This is one in a regular series on the latest innovation in mobile apps and mobile technology in the federal government.

The Transportation Security Administration has developed a mobile application which, on the surface, helps travellers, but which also makes the TSA’s job of weeding out potential threats to the system easier as well. It also allows customer feedback in real time.

“Security works best when people are prepared,” said Lynn Dean, a TSA official who helped develop the app. “The more they know, the easier it is for them to go through. They are not a distraction to our officers who are looking for the potential threats to the system.”

With that in mind, the TSA developed the “My TSA” app, which takes information which is available to travelers online and puts it into their smart phones. The idea is to prepare travelers even after they leave for the airport, so that they are not a drain on the airport security systems when they eventually get there.

Dean said that the agency knew that smart travelers speed through the security system.

“This app was designed to support our mission to ensure safety and to show that passengers play a key role in security by arriving prepared,” she said.

The app also allows the TSA to fix problems in their system by making it easier for passengers to give real time feedback on overzealous screeners or improper procedures. Sometimes problems don’t get reported because passengers forget about them by the time they get to their destination or to a wireless site. With the “My TSA” app, feedback can be immediate, allowing the agency to address problems almost equally as quickly.

The mobile app also provides consumers with fast information on procedures that, in turn, help the TSA be more efficient, Dean said.

For example, one of the biggest questions posed by the flying public is what can or cannot be brought on an airplane in carry-on luggage. The “can I bring my —– ? ” feature of the app is among the most heavily used, according to Dean, who was instrumental in creating the app. The way the TSA knows this, she said, is that the initial app had 800 items on the list of answers to the question “can I bring my —- ?” and now it has more than 3,500, as travelers have added to the list of items they are wondering about. Everything from ice skates to tamales is now on the list, she said.

In addition to the “Can I bring my —–?” feature, the TSA app also allows travellers to check on:

  • Airport Status:Users can see what airports are experiencing general delays (not flight specific), using information from the FAA;
  • Security wait times: My TSA gives passengers the ability to share their wait time and see what wait times other passengers have posted for U.S. airports;
  • A general flying guide: Tips for traveling with children, 3-1-1 rules for liquids, gels and aerosols, special medical needs, packing, how to dress for airport security, tips for military members, and traveling with food and gifts.

That information, Dean said, sometimes determines whether passengers decide to enter security or not enter it, depending on how long the delay is projected to be. Those decisions impact the TSA workforce, as it must gear up for the anticipated rush when planes are allowed to fly again.

And as for the “Can I bring my tamales, ice skates or cut flowers” types of questions, the answers are varied. The flowers may be brought on board an airplane, but not a vase with liquid. The app helpfully suggests wrapping the flowers in wet paper towels. Ice skates, which could be turned into weapons, are better off in checked baggage and tamales are okay.