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.
This past weekend was a quick, relatively local getaway down to Savannah, Georgia. The trip was great overall. Savannah is a lovely town, and I’ll get to writing up some of those details eventually, but the flights both ways were rather worse than expected. And I wasn’t really expecting all that much from Delta Connection.
The outbound flight (LaGuardia – Savannah) was operated on N800AY, a Canadair CRJ-200. This aircraft type should be removed from service globally as a violation of torture treaties. Seriously, they are the most uncomfortable seating and in-flight experience I’ve ever had. I also had the apparent good fortune to be seated in a seat where the seatbelt was more than 3 feet longer than necessary. Apparently they don’t stock seatbelt extenders on those aircraft so they have some that are built extra long just in case. I seriously think I might have been able to sit in the row in front of me and still use this belt. But at least that was entertaining rather than troubling.
We also had some issues with seat assignments on the flight down. We couldn’t get seats assigned at booking which is usually no big deal. At the airport we were assigned seats that were not together. Again, no big deal as we can handle 90 minutes not sitting next to each other, but when I asked about switching it up the agents said there was no chance. So what are the odds that the only empty seat on the plane happened to be next to my wife? Go figure.
The return trip was an even greater adventure. As we were getting out of the taxi at the Savannah airport (great facility, though the free wifi was busted) my phone rang and the Caller ID showed Delta’s number. Not good.
Our flight was going to be delayed. It happens some times, but the way it was handled was anything but smooth. I asked the ticket agent why the flight was delayed and he offered up that it wasn’t loaded in their computer and that it was probably ATC in the New York City area. Probably a safe bet, but in this case completely false. The issue was actually that Chautauqua, the carrier providing the service, had a rather significant systems meltdown and they were having difficulty dispatching a number of flights, with cancellations and significant delays throughout the system. So when I asked about alternate routings and other options and they suggested that it was no big deal I wasn’t all that impressed.
Two hours later, while still waiting for the aircraft to depart from New York to get to Savannah to operate our flight the agents were much more helpful, but they were also now more limited in terms of what alternate flights they could offer. Eventually we got rebooked via Atlanta with roughly 9 minutes to get through security and on to the plane. Awesome.
We did make the flight despite the best efforts of the TSA to mess that up and then were in Atlanta looking to get on the next flight to New York. With a two hour layover we headed to the gate of the earlier flight to try to get on as standby passengers. Ahead of us in line was a pilot dead-heading and the flight was full; the pilot couldn’t get a cockpit jump seat and was number 5 on the standby list when he walked away from the podium. I was quite surprised to hear the same agent who just put the pilot on the list tell me that there was no opportunity to be listed as a standby passenger and that, "There is no way I’m going to put you on this flight." Harsh.
At least we had dinner at One Flew South (my first time there and it lived up to the rave reviews I’ve heard). But beyond that the experience in Atlanta was pretty poor.
And then we caught our flight from Atlanta to LaGuardia. It was a reasonably quick, though bumpy, flight and we made it home the same day as scheduled and only a few hours late. In the end that’s great, but most of the customer service interactions along the way, save for the two women in Savannah who actually cared and tried to help us, were pretty craptacular. I doubt any other airline would do much better, particularly for a pair of customers with no elite status. Sad, but true.
I know that expecting a consistent and coherent implementation of policy from the TSA is a pipe dream. Still, there are a few bits that it would seem it makes sense to keep consistent. Take the pseudo-secret Sensitive Security Information ("SSI") classification of documents, for example. This is a designation that generally requires a document to be kept away from public view as it is considered integral to TSA operations, though not quite secret enough that it really matters. Sortof.
All manner of information that probably shouldn’t be is covered under the SSI designation, allowing the TSA to avoid FOIA requests and to otherwise avoid scrutiny. And I’m sure there are reasonable things covered by the designation, too, such as the Screening Management SOP. Actually I know that one is covered because there was an enormous fiasco a little while back when the poorly redacted version was posted online in public view. Whoopsie.
So it seems to reason that the SSI designation actually has some teeth. Which makes me wonder why it is so poorly observed at the airport. Today’s trip out of LaGuardia was another great example of this lax implementation, with a document clearly marked as SSI sitting out in plain view of the passengers walking through the screening checkpoint. The document was the daily schedule for "unpredictable" random checks that the agents are supposed to do, such as swabbing passenger hands or checking additional bags more thoroughly. I can understand why you might not want folks generally seeing that, though it also shouldn’t really matter. Still, it is marked as such so I would assume that would be enforced. Today’s experience suggests otherwise.
After noticing the document on display I asked to speak with the supervisor on duty, just to point out that the SSI document probably shouldn’t be in public. His response was rather surprising. His claim was, essentially, that the SSI designation on that particular document didn’t really count because the schedule on it changes daily. And because it was on a clipboard it wasn’t really in public view since I wouldn’t have been able to walk away with it.
Neither of those explanations make much sense at all, but that’s apparently how the TSA operates at LaGuardia when Steve is working as the lead TSO.
Finding a politician willing to speak out against the TSA has, for the most part, proven to be a challenge. No one wants to give an opposing candidate the opportunity to label them soft on terrorism or other similar smears. So it is somewhat surprising to find that not only is there a Congressman starting to make some noise, but it is Representative Mica (R-Fla), the Chairman of the House committee that oversees the department and one of those intimately involved in building the organization. Apparently he’s having some regrets about that move now.
Among other things, Mica notes that the "chat" interrogations being conducted at Boston‘s Logan airport are a farce implemented by untrained individuals and which offered up "idiotic" questions to passengers. This implementation in Boston is the first trial site of an expanded program where the TSA tries to analyze the behavior of passengers, a plan that the GAO has noted lacks scientific validity. Said Mica, "It’s almost idiotic. It’s still not a risk-based system. It’s not a thinking system."
Speaking of the TSA, why not pile on a bit here. There are a couple additional stories in the news over the past couple weeks that can make one sympathize with Mica’s view on things. For starters, there was the hand-written note on the back of an inspection notice in a checked bag with the simple message, "Get your freak on girl" when the agent spotted a vibrator in the checked bag. Real classy there.
And then there is House Resolution 3011 which is now under consideration. This bill will, among other things, amend Section 709 of Title 18, Part 1, Chapter 33 of the US Code. That section defines a variety of federal agency names, mostly related to banking or law enforcement, and makes it illegal to use the names or associated images (e.g. badges or uniforms) of such agencies in print or performance in a manner which is meant to convey that the agency involved is approved, endorsed or authorized by that agency. The amendment will add the TSA and Federal Air Marshall services to the laundry list of protected agencies.
There is some concern that adding the names to this list will prohibit satirical and other less than sanguine portrayals of the Agency. I’m not quite as convinced, as it would also require that the portrayal suggest that the agency approves the parody. I suppose making a movie where the TSA officer character, wearing a suitable costume, is a buffoon or otherwise does something stupid could be construed as a violation, but that would be quite the stretch on the enforcement side of things. Still, it is an interesting move by a group that is frequently subject to significant mockery to potentially limit that. If you can’t beat ‘em, outlaw them??
Next up there’s the report of a handgun falling out of a checked bag at LAX on Monday. This one is actually not the TSA’s fault so stop beating them up on it. Guns are permitted in checked bags. The owner is an idiot for not properly declaring it or packing it (supposed to be in a separate, locked container), but the TSA didn’t do anything particularly wrong here.
Finally, there’s the story of Eduardo Valdes who tried to bring a gun through a TSA checkpoint in Miami a couple weeks ago. This wouldn’t be so awkward if
- Valdes wasn’t a TSA agent responsible for keeping guns out of the secure area of the airport;
- The gun was not unregistered; and,
- Valdes did not have a permit to carry the gun.
Nothing but top-rate professionals minding the farm it would seem.
Yeah, it is hard not to sympathize with Mica and his views that the TSA is an idiotic system that doesn’t involve much thinking. The only question is whether he can actually put some action behind those words. Let’s see out elected officials hold the Agency accountable. Let’s see them actually do something about the problems rather than just campaigning for political gain. So, Mica, you’ve identified the problem. What are you going to do about it?
In an interview which first aired last night NYPD commissioner Ray Kelly stated that the department does, in fact, have that ability:
[i]n an extreme situation, we would have some means to take down a plane.
Unsurprisingly, the Commissioner didn’t provide any additional details on the capabilities but he was quite explicit that the department has the equipment and training to do it if they determined it was necessary. No word either on the details behind who authorizes such an action or in what types of scenarios they would be considered.
I do not think I’m alone in thinking that this announcement opens up more questions than it answers regarding aviation safety.
A hat tip to the folks at NYC Aviation for mentioning this one; they’ve got the video clip of the interview on their site, too.
I remember standing in the door way of a partner’s office at the client site I was at, watching the news unfold that fateful Tuesday morning. I remember a few hours later walking out to the river in Georgetown and seeing the smoke rising up from the Pentagon. I remember trying to figure out how to go home to NYC on Wednesday and being relieved that eventually Amtrak started operating. I remember seeing the smoke rising from the rubble as the train rolled past. I remember that thousands died needlessly. I remember weeks later, when the airports reopened, flying over for the first time and leaving my seat even though the seatbelt sign was on and there were strict rules so that I could get to the other side of the plane to see the damage. I remember many days, likely weeks, where the 1 train wasn’t running, leaving my basement apartment eerily quiet when I was quite used to the mild rumble of the trains rolling by.
These are memories seared into my brain. They are memories that I will never lose and that I have no desire to lose, despite the pain they occasionally cause. I must remember them because they are a part of my life.
But I also remember much more than the events of that day.
I remember what life was like in the days, months and years prior to the attack. I remember living in a country that wasn’t governed by a pervasive threat of unspecified and likely unrealistic threats. I remember a country not afraid to stand up as a leader in the global community rather than a country so afraid that it will kill itself whilst pretending it is still in control. And I wonder why we allowed ourselves to succumb to the fear rather than to rise up and defeat it.
Sitting in an airport lounge this afternoon, getting ready to fly just like I have some 800 times in the past 10 years I hear the talking heads on a news channel drone on and on about the 10th anniversary of 9/11 and I’m more than just a bit disgusted. There is no doubt that the events that day were a terrible tragedy. There’s no reason those folks should have died. But not event, tragedy or otherwise, justifies the results that the past 10 years have seen.
Maybe my disgust is because I wasn’t sufficiently personally affected 10 years ago. Of the nearly 3,000 who died I don’t have a personal connection to any. Maybe that means my views on the topic don’t really count. But I don’t think that’s really true.
A rational response to an attack, particularly right when it happens, is hard to demand. And we most certainly did not see one. After ten years, however, demanding a rational approach is way past due. Sadly, it will almost certainly never come to pass. Instead we got the TSA, a war, tens of thousands more dead, trillions of dollars wasted and nothing to show for it.
Even though the security screening on that fateful Tuesday actually did nothing wrong the TSA was foisted upon us. The need to perform a virtual strip search of every passenger or grope them to ensure that they aren’t carrying a weapon which would most likely be detected by the same metal detectors that have been in use successfully for decades is just one of the many debacles that this tragedy engendered. There are plenty more stories of TSA idiocy (say your name out loud to pass through security, agents carrying a gun to work, agents stealing from passengers, etc.) and that’s just one of the many burdens that we now suffer with as passengers.
Even worse than the TSA, however, we have each other to deal with. No longer are we all passengers working together to survive the hours confined to the same metal tube hurtling through the air at 500+ miles/hour. Today we have passengers who have deputized themselves as part of the security apparatus, reporting that an other passenger looks suspicious for almost certainly no good reason. We have folks who are no threat to anything being removed from flights, interrogated and embarrassed because another passenger decided their own personal comfort was more important than the rights of someone else.
I read this line today and I’m surprised at just how angry it made me:
Since 9/11, I have taken it upon myself to be a vigilant American…I’ve said something about someone looking nervous, out of place, or otherwise causing alarm for me. 1 out of those 5 times I said something, the person was removed from the flight. Whether or not they were actually a threat, someone else agreed with me that they were out of place with their otherwise alarming actions. …I do know that I don’t feel bad if my judgment and the flight crew’s judgement were made in error.
There is a difference between being vigilant and being a vigilante and it is way more than the letter e. The past 10 years have served to blur that distinction for all too many making us less safe, not more. Less safe because that vigilante might just decide to respond directly against a perfectly innocent individual. Less safe because folks are ignoring real threats and focusing on imagined ones. Less safe because the concept of security is horribly misappropriated. Suggesting that someone else be removed from a plane because you are uncomfortable is quite high on my list of ludicrous behaviors that passengers have taken to in the past ten years. It is way worse than any of the air rage incidents that have been reported.
We’ve wasted billions upon billions of dollars. We’ve destroyed all too many civil liberties. And we’ve killed tens of thousands of people. All in the name of security. Sadly, what we’ve actually provided is anything but.
The events of September 11, 2001 were a tragedy in every sense of the word. The response to them as evidenced in the policies we see today is an even greater tragedy. We should all remember the events that transpired that day. And we should remember that we were a strong, proud people prior to that and we still can be, even while mourning those who were murdered.
I continue to fly. A lot. I put up with the bullshit foisted upon me by the TSA, airlines, flight crews making up security regulations as they go and other passengers. I do so because I love to travel and there’s nothing that will ever beat that love out of my system. But that doesn’t mean I have to respect the faux authority position from which these policies are handed down.
Flying today (I’m writing this on the afternoon of the 10th) or tomorrow (I will be) is not something I’m doing to make a political statement like so many others claim to do. I’m flying this weekend because I love to fly and because I really wanted to visit both Alaska and Hawaii this weekend and flying is the only way to do so.
I’m still living my life as best I can. That’s the only statement worth making.
Want access to the priority security lines at the airport without elite status or buying a first class ticket? Looks like it is time to start flying JetBlue. The carrier announced today the 15 airports at which their new "Even More Speed" program will be implemented, allowing customers access to the "priority" line that other carriers afford to elites or premium cabin customers. With JetBlue this perk will be an additional benefit of the Even More Legroom seats which are being rebranded as well as part of the move.
The initial airports for priority screening are:
Priority screening is also coming to Boston in the next 4-6 weeks as the reconfiguration of the checkpoint there is completed.
In addition to the priority screening access the company is changing the Even More Legroom moniker to Even More Space. The impetus for this change is the addition of early boarding for those customers, providing them the first chance to get at the overhead bins. The early boarding benefit isn’t particularly new but the branding is. Maybe they got a bulk discount on trademark registrations with "Even More" in the name.
Overall this is a nice addition to the offerings that JetBlue has. Combined with the previous indications that some sort of "elite" program (though they refuse to use that word) is coming and that some of these benefits are likely to carry over, it seems clear that JetBlue is working hard to woo the business traveler segment more than ever.