, Petri further explained the purpose of conducting oversight of security as it relates to the aviation industry.
"The aviation industry plays a critical role in the United States economy, contributing roughly 5% to our gross domestic product and providing safe transportation to 803 million passengers per year," Petri said. According to estimates by the United States Travel Association, commercial aviation passenger travel contributed roughly $813 million to the United States tourism industry in 2011.
"Therefore, any regulation or policy that impacts the aviation passenger experience or the free flow of aviation commerce directly impacts civil aviation and is of interest to this Subcommittee," Petri continued. "Surveys conducted by consumer advocacy groups have discovered that the professionalism and efficiency of the airport screening process has a direct impact on the likelihood that passengers will travel by air."
One survey highlighted by Chairman Petri found that aviation passengers were more likely to take one or more additional trips each year if the security screening process were to be made more efficient and friendly. These additional trips could potentially generate millions of dollars in additional revenue for the aviation industry and the U.S. economy.
"Over the last decade, this Subcommittee has heard from constituents, colleagues and industry stakeholders about TSA's impact on the passenger experience and the civil aviation system," Petri said. "Concerns include the imposition of passenger screening procedures, such as the enhanced pat-downs, the use of Advanced Imaging Technology machines, and the lack of clarity on alternative screening procedures. While TSA has developed some alternative procedures, there is concern that passengers and some screeners are uncertain as to what these alternative procedures are, and fears that both passengers and screeners may not always be aware of what the passengers' rights are.
"In the past few years, the TSA has started to move its approach from one-size-fits all to a risk-based approach that attempts to focus screening efforts on high risk passengers. This approach has resulted in the development of some new programs, such as PreCheck, an expedited screening program for known travelers of certain airlines. Under the PreCheck program, passengers enjoy streamlined screening. This is a small step towards a risk-based approach, and TSA should do more.
"The TSA and its 45,000 screeners are responsible for a complex and difficult job. The TSA would be well served in pursuing better partnerships with aviation stakeholders, and should also seek more input from a variety of groups on how the security process can be improved," Petri concluded.