Serving the Public

Serving the Public

© David Burton 2013

Full-body Scanner Images

America’s Airports

     In January of 2103, I made a trip Israel. Some comparisons of security, customs and immigration at the airports in the two countries may prove enlightening in terms of how the agencies involved go about performing their duties and servicing the flying public.

     Departing the U.S. for Israel at an American airport, I had to pass through a security check at the departure airport. Removal of my belt was mandatory. The full-body scanner was unavailable so I had to pass through the old-style metal detector. Since I have a titanium replacement knee, I obviously tripped the alarm. This resulted in a 5-minute full-body pat-down while trying to keep my beltless pants up and requiring the services of a pleasant enough, but thorough TSA agent.

     Returning to the U.S., I didn’t have to remove my belt, but I did have to pass through a security check at Israel’s Ben-Gurion International Airport. There was only the same old-style metal detector as at the American airport and, of course, I rang the alarm. An Israeli security person looked me over and asked how long I had a replacement knee. I said, “5-years” and she waved me on. Elapsed time - 10 to 15 seconds – far different from the security process at the U. S. departure airport.

Questions: Why does it take 5-minutes of a full body pat-down in the U.S., but only 10-seconds, a look into my eyes and one question in Israel to decide that this 70+ year-old poses no security risk? Did I feel less secure taking a flight from Israel-to-the-U.S. than I did taking a flight from the U.S.-to-Israel? Answer: No, probably just the opposite.

     Arriving at Ben-Gurion Airport, it took perhaps 10- to 15-minutes for the two- to three-hundred passengers on my flight, plus additional passengers on other flights arriving around the same time, to clear Israeli Customs.

     My flight back to the U.S. landed in Newark, New Jersey at 6:30 am on a Friday morning. My connecting flight from Newark was scheduled to leave at 8:00 am. But, getting through U.S. Passport Control and Customs resulted in my missing my connecting flight. I had to stand in line for an hour-and-a half to clear Passport Control and Customs - nearly all of the delay coming at Passport Control. The reason for the long lines was that they simply did not have enough staff and enough booths open. Clearly, the number of arriving passengers was known well ahead of time – all flights were on time and there were no air traffic delays. Someone just didn’t care how long the passengers had to stand in line or how much they were inconvenienced.

Question: Why should it have taken only 15-minutes for a non-resident to enter Israel and 90-minutes for a U.S. citizen to get back into the U.S.?

     While the non-profit U.S. government-run Passport Control agency displayed little to no concern for the traveling public, El Al, the for-profit airline on which I travelled to and from Israel, showed their efficiency and concern for its customers by having rescheduled me onto a 12-noon flight before I even cleared Passport Control.

Question: Why is it that a non-profit government agency with no competition like Passport Control apparently doesn’t worry about keeping its customers satisfied, but a for-profit corporation in a highly competitive marketplace goes out of its way to try and satisfy its customers?

     I have a titanium replacement knee. In going through airport security in the United States, I frequently have the option of passing through a simple metal detector or a modern full-body scanner. With the metal detector, I will ring the alarm and require a lengthy full-body pat-down by a TSA (Transportation Security Administration) agent. With the full-body scanner, the TSA agent notes my replacement knee when looking at his display and there are no further delays – much more efficient and pleasant that the pat-down needed with the metal detector.

     So now, the TSA is going to remove the millimeter-wave backscatter full-body scanners from all U.S. airports. Why? Because a ”Politically Correct” (PC) minority objects to a TSA agent seeing an unclothed body-image on his/her display screen. To accommodate these prudish few, I, and thousands like me, stand to be inconvenienced every time we take a commercial flight in the U.S. where these backscatter full-body scanners are (were) employed. I seem to remember reading that in centuries past, similar prudes required that all nude statues be covered up. Now, we are now faced with the prospect of returning to those good old days of yore. Will the Watch-and Ward Society be revived? Will Boston and Massachusetts restore its blue laws?

     To compensate for the loss of these millimeter-wave backscatter full-body scanners at major airports, the TSA is taking low-dose X-ray full-body scanners from the smaller airports and installing them in the larger airports. The TSA seems to have no concern about the comfort and convenience of air travelers at these regional airports. I have the strong impression, that, in general, the TSA does not consider the comfort and convenience of its customers to be of any importantance. After all, TSA is a government agency, and like too many government agencies, customer satisfaction is an irrelevant consideration.

     Maybe, just maybe, TSA should take note of the fact that any air traveler who does not wish to pass through a full-body scanner can either choose to pass through a conventional metal detector or to have a pat down in lieu of the “embarrassing” full-body scan. Like most government rules and regulations, it’s one-size-fits-all. Individual choice is not an option. The public can take it or leave it.

     In some cases, airport officials have resisted the TSA actions. “Officials at Helena Regional Airport have prevented the U.S. Transportation Security Administration from removing a full-body scanner.
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     “The airport’s millimeter-wave machine is among those the federal agency wants to remove to replace 174 full-body scanners being taken out of larger airports. The larger airports are losing their low-dose X-ray units because Rapiscan, the company that makes them, was unable to meet a June 2013 congressional deadline for software upgrades to show screeners less-revealing images of passengers.
     “{TSA was asked} for ‘reasonable advance notice’ of the removal of the airport’s scanner and how the agency would deal with problems that would result, such as longer lines and delays. {No such notice or response was apparently forthcoming.}
     “The federal agency also planned to remove a scanner at Glacier Park International Airport - - -
     “Losing the body scanners would mean the two airports would return to the older walk-through metal detectors and pat-downs.” (Ref. 1)

     It seems that going through security at American airports will continue to be a long and inconveniencing process.

     The privacy issue has been on the table for nearly a decade – a speedy response to a perceived problem is not part of the mission statement of most federal agencies. “In 2004 and 2005, the TSA at first dismissed privacy concerns, then sought to address them by placing TSA officers viewing the scanner imagery in remote locations, away from the passenger being screened. They also gave passengers the right to an alternative screening -- a pat down.
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     “But those solutions failed to appease privacy groups and some members of Congress, who felt both alternatives could be abused.
     “Ultimately, a problem caused by technology was solved by technology. Security companies developed privacy software, called Automated Target Recognition (ATR) software.
     “But while manufacturers of the less-intrusive "millimeter wave" machines found ways to use ATR software, backscatter machines have not.
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     “Currently, the TSA uses the 174 backscatter machines in 30 airports, and has another 76 units in storage. It uses millimeter wave machines in 170 airports.” (Ref. 2)

     As one air traveler said of the TSA: “My main complaint with TSA is there are too many staff with a ‘Barney Fife’ mentality.” How true! How true!

Questions: If I don’t mind a TSA agent seeing a computer generated image of my body, why do I have to be inconvenienced by a complete body pat-down just because someone else is offended by the imaging process when they have the option of refusing it and going through a metal detector and/or having a complete body pat-down instead?

     Am I the only air traveler critical of the TSA and the other federal agencies that monitor and control the security and other aspects of airport operation in the U.S.? Am I the only person who attributes the poor performance of the TSA and other government agencies to the belief that they have no incentive to make customer satisfaction their number one priority? Apparently not – read on.

     “To maintain control of airport security the TSA ditched a program to hire private employees to conduct improved operations. . . .
     “. . . millions of {passengers} will undergo security screenings by an agency whose conduct is constantly criticized by angry passengers treated poorly by its officers.
     “Despite the constant criticism, the Transportation Security Administration stopped a program that would give airports the option of having private employees conduct security screenings. These employees would have greater workplace flexibility and be held to higher standards, thereby improving customer service. TSA was given the power to decide which locations could participate, but between 2002 and 2011 it only allowed 16 out of 440 commercial US airports to hire these employees. {The} TSA Administrator . . . terminated the program last year, returning full power of airport security to his agency by eliminating the competition.
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     “A recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report shows the severity of TSA’s faults on the American public. More travelers are choosing to drive or take a train to their destination, in part to avoid the security mess that the TSA is in charge of. The agency has suffered continuous criticism, with passengers accusing employees of stealing their belongings, groping them inappropriately during security screenings, and detaining them without valid reason.
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     “. . . regardless of the complaints specific to the agency, TSA has refused to compare its employees to private contractors to compare the quality of the services.
     “’TSA has not conducted regular reviews comparing private and federal screener performance and does not have plans to do so,’ . . .
     “The GAO report also described TSA efforts to block distraught passengers from filing complaints.
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     “Even though private contractors cost an airport three percent more than TSA employees, TSA’s mistakes have cost the agency millions of dollars. Facing numerous lawsuits, it is often forced to compensate passengers maltreated by their employees, thereby procuring additional expenses.
     “Nevertheless, US airports no longer have an alternative option to TSA screeners. The agency will continue to have full control over the security screenings of every passenger going through a US airport . . . “ (Ref. 3)

     Relative to the report referenced above of the TSA no longer allowing US airports to hire private screeners, consider following examples of private versus government performance in the handling of airport screening when some airports were allowed to hire private screeners:

     “San Francisco International Airport (SFO) employs a private contractor for screening passengers and luggage. . . . The House Transportation & Infrastructure committee conducted a study of how screening at Los Angeles’ chief airport (LAX) compared with SFO’s. The astonishing finding: SFO screeners processed 65% more passengers per screener than did their counterparts at LAX. . . . SFO screeners receive the same wages and benefits as those hired and managed by the TSA, and SFO uses virtually identical procedures and equipment. The difference is that the private contractor in San Francisco has no sense of entitlement or feeling of permanency. Competition works. . . . {Also,} a USA Today investigation . . . found that TSA screeners at Chicago O’Hare and LAX missed three times as many hidden bomb materials as did privately contracted screeners at San Francisco.” (Ref. 4)

Social Security

     Throughout my 60-year working career, I put aside part of my income for retirement – some of it voluntarily into company retirement plans, IRA’s, savings accounts, CD’s, stocks, bonds, mutual funds and 401k’s and some of it involuntarily into Social Security (SS). My wife and I now live off the funds generated by these retirement plans and those of my wife.

     The returns generated by the voluntary retirement plans far exceed the returns from SS. Also, significantly, the information provided by the voluntary retirement plans is more consistent, more accurate and presents fewer problems than with SS. Here again is another example of the private for-profit sector of our economy clearly outperforming the not-for-profit government-run sector of our economy. Below is my personal example of this fact.

     By now, “we’re all familiar with the economic reasons for either doing-away with SS or at least allowing part of one’s SS contributions to be invested by the worker, much as he or she is able to do with his or her IRA’s, or as most federal, state, and local government employees and railroad workers can do with their pension plans.” (Ref. 5) As a teacher employed by a municipal government, most of my wife's government retirement benefits come from state- and city-authorized private retirement plans, rather than from Social Security.

     The health insurance coverage for my wife and myself is purchased through the teacher’s union to which my wife belonged when she worked. A year-and-a-half ago, we received a notice that the part of our health insurance coverage which was equivalent to Medicare B would no longer be provided. Instead, we had to sign up for Medicare B coverage under SS and have the Social Security Agency (SSA) send a notification of our Medicare B coverage to the city in which my wife had been employed. Since my wife and I would be signing up for Medicare B coverage after our date of initial eligibility, there would be a penalty incurred which would be paid for by the city. Hence the need for the city to be notified that we had been accepted for late Medicare B coverage.
     In early December 2011, I contacted the SSA which happened to be located in Jamaica, New York. I was told to fill out some forms and mail the forms back. I filled them out and sent them, via registered mail, back to the SSA. The completed forms were received by Social Security on 29 December 2011.
     In mid-January 2012 I called the SSA to check the status of my Medicare B applications and to make sure they had notified the city where my wife had worked. The SSA telephone system is automated and is one of least consumer friendly systems that I have run across. I finally managed to reach a human, explained the reason for the call and provided the mountain of information required to guarantee that I was indeed the person who I claimed to be. The SSA agent checked on the status of the applications and reported that she could not find any information concerning the applications, but that since the applications had been submitted just a few weeks earlier, it was probably too soon to have been processed.
     Six weeks later I again called SSA and after wading through the prerecorded useless information, had the automated phone system hang up on me. I called back, went through the useless information a second time and, finally reached an agent. I went through the tedious verification process again and explained why I was calling. Again, the agent informed me that there was no record of the applications submitted being processed. I said I had signed receipts showing the applications had been received by SSA on 29 December 2011, more than 2 months previous. This time the agent said that the applications probably had not been acted upon because they had not arrived during the official enrollment period of 1 January 2012 – 31 March 2012, i.e., I had sent the applications in two days “too early.” Apparently, the SSA is incapable of handling paperwork that is a day or two late or early.
     I asked why SSA had failed to notify me of this fact. Since the application had been received on 29 December 2011, why couldn’t the SSA people simply have put the applications into the system right after New Year? Did anyone in SSA have the intelligence or the desire to service their clientele or did they simply “go by the book” and avoid doing anything else until it was time for their own retirement?
     If this were a private for-profit company instead of a government agency, would its customers have received the same treatment? Would a private company remain in business if they treated their customers in a similar fashion? Eventually, SSA straightened out the problem - or so I thought.
     Now, a year later, my wife and I received notifications that since we had signed up for Medicare B beyond the times when we were first eligible to do so, we would have to pay penalties. Soon after, my wife and I received letters from the city saying the SSA notifications were in error and that no penalty payments were due from us. The penalties had been paid by the city as they stated a year previous.
     I then received 3 letters from SSA, dated a few days apart, each from the same SSA office, and each giving a different SS monthly payment that I would be receiving in 2013. I had to call my local SSA office to enquire as to which amount was correct. My wife was luckier than I – she only received 2 letters with different amounts.

Question: Why does it take so much effort to obtain correct information from the Social Security Administration, but little to no effort to get correct information from the private sector?

The Internal Revenue Service

     We all have our horror stories of dealing with the IRS (Internal Revenue service) – here is the summary of my most recent encounter with the IRS:
     I completed my multi-page federal income tax return for 2011 back in February of 2012 and submitted it electronically to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). Since I used TurboTax, the return was checked for errors by TurboTax and accepted by the IRS. According to TurboTax, I overpaid my taxes and was due a refund.
     According to the IRS web site, “If you e-file, you can generally expect your refund within 10 - 21 days.” The IRS web site also states: “Keep in mind that IRS telephone assistors will not be able to provide additional information.” This meant that I should have expected to receive my refund sometime between 10 March 2012 and 21 March 2012.
     The IRS claimed that I could check on the status of my refund via the internet by going to their web site at and clicking on “where’s my refund?” I did so repeated times and, each time, received the following response: “Refund Status Results: Your tax return has been received and is being processed. If you file a complete and accurate tax return, your refund will be issued: within six weeks of the received date.” This shell game continued through June of 2012.
     I tried calling the IRS and talking to a real live person about my tax refund. There, I got a computer with which to converse. Voila - I got the same result as with their web site, i.e., “Refund Status Results: Your tax return has been received and is being processed. If you file a complete and accurate tax return, your refund will be issued: within six weeks of the received date.” Such a response was totally useless. It didn’t explain why I had not received my refund within six weeks as promised. It gave me no clue as to whether or not there was a problem – obviously there was, since I hadn’t received my refund. It gave me no hint as to when or if the problem would be resolved. It didn’t direct me anywhere to get help.
     After more than 6-months of numerous back-and-forth e-mails, phone calls and snail-mails, I finally had the issue resolved – the problem came about because of an error made by the IRS on an estimated tax payment that I had made some two years previous. So much for timeliness, efficiency and customer satisfaction!

In Conclusion

     Government agencies and programs serve their own needs – to continue in existence, to grow as much as possible, to not make waves. Good companies serve the needs of their customers and their owners – the first being the most important, for if they fail to satisfy their customers, there is no financial reward for the companies’ owners and no jobs for the companies’ employees. Good companies need to continually improve, to innovate, to make waves – or else another company will replace them. The marketplace continually monitors the companies’ performance and quickly rewards or punishes them. Government agencies have no competitors, no feedback mechanisms to monitor and evaluate their performance. They exist simply to perpetuate themselves.

     Good service and good products count! Which do the most good – government agencies that don’t satisfy the needs of their customers and clients or private companies that cater to their customers, their needs, their comfort and their preferences?

  1. Helena airport blocks TSA from taking full-body scanner, Associated Press, The Spokeman-Review,
    24 February 2013.
  2. TSA removing 'virtual strip search' body scanners, Mike M. Ahlers, CNN Travel, 19 January 2013.
  3. Government report: 'TSA's main concern isn't safety, it's self-preservation', Mike M. Ahlers, RT Question More;, 10 December 2012.
  4. Live by the sword . . . , Op Ed, Boston Herald, Page 16, 13 September 2012.
  5. Just One More Reason to Privatize Social Security, David Burton,; Article # 118; U.S. Gov’t # 27, 2 March 2012.


  7 March 2013 {Article 157; Govt_41}    
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