December 6, 2010
TSA Collateral DamageBy G. Murphy Donovan
You've read a hundred stories about the horrors at airports these days, but reading can't hold a candle to an actual flight. In early November, I was invited to a friend's farm in California for the annual olive harvest. The harvest went well enough; the horror was traveling to the West Coast and back.
On the outbound leg, I departed from Reagan National (DCA) in Washington, D.C. My processing through TSA security was delayed by a young lady who was doing the metal detector kabuki dance: two steps forward, four steps back, peeling off another piece of apparel with each pass. An early casualty was a smart crystal necklace, which she hastily threw into one of the plastic bowls on the conveyor belt. While this girl was frisked, wanded, and nearly disrobed, her personal effects sat unattended in the sanitized zone. When she finally came through security to retrieve her things, the necklace was long gone.
The young woman complained to the assembled TSA employees, most of whom were standing around gabbing and gawking. She was given two options: make a police report in another part of the airport (and miss her flight) or suck it up and proceed to the gate. She went to the gate in tears. I asked a TSA inspector why her personal effects weren't removed from the queue and protected while she was being frisked. The look he gave me said, "Body cavity search pending." So I moved on, too.
All the while, the public address system boomed: "Maintain visual contact with your personal possessions at all times. Do not leave baggage unattended." How is this possible, I thought, when and if TSA separates a traveler from his or her things for an intimate grope? And I also wondered how long it took the dumbest TSA apparatchik to learn that a theft in the security screening area was not likely to be reported -- ever.
Little did I know then that my turn was next. After two weeks of agrarian infusion, I set out for my return American Airlines flight, departing this time from San Jose International (SJC).
I drove to the airport during morning rush. After a car rental return, I arrived at the curb check-in 35 minutes before flight time, too late to check a bag there. I went to the American desk, where I was told that it was too late to check a bag there, either. I was instructed to take my two bags to TSA security. Punishment for tardiness, I presumed. Apparently, I could carry the heavier bag through security and schlep it to the gate faster than American Airlines could do the same with union workers, a conveyor belt, and motorized carts.
Breathing heavy, I arrived at the TSA gauntlet to see a single line with a single TSA officer checking boarding passes and identification. At least a half-dozen other TSA types were hanging about, performing no particular function that I could identify. I knew that I was in trouble with 25 minutes to flight time.
I peeled off my coat and shoes, emptied the computer bag, and slung my heretofore hold bag into bins on the conveyor belt. As I stepped through the metal detector, the first alarm sounded. Apparently the suspenders and wristwatch that had gone through TSA at Reagan National without incident weren't going to cut it at San Jose. Watch and suspenders had to go. Just as I got through the metal detector, holding up my pants with one hand, another alarm rang. The x-ray guy signaled me to take my larger bag to the rummage table. The clock was ticking.
During the hand search, inspector Clouseau found an antique pair of sugar snips (kitchen crimps), a hand gouge (for wood carving) with a two-inch point, and a frisky spider the size of a silver dollar. My bag had spent two weeks in a barn. The fastidious search ended when the arachnid appeared. My antique tools were confiscated. No matter that I had been trying to check the offending bag to no avail. (Many things are permitted in the hold that do not pass muster in the cabin.)
Ironically, the intrepid bag specialist missed the real potential weapons: a two-blade pocket knife and a nifty pair of scissors with sharp points. Maybe the wolf spider put him off his game.
I arrived at an empty gate, three minutes before wheels-up, where the boarding clerk sang out "Mister Donovan, I presume" by way of greeting. She then promptly checked my large bag into the hold, where it could have rested unmolested thirty minutes earlier had the check-in counter provided some help in the first place.
After landing at Los Angles Airport (LAX), I had a three-hour layover. Rather than provide any stimulus to the junk food industry, I bought a cup of coffee and observed TSA operations for a couple of hours. Shortly, several things became clear. Airport security employees are almost uniformly overweight, rude, and underemployed. Most TSA "officers" look like they might wash out of a Girl Scout boot camp.
Indeed, with a single head rotation, I could count two dozen uniformed TSA employees (and one chubby LA cop on a Segway), only half of whom seemed to be working. Some sat in the passenger lounge gabbing, some haunted the fast food joints, and some browsed in the magazine kiosks. Some just socialized outside the toilets. Who knows where terror lurks?
Air crews, on the other hand, busily scurried to and from their gates, through doors with keypad combination locks. Air crews, like politicians, do not have to run the TSA gauntlet anymore. Thus, safety for an entire complex of gates, where several fully loaded, fully fueled jumbo jets cluster, seems to rest with a four-digit cipher -- or are those doors monitored from the inside, where breaches might be recorded, but not prevented? Who knows? In any case, special pleaders seem to be more of a concern than real security. Indeed, the taxpayer and the flying public might suffer any indignity or inconvenience, while government and airline employees exempt themselves from similar abuses.
The over-processing of passengers has penalties beyond harassment and humiliation. First are the clear hazards of unattended luggage, a personal property and safety risk. The sanctioned theft of TSA confiscations just rubs salt in the wound. The focus on mindless minutiae also distracts from single-point vulnerabilities. Those unattended cipher doors are an example.
Unfortunately, there's no cure for stupidity. So-called "enhanced" security measures have little to do with safety or common sense. No one ever hijacked an airliner with sugar snips. And why would any airline push any more bags through the carry-on gauntlet than necessary? Surely, counter mavens know that carry-on and checked baggage have different content standards.
Janet Napolitano (DHS), John Pistole (TSA), and Thomas Horton (American Airlines) are confused. They have confused taxpayers and the flying public with the enemy. They go through all manner of rhetorical and procedural contortions to protect the sensitivities of politicians, airline cabin crews, and Islamists, yet no insult to everyday passengers seems beyond the pale.
A quick check of customer satisfaction ratings for American Airlines and TSA reveals that both rank between dirt and the cellar. No surprises there. In a five-star system, both averaged 1.5. In primary school, that would be a grade of 30* out of a possible 100. Or put another way, four out of five clients of American Airlines and the TSA believe that these institutions are dismal failures. Even Postal Service ratings are 100% better than TSA.