Friendly skies 

Transportation Security Administration (TSA) screener Randy Ralls is fishing through a woman’s suitcase—a video camera, a small black purse, sweaters, underwear. He works slowly and carefully, inspecting every nook. When he’s done, he meticulously re-packs the traveler’s personal belongings.

When TSA consumed Ralls’ old employer, Olympic Security, he was one of the screeners that made the cut to remain part of Missoula’s airport security team. As had been the case at most U.S. airports before the TSA takeover, Ralls’ coworkers used to come from nondescript backgrounds. They had been former construction workers, cab drivers or Wal-Mart employees. Now many of Ralls’ peers are former security guards, cops and Navy officers.

“More than not, the new people have military or police backgrounds,” says Ralls. “Personally I don’t, but I’m one of the incumbents.”

All Olympic employees were allowed to reapply for the new federal jobs and many were re-hired, but many others didn’t make it through the newly required 44-hour training course. Most of the Montanans hired to fill the open spots come from security, military or law enforcement backgrounds—a fact that screeners believe will contribute to increased air travel safety.

“We’re trying, and I think we’re doing a good job at making it not only safer but more enjoyable,” says TSA checkpoint supervisor Ed Barclay.

Retired cops and soldiers don’t usually jump to mind when people think of customer service, but TSA representatives further the idea of cordial screeners at every turn: “It’s user-friendly”; “We’re customer service-based”; “We want people to know that we are here for them.”

But with CNN, FOX news and many major newspapers asking the omnipresent question, “Is America safer?” there maybe a subtextual reason behind the “friendlier skies philosophy.”

“The key is customer service because a lot of the passengers are nervous as it is,” says Barclay. “So I try to stress, ‘Talk with them and make them feel at ease. Ask them where they are going and how their day is going.’ Because a lot of them are nervous about flying and more customer service helps in the long run.”

Missoula screeners are convinced that flyers are safer, but there is another idea at work here: the notion of making people feel safer by relaxing them.

And even if screeners fail to put passengers at ease about flying, at least they’re making an effort to put passengers at ease about the fact that strangers are re-packing their underwear.

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