Wednesday, February 25, 2009

In Defense of TSA Agents

Not long ago, I was taking a train from my arrival terminal at the Minneapolis/St. Paul airport to the car rental area, and I ran across an off duty airport employee. She seemed tired and burdened with the day of work; she kept her head down and stuck to herself. I struck up a conversation with her and she, somewhat reluctantly, revealed that she was a TSA (Transportation Security Agency) agent, AKA: a TSO (Transportation Security Officer). I thanked her for doing a tough and often thankless job. After I expressed my thanks, she perked up immediately and mentioned how nice it was to be thanked for being a TSO since very few people bother to do so. She even mentioned that she had been called an "Airport Nazi" at one point.

This encounter got me thinking about TSOs and the recognition that they receive from the public. We often hear about the negative side of airport security, but rarely do we recognize the great work that the majority of TSOs do every day. It's not difficult to find stories about people expressing their displeasure with TSOs so I won't be linking to any of them today.

In looking for some slightly more positive articles, I did a quick search for "thank you TSA". This resulted in finding a lot of posts along the lines of "Thank you for taking my peanut butter TSA!"

I think that the tendency to criticize more than we praise is just part of human nature. We tend to ignore good service, but we latch onto bad service. What we don't often recognize is that it's all the good service that we regularly receive that makes the bad service stand out. I explored this idea more fully in my 3 to 1 Service Rule post a while back.

In the past 5 years or so, I've been through TSA controlled security over 120 times, and I've never seen a TSO act in an inappropriate fashion.

I have seen plenty of excitement through security lines, but this was caused primarily by passengers who were trying to take liquids through security. Most of the time, this occurs after international flights when people fail to put their duty free items in their checked bags after clearing them through customs.

These people don't realize that they have to go through security again once they are through customs. There are always announcements instructing travelers to put liquids in their checked bags, but someone always forgets. This person tends to be a bit cranky after a long flight and ready to argue. Fortunately, the TSOs I've seen in this position have remained calm and dealt with the cranky travelers in a professional manner.

Being in customer support myself, I know that dealing with an argumentative customer can take a lot out of you so I make sure to thank every TSO agent I run into at the airport. Most of this time this is a simple thank you or wishing a TSO an uneventful day. I usually get a great response back which makes me think that there aren't enough people thanking the TSOs.

Similar to bad service sticking out when compared to so much good service, a simple expression of gratitude can stick out when compared to a day of sprinkled with grumbles and verbal abuse. It embarrasses me that this can be the case, but I think it's safe to say we take the TSOs for granted. I have no doubt that there are some bad TSOs out there, but there are bad members in every group; to say that they are all bad is to do the vast majority a great disservice.

Every day, TSOs go to work, unsure of what they will encounter. One of the things that they are after are artfully concealed weapons. Take a minute to read that post and then tell me that they're not doing something important.

I'd like to take this time to thank all of the great TSOs out there for doing a tough job and putting up with a lot of abuse that they don’t deserve. I'd also like to invite you to join me in thanking the great TSOs out there when you encounter them.

From where I stand, most security line issues can be avoided by making sure that you are up to date on the current security restrictions. The current rules are available at the TSA website. I've also found that following the TSA blog Evolution of Security is a handy way of keeping up to date on the rules.

All in all, I feel that the TSOs are doing a great job. Do I have it right or am I way off on this topic?

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Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Holey Soap: When Hotels and Green Marketing Collide

Discovering the unexpected is one of the great joys of traveling. I travel for business and sometimes find it hard to leave my hotel to do exploring. You might think that this limits my opportunities to be surprised, but you'd be wrong.

Just recently, I visited the Atherton Hotel in State College, PA. During the course of my regular routine of checking out the hotel room (see: Hotel Room Rituals), I noticed that there was something different about the toiletries provided in the bathroom. Namely, the soap had a big hole in it.Upon closer inspection, I discovered that the whole toiletry line was called Green Natura, which focused on sustainable packaging and waste reduction. Never being one to resist the opportunity to try something new, I had to try out the line and take some pictures.

The bottles are made from a biodegradable Polystarch Material (corn based). While the bottles did a good job of holding the liquids in, they were quite rigid, making squeezing the product out of them very difficult. The shampoo and conditioner within the bottles were altogether unremarkable.

The soap packaging claims that it has been specially designed to reduce waste by removing the middle part that is present in traditionally shaped soap bars.

I don't know if this is a big problem in hotels, but someone thinks that it is. I always do my best to use just one bar of soap during my stay, but I often find that the cleaning crew throws out my half used soap, forcing me to use another bar of soap. I think that a hotel could reduce its waste more effectively by changing a simple protocol rather than purchasing some fancy soap.

It seems that this "bar" of soap is merely an invention of a marketing department trying to sell a new product. Of course, it's harder to make a profit by trying to convince people to change their behaviors (unless the change is to buy something). It's almost enough to make me want to start carrying around a proper bar of soap with me on my travels.

Performance-wise, I think this was a decent "bar" of soap, but the shape felt harsh. The center edges could have been a bit more rounded. I felt as if I was going to give myself bruises on my first use. This problem was resolved after my first shower with it.

There you have it: soap with a big hole in it. It feels like a marketing ploy to me, what do you think?

UPDATE: I wrote a follow up piece about this soap called A Revisit to Hotel Soap Waste.

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Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Book Review: Step Away From the Baggage Claim

Jason Barger recently spent a solid week traveling across the United States, and he never left the airports except to fly. Along the way, Jason got very little sleep, but he learned quite a bit about himself, his fellow travelers and our society. He wrote a book about his experiences entitled Step Back From the Baggage Claim.

While Step Back From the Baggage Claim is not the voyeuristic insomniac's dream come true, it does contain a few observational gems that bring into focus the need for social change at the individual level.

Through situations familiar to frequent air travelers, the author points out some of society's problems, such as our competitive nature and lack of awareness and our lack of creative time. Each chapter includes a few observations, some details of the author's life (which can seem irrelevant at times) and a call to action. For me, each chapter tended to drag on a bit, and I found myself tempted to skip ahead to the next chapter.

During the introduction, Mr. Barger claims that he wanted his book to connect with every traveler, regardless of what type of traveler one is or one's background. I find this last criteria a bit hard to swallow as the author regularly mentions Christian-related ideals and activities. I understand that the author was the director of a church camp, but I fail to see how this is bears being mentioned anywhere aside from the back cover.

This book is clasified as "self-help", but I wonder how likely it will be used for that purpose by people that actually need this book. I basically agree with most of Jason's travel philosophies (see: The Code I Travel By) so it wasn't that much of a stretch for me to read his book. It seems to me that those who reject the basic principles of this book are the least likely to read it even though they may benefit from it the most.

Despite the flaws that I have mentioned, I found the concept of traveling for a week straight and then writing about it simply irresistible. I am convinced that five different people, given the same task, would write five very different books. I was disappointed that Me. Barger left many topics only partially explored, such as behavior in lines. He made some very good observations, but he missed out on some things for which a more seasoned traveler would have been on the lookout for. Security lines are a given, but what about lines for food, lines for the airplane lavatory or the line that forms when a flight is canceled. I might be a little biased on the subject of queues since they are a sore point for me (see: Queue Madness).

In the end, a book like this is about how it affects the reader. As I sit in my airplane seat writing this, I reflect upon my day of travel in light of this book. I've been more understanding and helpful than usual to my fellow travelers. I volunteered to switch seats so a couple could sit together, I shared my priority boarding status with a complete stranger (he turned out to be a nice guy), and I even had an urge to do a bit of rogue queue management, though I resisted that one.

It appears that reading this book has made me a slightly more compassionate traveler. We shall see how this bleeds over into my non-travel days (I hope it does). As it turns out Step Back From the Baggage Claim was not the book that I sat down wanting to read, but it was the book that I needed to read.

Have you also read this book? What did you think?

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Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Packing Tips from a Frequent Traveler

A while back, I asked if you had any travel related questions for me, and I said that I'd answer then in a future blog post; this is that post. In my request for questions I received only one reply so I'll get to explore the answer to the question more fully than I had anticipated.

Robin Sue asked, "You must have packing down to a science, how do you pack? I would love some packing tips."

Before I get into my tips, some context will be helpful. I normally travel for business on trips that normally last between 3 and 6 days, but they can occasionally be up to 14 days. My work duties require that I check a medium-sized toolkit, and I also check a piece of personal luggage.

-Carry a good quality, rolling suitcase and a reasonably sized carry-on.
-Keep a dedicated set of travel toiletries if you travel frequently as this will speed your packing.
-Pack zip-tight freezer bags in case you want to bring something back that may leak, such as jam or even soiled underwear.

What to Pack
-Check the Weather of the destination to determine what special gear you may need to take with you.
-Always pack an extra pair of socks and an extra pair of underwear because you never know what might happen.
-Pack a wire coat hanger so that you can hang your clothes in the bathroom after a hot shower in order to steam the wrinkles out.

Packing for the trip
-Pack under the assumption that your checked bag will be delayed for one full day. Your carry-on should have all of the essentials that you'll need: a change of clothes, toothbrush, comb, razor. I even pack food, favorites include dried fruit, energy bars and chocolate.
-Make a list of each day of your trip along with what will be needed for each day. I usually break these into work/travel/leisure days as I wear different types of clothes on each of those types of days.
-Lay out your clothes to be sure that you have everything you'll need, checking items off the list as you go.
-Check your toiletries kit to see if you need to refill anything (ie: shampoo, razor blades, cotton balls, etc.)
-Pack tightly because things will shift and be compressed while in transit.
-Wrap any breakables well and pack them in your carry-on if possible. If this isn't possible, such as with a bottle of wine, wrap it well and pack it in the center of your suitcase. Placing a bottle of in a zip-top bag, wrapping it in a pair of jeans and then packing that in the center of the suitcase has worked well for me so far.
-Pack everything that you'll need upon checking in on the top, such as PJs and toiletries, so you wont have to do a lot of digging after a long day of travel.

Packing for the return
-Smaller bottles of liquid (local syrups, jams, etc.) can go into zip top bags and then be surrounded by clothes for padding.
-Pack used underwear and socks separately from everything else.

Well, Robin Sue, I hope that answers your question. If anyone out there has a favorite packing tip that you'd like to share, I'd love to hear it.

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