Why the 'Patriot Pilot' And The TSA Are Both Wrong

airport security line

Photo: AP

The TSA’s response to the Patriot Pilot that posted video of airport ground crews seeming to bypass regular security has made them look more interested in self-protection than in security…but I’m not thrilled with the pilot, either. Both sides were wrong and both sides need to take steps to make things right.

Why the pilot, Chris Liu?  This is not as easy calls as whistleblowers are critical to keeping government honest, but Mr. Liu’s own surprise that the TSA saw a video posted on YouTube (see this…really?) gives the impression he did not think the situation through before taking action. 

Mr. Liu was deputized through the TSA’s Federal Flight Deck Officer program and licensed to carry a gun in the cockpit, making him a virtual extension of the TSA security team.  For him to then publicly post the video seeming to expose security flaws without first trying internal TSA channels questions his ability to follow rules and be a team player, key attributes for a deputized Federal agent carrying a gun on an aeroplane. 

The TSA, of course, managed to do something I didn’t think possible after the recent so-called “naked body scanner” roll out – make themselves look even more tone deaf and bureaucratic.  At least Mr. Liu was trying to see that a problem was fixed. 

The TSA meanwhile, looked far more interested in Mr. Liu than in addressing what is shown in the video. Perhaps the TSA was right in that both the video is misleading and that pilots should lose their gun licence if they don’t follow all the rules. 

However, as in many reputation disasters, the TSA forgot that reputations rely on both the substance of the response and how you communicate that response. The visual of Federal agents raiding the pilots home, with no balancing visual showing how they were looking into a potential security flaw, makes one question if the TSA is truly focused travel security.

That said, both the TSA and Chris Liu can take several immediate steps to both restore confidence in travel security and start repairing the TSA’s reputation.

First, whoever oversaw the response from the TSA’s needs a public dunce cap. The TSA needs to make it clear that trust in the administration is critical and that while they had to quickly address the pilot, they had to show they were putting more effort into fixing any potential security flaw. By showing that this type of management response as unacceptable, they can show that they have a higher standard when it comes to building trust in the TSA. 

Second, they should not hold up Jason Liu as a hero or a villain.  But they should also make it clear that Mr. Liu was right to look for security flaws.  They were right to make it clear that deputized pilots who carry guns are held to the highest standard and that they need to follow all procedures before becoming a whistleblower. They should also state that whistleblowers are critical as a last resort after showing procedures aren’t working, not a first response to a potential problem.

Finally, in the end, it is about substance and communicating that substance. Take visual steps to fix the situation. If the security process for ground crews is broken, fix it and literally show, without giving away secrets, how it’s being improved with an animation showing how crews go through tighter security.  

Maybe the TSA has an airtight way of screening employees and the video is misleading. If so, release more information backing this up and perhaps even do something shallow but reassuring for airport passengers….like not letting ground crews simply walk through doors.  Sure, it’s an inconvenience for he ground crew, but confidence in the TSA and our Federal Government is far more important.

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