The TSA is revising carry-on restrictions at the end of April with the most notable change that small knives will be permitted on board again. The rules change will align the US with European Union policies, which includes allowing pocket knives with a blade up to 6cm through the checkpoints. There are some other items permitted, too, including lacrosse sticks and golf clubs, but it is the knives bit which has raised the most attention with the announcement.
TSA Administrator John Pistole pretty much conceded that the small knives are not a threat to planes. In a presentation to the 22nd AVSEC World conference in New York Pistole stated that the last three months of 2012 saw an average of 47 such knives seized daily at LAX alone. He also suggested that screening for them was a waste of time based on the risk they pose, "Frankly, I don’t want TSA agents to be delayed by these."
It is almost hard to believe that the TSA is managing to change their tune on certain items, acknowledging hat the risks they’ve previously been up in arms about might not be so real. Not that I’m complaining, mind you, but I’m surprised they’re willing to stand up and admit that things have gone a bit too far to the "anything in the name of security" direction and come back towards reality a bit. Also perhaps of note is that Pistole suggested the reason box-cutters were not included in the revised rule is that there is "just too much emotion involved with those." Probably not a huge deal either way if they are permitted or not.
It is not at all hard to believe that some flight attendants are upset about the change, suggesting that the move will endanger them and other passengers. The President of Southwest‘s FA union is asking that the change be rescinded immediately, according to Fox News. Of course, I don’t recall tales of knife fights amongst passengers in the past, back when even larger knives were permitted, but that’s a whole different story.
At the same conference European Commission director for security and policy coordination Marjeta Jager stated that they want to start rolling back the liquids ban much more aggressively. They still expect to have screening of one sort or another on the liquids, but Jager expects to allow them through checkpoints, starting with permitting duty free goods on connections. "The restriction on liquids must go. It was a measure we took in 2006 as a temporary solution and it has taken too long to apply technologies to lift this restriction."
The TSA remains convinced that non-metallic explosives are the true threat to aviation security and they want that to be the focus of their screening efforts. That means the pat-downs and body scanners aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. As for snow globes, they seem to still be on the prohibited list so I guess not everything is rational. At least not yet.
Two interesting bits this morning about the TSA, both focused on how the Agency might actually be doing more harm than good in their efforts to complete their mission. First up, a story in Business Week suggesting that the TSA is responsible for increasing the number of deaths on the nation’s highways. The general premise is that driving is significantly less safe than flying and the inconveniences and frustrations of dealing with the TSA has caused more people to drive on trips where they might have flown. That increase in cars on the roads translates to an increase in crashes. From the story,
To make flying as dangerous as using a car, a four-plane disaster on the scale of 9/11 would have to occur every month, according to analysis published in the American Scientist. Researchers at Cornell University suggest that people switching from air to road transportation in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks led to an increase of 242 driving fatalities per month—which means that a lot more people died on the roads as an indirect result of 9/11 than died from being on the planes that terrible day. They also suggest that enhanced domestic baggage screening alone reduced passenger volume by about 5 percent in the five years after 9/11, and the substitution of driving for flying by those seeking to avoid security hassles over that period resulted in more than 100 road fatalities.
To be fair, the piece is an opinion article. Or at least it appears to be. So there is certainly the other side of the story to be told. Not so sure that makes the situation any better, but the numbers associated with the costs of the current approach to aviation security, both in dollars and in lives, is worth spending some time pondering.
The second bit is most certainly self-serving for me to share, mostly because it includes a clip of me on a national news broadcast. The topic is the TSA’s poor implementation of security related to the barcodes on boarding passes. Having the content of the barcodes in plain text is a bit silly but not really all that bad. Having the text unsigned and unverifiable at the checkpoint is pretty idiotic. Just not a smart way to architect the systems, particularly when the IATA standard for the barcode format supports the ability to have such a signature in the data. Oh, and the TSA absolutely knew about the ability to require the digital signature because they do require it for mobile boarding passes and they know how to check if it is there or not.
My 8 seconds of fame is entertaining, mostly because I had to head from the studio straight from my visit to United on Friday and the only clothes I had with me were the Hawaiian shirts I was wearing during the event. But more scary than entertaining is the explanation the TSA Spokesperson gives at the end of the clip:
To identify something as a vulnerability is to not understand the entire aviation security system. One hole is not going to bring us down because we have so many other patches.
In short, it doesn’t matter how bad any one system is because there are lots of other, equally bad systems out there. And one of them is likely to catch someone trying to cause trouble. It is unfortunate that the Agency seems content to rest on the premise that they don’t have to be very good, so long as they are sufficiently intrusive. That’s not what actually creates a secure environment.
A couple weeks ago the discussion about TSA and their flawed implementation of the PreCheck program was all about how passengers could potentially see whether they were approved for the expedited screening in advance of arrival at the airport checkpoint. There was minimal discussion of the potential for customers to outright forge boarding passes, mostly because confirming that would likely require committing a felony. Fortunately the Washington Post didn’t sit back on the story. They’ve now confirmed that modifying the boarding passes is possible and that it has been done, bypassing the TSA’s ability to control who gains access to the Pre✓ lane.
Most worrisome is that the ability to restrict such forgeries is incredibly simple, to the point of being a trivial change. In fact, the airlines currently participating in program already have the technology in place. And the TSA has the systems at their checkpoints, too. By requiring a boarding pass to be digitally signed to allow access to the Pre✓ lane the bulk of the risk associated with this security hole could be mitigated. And it would be limited for real, not just in the imagination of the TSA officials who claim that the "layers" of security will serve as sufficient protection.
As it currently stands, someone on the no-fly list can easily get in to the secure part of an airport. And where Pre✓ exists they can do so through that expedited security screening facility. If that’s not a massive failure in implementation by the TSA then I don’t know what is.
Normally news of a tiny local airline which most folks have never heard of shifting its operations from one terminal to another doesn’t make the news. But SeaPort Airlines, based in Portland, Oregon, is a bit different. Their main marketing thrust when they launched service between Portland and Seattle in 2008 was that they could offer a significantly better pre-flight experience for customers because they were flying planes small enough to avoid TSA screening requirements. Even as they pulled out of the Seattle-Portland market earlier this year they were still allowing passengers to skip the screening hassle.
This past weekend, however, SeaPort moved inside the main terminal at PDX, losing that passenger benefit. Their end game is to ink interline agreements with major carriers (company President Rob McKinney claims one is coming "soon") so that SeaPort provides the last mile service to the few out-lying markets it serves rather than just carrying local traffic.
Our move the main terminal at Portland is among the most significant changes in the evolution of SeaPort Airlines over the past year, and which now has us highly-focused on providing air service that links small communities across America with the national air transportation via large airports.
Maybe it is the cynic in me but I’m quite saddened to hear that the company basically had to choose between two different versions of "better" service for their customers based in large part on the TSA and the annoyance they cause.
Passengers in the United Kingdom for the Olympics this summer may get a dose of US security theatre. Sky News is reporting that agents from the TSA will be on the ground for several weeks, working with British authorities to support their screening needs for flights headed to the United States. This aid will apply both to screening for US-flagged carriers and also other carriers destined to the USA according to the report, though it also suggests that the TSA agents will not be permitted to actually board the UK-flagged aircraft as part of their duties.
On the one hand, UK airports are going to be tremendously busy and they apparently didn’t get the staffing plan figured out far enough in advance to make other options viable. On the flip side, exporting the inanity of our "security" policies to other countries is unfortunate and annoying. Such is life, I suppose.
My Monday morning was, all things considered, a pretty good one. Sure, I was in coach for the LAX-EWR redeye, but I made it into the lounge around 7am, took a shower and sat by the window for about three hours, getting some work done while watching the planes come and go and the sun rise over New York City. Really not so bad at all. Alas, all good things must end and I had to head to the train and make it back home and then into the office for the afternoon. Call it a case of fortuitous timing, because I had the displeasure of watching a passenger get pants’d by the TSA.
Yes, the agency that maintains as a primary treating "all passengers with courtesy, dignity, and respect during the security screening processes" was, in fact, reaching down some guys pants out in the middle of the airport.
I was dumbfounded. I still am, quite frankly.
I’m betting there was a language barrier at play. That’s certainly not an excuse, but it might at least provide some semblance of an explanation for the absolutely ridiculous scene I witnessed.
Thank you, TSA, for reminding the public that you really are a bunch of idiots with no idea about how to serve your primary mission so instead you randomly molest passengers. I guess this was just an early Valentine’s day groping for this passenger, huh?
Stay classy, scumbags.
When the TSA assumed responsibility for screening passengers at airports one of the provisions in the law allowed for private screeners to be used rather than federal employees, should a company choose to bid on the contract to operate such. There are a few airports where private screeners are working – San Francisco is the largest – but overall the number of locations with private screeners is incredibly small. This is, in large part, because the TSA has made it clear they don’t want anyone who they do not directly control working at the checkpoints.
Apparently Congress has decided that they’ve had enough. After issuing a rather scathing report in November 2011 on the 10th anniversary of the establishment of the TSA a few have now stepped up to actually act on the recommendations made in that report. One of those recommendations was that the TSA stop stonewalling private screener contract applications. Not surprisingly, the TSA ignored it. And now they are running out of chances.
The new legislation will reverse the burden of proof, requiring that the TSA demonstrate increased costs and decreased efficacy in order to reject contract applications. Given the incredibly high turnover rates and training costs that the TSA incurs, it shouldn’t be too hard for contractors to demonstrate that they can meet those standards. Of course, this doesn’t necessarily mean that things will get better with the screening process. After all, the private screeners will still have to follow TSA-mandated policies and the ludicrous “state your name” test started at SFO which is privately run. Still, there is a small chance that private contractors will be able to better manage their workforce, resulting in screeners who bring guns to the office or get caught on camera stealing form customers actually being fired and prosecuted rather than sheltered by the federal government.
And, yes, I know that much of the reason the provisions were pushed through was to benefit the constituents in Representative Mica’s (R-FL) district, but I’m willing to put up with that for the sake of maybe getting a bit better service for the billions spent. Maybe.
A guy can dream…Here’s hoping.
This week’s efforts to reign in the catastrophe that is the TSA comes in the form of a bill introduced with 25 co-sponsors in the House of Representatives. The bill, H.R. 3608, is titled the "Stop TSA’s Reach In Policy Act’’ or the "STRIP Act." OK, so they get points for coming up with a cute acronym (I wonder which congressional staffer has that job…) but the purpose of the bill is pretty ridiculous. The entire focus of the bill is to force the TSA to stop calling their employees "Officers" and to stop giving them badges unless they have actual federal law-enforcement training.
OK, fine. The title is stupid, as are the badges, particularly because the people doing the work aren’t officers. But is this really the best thing that Congress can come up with to fix the problem? They say that it is necessary because a woman was raped by an agent who showed his badge or because an agent was arrested for impersonating an officer. Perhaps if they fired and prosecuted the idiot agents who break the law rather than "retraining" them the problems would diminish. But saying that the woman was raped because the guy had a badge is pretty insulting.
Seriously, Congress, get your head out of your collective arse. If you want to fix the TSA there are plenty of ways to do so. Changing the uniforms or the titles of the folks screening passengers and bags at the airport isn’t anywhere close to the top of the list.
Today is the TSA‘s 10th birthday and there are celebrations all around the country. Passengers everywhere are feting the organization for their polite, respectful and efficient screening of passengers and cargo. The ability of the organization to effectively discern the difference between legitimate threats and hyped theoretical attack avenues was praised by both Congressional leaders and law enforcement officials in a ceremony on Capitol Hill where agency head John Pistole accepted the warm acclaim with humility and deference to the tens of thousands of well-trained agents the organization has out in the field working each day.
If only any of the above were true.
Well, it actually is the 10th birthday of the agency, so I guess that’s something. And what better 10th birthday present to receive than a letter from your parents (Congress in this case) telling you everything you’re doing wrong. Because that’s what actually happened this week. Two Republican Congressmen issued a rather scathing report entitled "A Decade Later: A Call for TSA Reform" that excoriates the agency for being incompetent, overly bureaucratic and generally dysfunctional. Ouch.
Among the things the TSA is criticized for, some of my favorites include:
- Stopping the growth of the Screening Partnership Program (private screeners under TSA rules like at SFO) despite those screeners being as good or better than TSOs and at a lower cost, both for training and ongoing operations.
- The SPOT program (behavior detection officers) growing despite it lacking scientific credibility or any demonstrated efficacy, including a number of cases where known terrorists passed through airports where the program was in operation and avoided detection.
- Deploying 500 Advanced Imaging Technology (aka nude-o-scope) machines in a "haphazard and easily thwarted" manner despite a lack of evidence that they are ay more effective at detecting threats than the metal detectors they are replacing. There is evidence that they might cause cancer but that’s apparently of less concern.
- The failed deployment of the "puffer" machines at a cost of roughly $39MM which was eventually abandoned when it was determined that they simply didn’t work in the real world.
- There are more former TSA employees than there are current employees after only 10 years in existence, and there are over 65,000 active employees in the organization.
The report offers plenty more, but those are definitely the highlights.
The recommendations section offers a number of interesting suggestions. None of them are "disband and start over" but there are a few that could result in a significant change of direction for the organization. Little things, like trimming the $400MM administrative payroll overhead in DC or setting actual performance standards for passenger and baggage screening and then holding the employees to them are starters. Ditto for deploying some of the 2,800 pieces of screening gear that are in warehouses rather than at checkpoints.
The report is worth a read, or at least a skim, to see just how wasteful and incompetent the agency responsible for securing travel in the United States is. Really makes me happy every time I visit the airport.
The European Union has issued a ruling this week prohibiting the use of one type of body-imaging scanners at airports. The ruling was handed down based on evidence that the machines are producing a type of ionizing radiation that would likely cause a small number of cancer cases in the passengers scanned. The EU has decreed that causing cancer in airline passengers is a step too far in the name of aviation security.
The TSA seems to disagree.
While not commenting directly on the topic the TSA spokesman indicated that all technology is rigorously tested and that only the most advanced technologies are used. But no direct comments on the fact that multiple scientific researchers claim the systems are harmful to passengers.
The same spokesman also noted this horribly depressing "success" statistic:
Since January 2010, advanced imaging technology has detected more than 300 dangerous or illegal items on passengers in U.S. airports nationwide.
I’m going to ignore, at least for the moment, that the TSA seems excited to claim credit for discovery of "illegal" items which are not a threat to aviation security and which is wholly outside the scope of their charter. Let’s pretend that every single one of the 300 items was actually a threat to aviation security. Even then, the numbers are only one detection every other day. That’s not actually all that many. Even more troubling, the statistic doesn’t reveal any details, particularly what specific threats were discovered and if they would have been discovered by a traditional metal detector. Odds are they would have been.
So we’ve got the TSA using hardware that increases the cancer risk in passengers at a level which is statistically significant enough that a block of major, developed nations has banned the gear. And they’re doing so to realize a diminutive number of "threats" of which many are actually nothing of the sort. And of which nearly all would have likely been similarly detected by the legacy equipment at a faster scanning rate.
But that’s OK, right? Because you’re probably not the passenger who is going to get cancer from their gear. That same gear that is supposedly "rigorously tested" and yet which the TSA initially wouldn’t release the test results for and which they had to re-test because of significant issues (not surprisingly the second set showed things to be much safer). Oh, and these same machines have the TSA employees concerned for their own safety as well.
So, yeah, I ask for the grope rather than subject myself to the nude-o-scope. At least I know that the agent feeling me up isn’t giving me cancer.