The departure of John Magaw after only six months heading the new US Transportation Security Administration is a cautionary tale about the need to take all the other players and people with you when pursuing an ambitious political goal.

The USA has long held itself out as a beacon, lighting the way forward for the world. Indeed, more often than not, it has provided a template for the rest of the aviation industry to follow. But, when it comes to aviation security, the US lesson has so far looked dangerously like a cautionary tale and one that has already claimed a top job. The moral of the parable is perhaps this: not to stay with a deadline at any cost, especially not one set by anxious politicians in the midst of a crisis, and not when all about you are begging you to slow down.

After passing a massive airline security bill within weeks, the US Congress set strict deadlines for the government's bureaucratic apparatus to meet. It ordered the Department of Transportation (DoT) and its Federal Aviation Administration to create a vast new entity, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), to take over all airport screening and install explosives detection equipment at most significant airports by the end of this year.

Burned by repeated delays at meeting deadlines on fundamental mandates, such as regional airline safety and on earlier airport security measures, some pending since 1996, Congress was clear: it did not trust the DoT. That may well have been a reasoned assessment, but in the words of a leading architect of the security bill, House Aviation Subcommittee Chairman John Mica, Congress "created an out-of-control monster" in the form of the new security agency.

The TSA has returned to Capitol Hill repeatedly, seeking more money to hire twice as many workers as it had originally planned. When asked for explanation, John Magaw the former Secret Service head picked to run TSA, gave none. He simply stated that was what he needed and he had a deadline to meet. Looking every bit a tough a lawman, Magaw, who had also headed the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, also got his boss, Transportation Secretary Norm Mineta, to chase the deadline too.

The same attitude, or perhaps fear of it, percolated down to the front ranks of the nation's airport screeners, who took it upon themselves to interpret every TSA order with a rigidity that would not have embarrassed a military academy. This went so far, recalls Michigan Representative Vern Ehlers, that one little old lady who had suffered a double mastectomy was forced to strip when airport screeners detected her post-operative metallic stays. Little old ladies, like business travellers and many thousands of other US air travellers, can write letters and they did, many of them to their congressmen, about pettiness or outright stupidity of screeners. Magaw either could not or would not explain and by the middle of July, he was out, given a few hours to sit in a room to write a resignation letter. The 66-year-old Magaw cited health, even though it had not been an issue six months earlier when he was picked for the post.

Some say he was merely the sacrificial lamb (or goat), or perhaps a fall guy for the DoT. This latter theory gains some credence from Mineta's sudden conversion to the cult of flexibility, a conversion evidenced within days of Magaw's departure by Mineta saying that maybe after all some of the deadlines would be tough to meet unless he had a lot more funding. Mineta has also aired the possibility of rethinking some of Magaw's more entrenched positions. For example, his opposition to guns in the cockpit, while perfectly reasonable, was so unwavering that it even allowed liberals to come out in favour of arming pilots and so trump the Republican administration from the right.

Magaw's successor, former Coast Guard commandant James Loy, has vast experience in soothing legislative egos, having plumped the ruffled feathers of members of Congress, mayors, governors and others who want a service or whose constituents had a complaint.

Therein lies a huge lesson for the rest of the world: as long as real live people are involved, security will be a process with an inescapable political dynamic and not one in which all players including machines do what they are supposed to. Having successfully ignored the domestic political reality for the better part of a year, the USA now faces further delay in coming to grips, as it sooner or later must, with the realities of international and multilateral relations. It has not focused on these dynamics so far, leaving the outside world confused as to exactly what comes next. That is hardly the lead that the USA wanted to set.

Source: Airline Business