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TSA needs to improve passenger complaint processes, says GAO

Even though the Transportation Security Administration has multiple ways to receive passenger complaints about its operations, it lacks a single agency-wide policy to foster those complaints through the organization and ultimately use the information, according to a Government Accountability Office report.

The 50-page GAO report, issued in November, said the lack of such a singular process for an agency that generates tens of thousands of complaints could blind it to problems. In compiling its report, GAO said it reviewed TSA documentation, analyzed complaint data from October 2009 through June 2012, and interviewed TSA officials from headquarters offices and six airports.

Despite the procedural shortcomings, the study noted that TSA is working to insure its passenger complaint process is fair. For instance, it said TSA plans to kick off a program by January 2013 in which selected TSA airport staff are to be trained as passenger advocates.

The processes the agency has in place need some adjustments, however, according to the study. Between October 2009 through June 2012, said GAO, TSA received more than 39,000 screening complaints through its TSA Contact Center (TCC). The GAO found that the complaint data from TSA’s five existing complaint mechanisms “do not reflect the full nature and extent of complaints because local TSA staff have discretion in implementing TSA’s complaint processes, including how they receive and document complaints.”

The GAO cited the TSA’s use of comment cards at four of the six airports, saying that TSA doesn’t have a policy requiring that complaints submitted using the cards be tracked or reported centrally.

GAO said a consistent policy to guide all TSA efforts to receive and document complaints would improve its oversight of these activities and help ensure consistent implementation.

TSA also uses data from the TCC to inform the public about air passenger screening complaints, monitor operational effectiveness of airport security checkpoints, and make changes as needed. However, GAO said TSA doesn’t use data from its other four mechanisms, in part because the complaint categories differ, making data consolidation difficult. A process to systematically collect information from all mechanisms, including standard complaint categories, would better enable TSA to improve operations and customer service, it said.

According to the report, TSA has several methods to inform passengers about its complaint processes, but doesn’t have an agency-wide policy or mechanism to ensure consistent use of these methods among commercial airports.

For example, said GAO, TSA developed standard signs, stickers, and customer comment cards that can be used at airport checkpoints to inform passengers about how to submit feedback to TSA, but the study said it found inconsistent use at the six airports it contacted. Two airports displayed customer comment cards at the checkpoint, while at two others the cards were provided upon request, it said, noting that TSA has said that passengers may be reluctant to ask for the cards,.

TSA officials at four of the six airports also told GAO that TSA could do more to share best practices for informing passengers about complaint processes. According to the study, policies for informing the public about complaint processes and mechanisms for sharing best practices among local TSA officials could help provide TSA with reasonable assurance that complaints are being handle consistently and would also help local TSA officials learn from one another about what practices work.

TSA, said the study, is working to ensure complaint resolution processes are fair, impartial, and credible. Specifically, it said TSA airport officials responsible for resolving air passenger complaints are generally in the same chain of command as TSA airport staff who are the subjects of the complaints. TSA is also developing a new process that could help ensure greater independence by TSA units referring air passenger complaints directly to its Ombudsman Division and by providing passengers an independent avenue to make complaints to that division.