The dramatic growth of Artificial Intelligence undoubtedly is changing world behavior, both technically and virtually. Labor, as we know it today is taking on an unrecognizable complexion, with unforeseen change expected in the coming decades. The incredible surge in airport security technology over the last decade has reduced the “human factor” element, making the passenger experience somewhat more reliable, seamless, and by most standards, speedier. Most importantly, these enhancements have greatly reduced the threat risk to the traveling public.
Over the next two decades, the passenger experience at U.S. and international airports will be uniquely different. Employment of state-of-the-art, perpetual biometric verification and surveillance; new AI-based automated checkpoints and integration of risk and intelligence-based threat information to improve security will be the norm. It will assuredly make for a more enjoyable and comforting experience, with built-in conveniences and threat mitigation.
One of the outcomes of this technology upsurge will be the need for a smaller airport screener footprint, particularly the existing workforce presence. Congress and the private sector have repeatedly called for staff reductions at the Transportation Security Administration. The impacts of evolving technology could eventually reduce the need for Transportation Security Officers (screeners) by as much as fifty percent. The question will become how do TSA and the Department of Homeland Security address employee relations and personnel reductions as developments occur?
According to federal survey data, morale at the TSA, mostly in the screening workforce, has historically been one of the lowest in the federal government. The TSA attrition rate remains high and most of the new TSA personnel become TSOs only as an entry point into the federal government system, with intentions to transfer to other agencies or grow within TSA. The prospect of a reduction of any workforce can be detrimental to mission accomplishment. The government can and typically utilizes tools such as “Reduction in Force” mechanisms in these types of situations. I have experienced reductions in the Department of Defense and other agencies. Uncertainty in a workforce have proven to be discouraging under a RIF.
So, what can be done? First, recognizing that these new technology changes can take several years to be tested, certified, and implemented into airport security systems, enabling DHS and TSA time to begin planning and addressing a sound and effective department/agency implementation strategy. It is exciting that DHS/TSA are embracing this evolving technology. Equally important, however, is caring for and developing the workforce.
Let’s not forget that the TSA has multiple missions. While the workforce is largely screening-related, the other missions are just as important, quite frankly with fewer personnel assigned and a limited capability to handle these assignments. The TSA primarily is a regulatory agency, a counter-terrorism organization. The question that must be answered is how TSA could efficiently utilize the existing workforce to enhance security in other areas. As the current workforce attrits, TSA must prepare strategically for this groundswell of changes.
A good example of a known deficiency is the regulatory policy. TSA inspectors number just over 600 aviation and 250 surface personnel, ensuring 450 federalized airports in the U.S., including more than 200 last point of departure airports to the U.S., are in compliance with law. Additionally, inspectors are responsible for oversight of dozens of air carriers, both foreign and domestic; thousands of repair stations; thousands of cargo facilities and supply facilities as well as security of general aviation airports and aircraft. TSA is also responsible for the inspection of surface transportation modes. The regulatory and inspection obligations of TSA are at times daunting, with great potential to ease demands using existing internal assets as a solution. A well-trained, multi-dimensional inspector workforce would significantly enhance security.
Another area of shifting an existing workforce to enhance the TSA mission would be to focus more on the growing global threat, working together with DHS and the intelligence community. New cyber threats and threats associated with unmanned aerial systems, man-portable air-defense systems, and explosive hazards and techniques must be emphasized. Currently, much of this threat dynamic is under the purview of the Federal Air Marshals, notably disadvantaging the primary FAM mission, which is to protect the aircraft and its passengers and crews from another 9/11 style catastrophe. It is a demanding job with a shortage of an adequate number of men and women to cover the high volume of daily flights, particularly now that the Administration is deploying some of these assets to the border – non-mission, non-flying assignments.
Under a RIF, for any reason, with new technology, the TSO workforce could be redesignated, re-trained, and redeployed to address threats such as C/UAS; cyberthreat; bomb tech; K9 handlers; intelligence analysts and support staff; crisis incident management assistance; international operations and capacity development. They also could transition to the FAM workforce as attrition occurs. This would require the will to adapt to new screening protocols, enhanced training and the likely redesignation of specialties complemented with specifically defined personality attributes and capabilities.
These suggestions certainly will draw the ire of naysayers, mostly from a human relations and budgetary perspective. Yet let’s be realistic. Like other industries, the TSO workforce will be reduced through evolving technology over the next couple of decades. Airport screeners will be needed, but perhaps half of the existing workforce. In the long run, technology will reduce costs and drive efficiency. The remaining TSOs who would face a RIF have existing training, and security clearances and understand the culture of today’s threats and the need for robust security measures. Most importantly, the current bench strength in other areas of TSA is shallow, leaving the agency to face higher risks in its regulatory and threat mitigation work. Why not use existing assets and manpower and build a stronger security agency that can address the growing number of threats and more than they are capable of handling today? The are endless solutions for the TSA to become a stronger, more capable agency.
To be successful in this effort, TSA will need to approach the evolving workforce with a fresh perspective that requires the “status quo” being uprooted.
So, what are the next steps?
Embrace the fact that planning needs to begin now, today, and not ten years out. Establish a diverse working group that includes all areas of TSA and incorporates the expertise of the broad portfolio of DHS organizations. Utilize the expertise of the TSA Aviation Security Advisory Board and the Homeland Security Advisory Boards and other critical transportation sector leaders. Complete a strategic plan, a detailed document within two years to begin gaining support from the workforce, the union, DHS, and Congress.
I learned a long time ago the 5 “P” rule. “Prior Planning Prevents Poor Performance.” Now is the time to be bold, and assertive and take what you know about security to develop a strategy to address this growing AI phenomena. TSA started as a unique security agency and could be just unique in addressing the challenges of AI.