Airline Lobbyists Want to Shame — But Not Fix — The TSA

Denver airport is known for unmatched security wait times. One thousand American Airlines passengers missed flights at just one airport – Chicago O’Hare – in just one month (March) due to long security wait times.

Atlanta airport was so frustrated that they threatened to privatize. Now Atlanta is closing down the South security checkpoint for renovations and the TSA plans to turn over some of the process to Delta there.

Now Scott Mayerowitz covers a campaign by lobbying group Airlines for America to get passengers to shame the TSA over wait times.

Airlines for America, the industry’s trade group, just launched a website called iHateTheWait.com , encouraging fliers to post photos of the lines on Twitter and Instagram along with the hashtag #iHateTheWait. Presumably this will make Congress more aware of the problem — and let fellow travelers know what they’re in for when they get to the airport.

The group’s spokeswoman Jean Medina, said the campaign is “raising awareness of the issue and serving as crowd-sourced (wait time) information.”

It’s rich, though, for US airlines to complain about the TSA now when they’ve been enthusiastic supporters of the government’s security theater and restrictions on civil liberties for years.

  • The government requirement that we show ID, that travelers match itineraries, supports the airline’s revenue management and price discrimination programs.

  • Airlines didn’t object on behalf of passengers to naked imaging, even no longer in use backscatter imaging machines whose radiation levels may have been unsafe.

  • Airlines didn’t object to full data sharing with the government. Or profiling of passengers. Airlines didn’t support measures that the TSA wanted that would have made screening more efficient, like no longer looking for golf clubs and looking for bombs instead. Carry on clubs remain banned.


Playmobil Security Playset

Airlines for America has opposed increases in security taxes but they want more security spending. (In fairness the administration’s current call for even higher security taxes really funds other priorities and not security while using the rhetoric of fear of terrorism to push the agenda.)

Airlines could be advocates for real security reforms. The problem isn’t that more than $7 billion a year and 50,000 employees is insufficient.

The TSA has failed to meaningfully detect dangerous items going through the checkpoint for years. Their 95% failure rate is hardly new, ten years ago it was a 91% failure rate. That’s unacceptable. We don’t need — and couldn’t possibly have — perfect security. We just need to have reasonably good detection. Instead detection rates are likely worse than before the federalization of security.


TSA Agents in Charlotte Watch News of the TSA’s Failure to Detect Weapons and Bombs, Instead of Searching for Weapons and Bombs (HT: Tocqueville)

A year ago the TSA said their response to public shaming would be to make screening take longer. And the airlines were silent.

Basic screening, combined with reinforced cockpit doors and passengers unwilling to remain docile in the event of a takeover of a commercial airliner, and a repeat of 9/11 is simply unlikely. The TSA has never caught a terrorist, but there aren’t that many terrorists out to give up their lives taking down planes in the U.S. And terrorism is hard.

Long security lines, though, create easy targets. I wrote about that phenomenon in a long form article in Doublethink in December 2001. Meanwhile increasing time and cost of air travel pushes more travelers to the roads which are less safe, a phenomenon sometimes referred to as ‘statistical murder’.

A social media campaign designed to put more resources into a failed government agency at general taxpayer expense is the opposite of what’s needed. The airlines – who really should know better – ought to get behind real security reform, not push for more security theater. It’s no surprise, however, which side they’re on.

A few bad apples who in no way undermine the hard work that thousands of men and women at the TSA do to keep us safe, day in and day out.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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Comments

  1. Prior to federalization of security, were private companies financially liable for the results of terrorist activities?

    Just curious.

  2. @Ben
    Yes, lawsuits claiming contributory negligence would have been valid against private screening companies (though hard to prove). Post-federalization, is the US Government financial liable for the results of terrorist activities? No, they aren’t, under any circumstances.

  3. No no no Gary, private industry should not be dictating the TSA. The airlines already have the FAA. The TSA has one job and one job only: the safety of the general public.

    Where we went wrong is George W used this opportunity to turn it into a money laundering slush fund for his cronies. I bet if we fix this (along with their management issues) they can actually execute their mandate.

  4. I am based in Tokyo and I dread every moment I need to pass through US airports. Here even without online check in, even on int’l flight it takes me usually about 10 min, max 15 min from the moment I arrived at the building to check in & drop my bags, pass through security and immigration and arrive at the lounge. Granted, being OW elite helps, but it probably would have taken only 5 min or so extra time for non status passengers. Even with the extra steps of taking off shoes, i still can’t fathom how in the world a security line can be that inefficient.

  5. You make the airlines look as if they’ve been passive, yet they have a very noticeable active role in contributing to the line: the number of bags screened at the checkpoint exploded after airlines introduced bag fees. They keep the money, we waste hours of our valuable time and pay higher taxes because of the much higher screening standards required of a carry-on vs. if the same bag had been checked in.

  6. @ Gary — I don’t buy that terrorism is that hard. You imply a disturbing point that long security lines could be a target. Very sad that such a target may not be so difficult, eg Brussels. Ultimately, one must live their life without irrational fear of such evildoers.

  7. @Ted before federal screening passengers were allowed 2 carryons not just one. The airlines were active in supporting the current regime, not passive.

  8. The lines thing drives me the most crazy for the sitting target aspect. We saw that in Paris and again in Brussels.

    It’s bugs me to no end that places like sporting events have drifted into this security theater but leave themselves wide open to actual real vulnerabilities that have seen actual terrorism (i.e. the front gate).

  9. Gary – Love your stuff … Here are a few thoughts (from one who has been there for all of this, both as a crew member and as a management person).

    * Airlines have not been silent on this issue. Their preferred method is not to publicly shame, rather to work behind the scenes. When all options are exhausted, they go public. That show show how serious the lack of funding is for TSA staff.

    * No one has a greater interest in 100pct threat detection than the airlines. A 90+pct failure rate is totally unacceptable.

    * With privatization of security, there would be accountability both for throughput rates and success in detection rates. TSA is virtually unaccountable in the current configuration.

    * Even with the current system, TSA finds more than 40 handguns, and hundreds of deadly weapons, A WEEK at checkpoints. This should be a sobering reminder that there remains a massive threat with regularly screened passengers.

    * Anyone who knows the system knows the real exposure is on ground staff, cleaners and airport workers who have high turnover rates and easy, unscreened access through cypher-locked gates and doorways. The recent bombing of an airliner in Egypt shows how open that door is through the catering process.

    * Despite all this … There hasn’t been a successful US commercial airliner hijacking since 2001.

    The A4A campaign on long TSA lines is simply trying to address one of the most irritating customer service failures … Waiting in long security lines and missing your flight. It is about time Congress manned up and provided adequate funding for screening staff. Then we can have all the rest of the great conversations about how to make airline security more robust and efficient.

    Everyone benefits from that solution.

  10. It’s your blog, so obviously you should write about whatever you want to write about, but I find political commentary on a travel blog to be off-putting.

  11. @John glad to have you reading and hope you’re well! The airlines were 100% complicit with the government takeover of security, expecting significant government handouts after 9/11.

    I disagree that perfect security is possible. 90% success would be fantastic. There aren’t very many plots, and terrorists would at that point be foolish to try because of low likelihood of success. Attempts are very high cost, use scarce resources (the people willing to commit them). So they’d attack elsewhere, which is the best we can ever hope for. But even those attacks are rare, because there aren’t that many people trying to pull these off and it’s hard. [Members of terrorist groups aren’t the same thing as suicide bombers, people join causes and every so often have to make attempts to justify investment by their funders.]

    TSA “good catches” do not involve terrorism. And screening of ground staff is poor, as you suggest. The real need isn’t 100% perfection through the checkpoint, or more spending on checkpoints. It’s focusing on areas that more or less get a pass now. And it’s focusing on real threats through the checkpoint not on items that have low relative risk… a change TSA wanted to make but that the airline industry pushed back against.

  12. @TCS this isn’t really politics, it’s airline policy and passenger experience. Democrats and Republicans have been quite equal in giving us the security theater and travel delays we experience.

  13. Gary – Thanks for the reply. A couple of points.

    No one expects 100pct security. But a 90oct fail rate is unacceptable. There are obvious holes to plug now – like having all ground staff screened.

    The airlines were cooperative with the government formation of Homeland Security and TSA for two reasons – first, there were government loan guarantees that kept some carriers flying who otherwise would have gone out of business. Secondly, it was obvious that something had to change because there had just been devastating successful hijackings. No one was suggesting that the system was working. Everyone embraced a change.

    Lastly, one of the reasons there is a low probability of success for current terrorist plots is because of the system now in place. Additionally, the carrying of hundreds of deadly weapons a week on airplanes isn’t a terrorist issue – it is a simple security issue. If you recall, dozens of planes got hijacked in the sixties and seventies because of people
    lonely to return to Cuba or some other country, and they carried pistols on planes. Whether we agree or not – people don’t hijack planes like that anymore in the US but there are still dozens of people each week who try to get through screening with loaded handguns and throwing stars.

    Great conversation! Let’s all make the system more secure.

  14. @John– we agree on point one, and sounds like you’re agreeing with me that the airlines did in fact go along and in part because money was on the table in giving us the system we have.

    You cannot really argue though that we have an unacceptable 90% fail rate and also that the current system is protecting us from terrorism. The TSA of course has never caught a terrorist, and fails to catch most of what’s sent through the checkpoint when tested. It is not at all clear that the current system is an improvement over what came before it. Terrorism is hard, there aren’t that many terrorists trying to take down aircraft in the US. There aren’t many executing plots against high value targets in other areas where there’s no TSA either.

    Hijackings of the 60s and 70s were a thing of the past by the 90s, and would now be virtually impossible. It used to be that pilots would accede to demands in order to keep everyone safe. Pilots no longer let in would-be hijackers and turn over controls. Passengers no longer sit idly by during perceived attempts, either.

    Reinforced cockpit doors and a credible commitment not to turn over controls have changed the landscape significantly. Ground workers should get more screening, the war on water should end along with the shoe carnival.

  15. Another commenter in the same day blaming everything wrong with the world on George W. I’m not a fan of any of the Bush family, but I sure am sick of hearing about all the wrongs they did on a travel blog.

  16. Seems like the screeners are caught in between ” Hurry , we don’t want to miss our flight ( and be charming while you’re at it ) and ” What the heck , you missed something again?”
    As for Tokyo , I have passed through many times and the security has never been ‘just five minutes ‘ . My status as ‘rabble’ may have something to do with that .

  17. Not completely related to the discussion here I would like to mention an unusual experience .
    dealings with the Gov. that were much better than expected . Went for my Global Entry interview last week and took my wife . Her interview was scheduled a month later . I was worried about her passport coming back in the mail before her scheduled interview .
    Without being asked , the man doing the interview started interviewing my wife after finishing my interview . Now we don’t have to return in five weeks and no worries about passport in the mail.
    Better than I expected , better than I hoped for and didn’t even have to ask .
    Sometimes you have to accept the good as well .

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