The TSA screening experience: Getting Thanksgiving leftovers through airport security may have been hit-or-miss

By Cassie Winters | December 4, 2019

Did you have to say goodbye to your nicely wrapped turkey and cranberry leftovers at an airport checkpoint this past weekend? That would not have been a good customer experience with the Transportation Security Administration.

Whether it’s going through airport security screening or renewing a passport, millions of people interact with TSA and other federal agencies every year. So, it’s important to remember the impact a good and a bad customer experience can have on the public’s perception of federal services.

For example, TSA expected more than 26.8 million passengers to travel through security screening checkpoints across the country the week of Thanksgiving. With that record-breaking number of travelers venturing to and from their holiday destinations, even one prohibited item in a carry-on bag could have caused delays and affected the security screening experience for customers.

The customer experience is particularly important at the 25 federal services that interact heavily with the public. The Partnership for Public Service’s most recent customer experience report, Government for the People, provides insights for agencies seeking to improve how they deliver services to the public, and summarizes key customer experience themes found across government. The report also features in-depth profiles of eight of the government’s high-impact services, including those that TSA provides.

Our TSA profile revealed, for example, that the agency could do a better job at preparing travelers on what to expect when going through security checkpoints and that many travelers are unaware of tools and resources TSA provides to help passengers prepare for the airport screening process.

For instance, the agency’s highly-rated MyTSA mobile app enables users to search for items that are not allowed through airport security. If an item is not listed, the app offers the option for live assistance through the agency’s AskTSA social media accounts on Twitter and Facebook. The average wait time for a response is typically an hour, rivaling many private sector companies.

Using these tools and resources prior to flying, travelers could have learned they could take their cured ham or roasted turkey through security checkpoints. And, while classic Thanksgiving sides such as mashed potatoes or cranberry sauce are allowed in carry-ons, they have to be in containers of 3.4 ounces or less. Who knew?

Still, some unlucky travelers might have had to toss those coveted leftovers—because the final decision ultimately rests with the TSA officer at the checkpoint. And according to our findings, travelers have reported that their screening experience can be inconsistent and change depending on the airport they leave from.

Fortunately for food lovers, TSA is working to make sure the security screening experience remains consistent, regardless of which airport travelers use on what holiday. We’ll report back next year on whether customer feedback reflects TSA’s efforts.  

Interested in learning more about the public’s experience with other government services? Visit the Partnership’s Customer Experience webpage.


Cassie Winters