Fierce Loyalty: What BHM TSA Gets Right


By Sarah Robinson 

I just came through security at BHM airport for what feels like the billionth time. Because of my work, I fly a lot. Dealing with security and TSA raises my stress level no matter what airport I’m in. Except at my home airport. I am Fiercely Loyal to the TSA at BHM, so much so that I make it a point to stop at the big desk every time I fly and tell the supervisor how great they are.

It’s not just because the ladies call me “baby” and “honey” or the men tell really funny jokes or because of the way they keep things as light and easy as they can, even when I forget that I have a bottle of water in my carry-on bag and they have to search it.

The reason I am Fiercely Loyal to my hometown TSA is this: In all the rush and stress and hassle that make up today’s airport experience, these men and women have created a relaxed, friendly atmosphere in the most unexpected place—airport security. They are there to keep me safe, and that directive is never in question. However, they do this in a way that allows them to connect with me as a person, make me smile, and make me feel like I am part of their community, even if it’s just for a few minutes.

That may not sound like a big thing, but in all my travels, I have never seen this or felt this in any other airport. I feel like a captive prisoner who is guilty until proven innocent. BHM’s TSA is an anomaly, an outlier, a purple unicorn, so I can’t help but wonder how they do it when no other TSA can or will.

After studying them for a long time under wildly variable circumstances—including long lines, no lines, happy passengers, unhappy passengers and confused passengers—I think I’ve found the answer. The men and women who are a part of BHM’s TSA team have created an internal community culture that they work in every day. The experience they create for their customers is just an extension of the culture they’ve created for themselves.

What is an internal community culture? The short answer is that it is a work environment that operates like a community. Seen through the Fierce Loyalty lens, an internal community culture has specific identifiable qualities such as those I have listed.

The TSA team belongs to something bigger than themselves as individuals. If only one or two people behaved in the way I’ve described, they would be individuals creating something for themselves. The fact that I have the same kind of experiences every time I go through security means a group effort creates their kind of atmosphere.

Individuals are seen and heard by the entire team. When one team member needs something like a bag check or a second opinion on what they are seeing on the X-ray, the other team members respond quickly. Plus, they laugh with each other a lot.

The team shares a lot of trust. I’ve watched them work under incredibly stressful circumstances. Can you imagine busloads of high school students swarming security at 6 a.m., many of whom have never flown before, much less gone through security? Add to that that these groups are most often running late. Team members have each other’s backs and work like a well-oiled machine to get everyone through.

My study of BHM’s TSA has inspired three questions for you designed to help you create a community culture for your organization:

1. What’s your common cause? What do your people rally round, other than just plodding through to get the job done? Do you have a truly compelling mission, vision, and values statement— one which people can truly believe in, not a dull, dry one you wrote because you had to?

2. Do your team members see and hear each other? If one person needs something, do other team members respond quickly or let that person struggle alone? Do you have specific opportunities for your team members to interact and have conversations? Does your team laugh together often?

3. Do your team members trust each other? Do they trust you? Can you honestly say that every team member knows someone has his or her back? Under stress, does your team work together like a well-oiled machine?

If you find these questions too difficult to answer in the affirmative or too time-consuming to get right, remember this: Our hometown TSA is a purple unicorn in a world of negativity and bad press. If they can get this right, you absolutely can.