Crisis Communications at the Airport

By Rob Farmer, Landis Communications, Senior Account Supervisor, LCI

The holidays are here and everyone is at the airport. Recently I was among the throngs herding into our great bastions of pre-air travel preparedness. I dutifully fell in line to be scanned, examined, poked and prodded, when it occurred to me that our nation’s airports have a PR problem. That notion seeped in as I and hundreds of my fellow travelers inched toward our destinies at the security gate x-ray machine.

The notion became a full-fledged opinion as I drew closer to the conveyer belt and placed my belongings atop it. Off came the shoes, off came the belt, and on went the pressured grin. But then I heard the request – a demand, really — that I move over to another line – that special line for “enhanced” screening. Do I fit a profile? Perhaps. I’m a lone traveler with a single carry-on bag. I could be a business traveler; I could be a drug dealer. I could also be simply a random face who arrived at the conveyer belt when it was time for the next selection. Whatever the case, no explanation for the process was previously provided and none would be forthcoming.

All was going according to plan (theirs) and the indignation (mine) of being made to assume a “reach-for-the-sky-because-this-is-a-stick-up” was just beginning to subside when I was again pulled aside to discuss the contents of my bag. OK, this is getting serious, I thought. Am I a suspect? Again, no explanations or other “extraneous” communication took place. Then came the question:

“Sir, do you have a snow globe in your bag?”

Indeed, a gorgeous snow globe containing the equally gorgeous skyline of Seattle was tucked neatly in my bag, wrapped carefully in bubble-paper and surrounded by clothing so as to avoid an accidental crushing while stowed in the overhead compartment. It was all for naught. Because faster than I could say “I love Seattle,” the glassy globe was in the glove-clad mitt of my friendly TSA officer. And, sadly, that’s where it would stay – until otherwise shelved among the no-doubt enormous collection of collectibles and civic-pride bric-a-brac that must reside behind the security-office door.

But the point of this missive is not to bemoan the fact that the TSA stole a souvenir that was to be a gift for my three-year-old daughter. No, I don’t intend to make any seasonally unnecessary comparisons to The Grinch or otherwise disparage the fine workaday folks who operate on the frontlines of our national security. Instead, as mentioned above, I find the whole sorry scene could have been greatly improved with adequate public relations.

I learned after I returned home (replacement snow globe delivered to its happy recipient) and logged on to the TSA website that snow globes are clearly listed among the prohibited items for carry-on bags. These menacing forget-me-nots are included right alongside gel shoe inserts and tear gas. So the TSA agent was well within his right to confiscate my globe. I understand that, I do. My problem, as it were, is the fact that the entire process was handled without even a modicum of human civility. There was no “sorry, but these are the federal guidelines,” no “you can get another one on the other side of the security gates.”  I discovered I could get another one, like I discovered everything else about the process: entirely on my own. But to be clear, while I’m not advocating that the TSA and its agents undergo sensitivity training, I am suggesting that everybody’s experience could be made more tolerable with at least a semblance of graciousness – some genuine public relations. From the global (snow, or otherwise) governmental perspective, the concept might be tough to grasp, let along execute. But along the frontlines, I truly believe a smile and some accurate well-delivered information would go a long way toward making every traveler feel more like they’re doing their part for national security and less like they’re being “held-up.”

If you agree that the TSA could do with a public-relations image makeover, let them know. The public affairs department can be reached at (571) 227-2829. Kristin Lee is the assistant administrator for strategic communications and public affairs.

We all have airport horror stories. I’m wondering if at least some of those could have been avoided with better PR. Share your thoughts with me at [email protected].

5 thoughts on “Crisis Communications at the Airport

  1. Crazy – I was just thinking about PR as it relates to our airport friends this week – most likely because I will be on one come Saturday. I would love to hear some great airport PR stories. Seems there are always ones for airlines, but never the ports!

  2. Well, on the other hand the guy has to do the thing 1000 times a day or more. After a day or two most of us would loose the natural gift of being polite. Do not want to compete, but worst things happen around the world. For example couple of year back, in Africa a border control officer followed me to the toilet just before getting on my plane to London. When I wanted to wash my hands he blocked me and ordered me to give him all money I have. Although he was big as a mountain I pushed him saying that all my money is gone and left with maximum speed. Yes, he could be more polite.

  3. Is the perception that we are actually safer by going through all those TSA gyrations? I know seeing the grandma with a walker getting frisked, having my Ban Roll-on and toothpaste confiscated or putting my spare change in an exray bowl allows me fly worry-free. That’s comforting to all, I presume.

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