TSA Has Gone to the Dogs

Current TSA’s PreCheck lets passengers that have had information turned over in advance by airlines (in most cases, elite frequent flyers) go through security ‘as it used to be’ with freedom baggie left inside a carryon, laptop inside laptop case, and shoes left on.

Now the TSA is testing turning the decision on expedited screening eligibility over to dogs.

The Transportation Security Administration is now using dogs to prescreen passengers, sniffing for explosives before they get to the metal detectors and X-ray machines.

The good news for passengers is that this kind of passive screening — stand and be sniffed — can alleviate the need for more cumbersome procedures at the TSA checkpoint, like removing shoes and taking laptops and bagged liquids out of luggage.

The science on dogs is really bad, and generally deference is simply given to the cop on whatever they say the dog does or doesn’t identify. In other words, police usually just use the dogs as a pretext for searches.

But, the science is no worse than the behavior detection programs that poorly trained screeners are asked to perform. Ironic that the program is called SPOT when it’s the TSA humans doing it. Guess this is suggestive of how they view screeners?

Correspondent S. wonders how the sniffing dogs will interact with Colorado’s move to legalize marijuana.

Colorado of course may have legal pot but it’s still a violation of federal law, local law enforcement gets directed not to do anything about pot and generally all TSA does is turn over such things to local law enforcement.

But it could become the unexpected place where the federal / state showdown on this issue happens.

As they say, a few bad squeaky toys 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.

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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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  1. Gary, I love your blog for its travel-related content. I get your personal disdain for the TSA as it is currently run. But the schtick at the end of every TSA-related post with the links and the joke implying that it is a corrupt organization at the lowest level (agents0 is getting old.

    Most TSA agents, like everyone else, are just trying to do their job. In most cases, I see them trying very hard against less than ideal conditions. Most I interact with are professional and courteous. And, as in most service industries, the employees tend to reflect their customers. Have you seen the difference in treatment in precheck lanes versus regular security? I have – I’ve noticed it every time. It is like night and day.

    Just for fun, I ran a search for “University administrator embezzlement”. I found an article by University Business magazine dated 7/01/2011 and referring to an “Embezzlement Epidemic” within the higher ed administration sector. The article detailed 13 cases of university administrators embezzling funds from their institutions. Should I apply your logic to your profession as well?

    The point being, stop picking on the rank and file of the TSA. Yes, there are good and bad, but most of them are just doing their job. Most of the stories you highlight arise as a result of them following policies set down from above. If you want to raise an issue with the policy makers, that’s one thing. But the attacks on the rank-and-file employees en masse are getting old in my opinion.

  2. I enjoy the blog! Read it every day. However, I don’t remember you giving much credit to the TSA when credit is due. What are your opinions on PreCheck? I have two kids under the age of two and used to dread going to the airport and standing in the lines. PreCheck really makes going through security a breeze.

  3. I echo the last commenter’s thoughts; I cherish the blog for the travel information, but I could use less posturing on TSA. Today, especially, you’ve touched a small nerve in me about how scent-detection dog science is “really bad.” If anything, it’s certainly really good, but has its limitations. This is why professional police officers synthesize many other observations about the person, vehicle, overall situation, etc., with the dog’s response when making a decision to make a warrantless search of a vehicle or a person in a controlled area like an airport. Do cops get things wrong sometimes? Yes, just like airline employees, travelers, and bloggers. But please do not stand by your claim that “police usually just use the dogs as a pretext for searches.” This well educated, respectful cop doesn’t like being painted with such broad aspersions.

  4. I’m with CW.

    Government and TSA policy and programs are certainly fair subjects for a travel blog. The part about using dogs, their efficacy, and the problems inherent in the new program is interesting (and I agree with much of what’s said).

    But I can’t be the only person who is uncomfortable seeing first-class-flying, luxury-hotel-staying desk jockeys demeaning people who work on their feet all day for relatively low wages. It’s classless. And, as CW points out, it’s easy to apply the same insult-by-anecdote approach to any occupation.

    Gary’s not the worst offender in the travel blogging world, but it’s still tiresome. And ineffective — the cheap shots against the uniformed personnel turn what could be a substantive policy discussion into a “who’s side are you on” argument.

  5. Completely agree with the above 3 commenters and more. I’m certainly no huge fan of the TSA, but I clearly recall the system of private screeners that was in place before it had all the same problems times 100. At least now there’s some general consistency from airport to airport versus the old version of “depends on where you are.” But regardless of our differing opinions, if I want political commentary, I’ll go to a political blog. Of course, it’s your blog and you can write what you like. But it’s my mouse and I can start clicking elsewhere to avoid your endless TSA whining.

  6. Gary – Could you remind us again of your security-related credentials? Thank you. Just trying to determine the grounding for your strong opinions.

  7. I don’t have problems with TSA agents at LAX or SFO. But my negative perceptions toward them arose from experiences at O’Hare airport, both departure and arrival trips, that I will never intend to set foot or in transit there again.When you empower people who lack skills, adequate reasoning and education, and cultural experiences and put them on front line to deal with citizens of the world who have different religions, skin colors and cultures, you encourage friction and prejudice. TSA agents’ responsibilities are to provide security and promote tourism for the USA. They must be capable to separate theories from realities, just the same way in all other professions. My mom was asked” How long do you stay in CA and how do I do you will go back home?”. No elderly folks who live in developed countries want to stay here indefinitely because they have superior social & healthcare systems and a vast support system at home. I was asked” You became a citizen for three years without getting a US passpport and travel overseas?”. As far as I know, Bush Jr. did not travel overseas before he ran for his first presidential election. No small wonder the world had such a low perception of the US under his administration. My daughter was asked ” You wore glasses in the passport but not now.Why?” It was irrelevant. She was 10 when applying for the passport and she was 15 when we were at O’Hare.She changed to contact lenses and she had grown in five years. My biggest problem with them was when they let the white male pass thorough security line without opening his laptop or searching his bags but took an opposite approach with us, three East Asian females. I profile people but won’t act out unless people prove otherwise. When you crossed the Israelis and West Bank/ Jericho border in mid 1990s, you’d feel the same. We all know who brought the US and the world economy into recession. And what about those who betrayed the US on espionage and compromised US national security.

  8. I had the chance to use A security at DIA this week with the new dog sniff pass, and I loved it a quick sniff while walking up and then you get to go thru with shoes on, laptop in bag and no nude -o-scan,

    So I really hope it stays in place, since for some reason I always have to get patted down to travel thru the body scan- false positive

  9. Gary,

    Please keep the disdain for TSA coming. I abhor them, both for their nuisance in practical terms and for the very principle that they exist. Moreover, I am so sick of the spineless and lazy attitude that “everybody is just doing their job.” It might sometimes being boring, but it’s not mean spirited or unempathetic to be vocal about your dislike for them. Don’t submit your voice to the machine. Being vocal is the just thing to do, and just about the only avenue you have other than getting naked like that guy in Portland.

    Long time fan,

  10. I just hope they permit those with severe dog allergies (I am one of them) to opt out of this. Will take machines any day over a severe asthma attack.

  11. Hmmm…. Apparently lots of TSA agents commenting here today. 😀

    I find most TSA agents to be every bit as hard working, knowledgeable and compassionate as most folks working the counter at the Post office and DMV 🙁

  12. Not tiring to me. I enjoy the sign off of the TSA posts and some of my favorite on the blog.

  13. Security is a pain, wherever. Dogs are not reliable, and that police always want to violate individual rights, as rights are always obstacles to police priorities.

  14. The science behind dogs is remarkably good for bomb detection. When I went to interview the Secretary of State, a dog sniffed my camera case, and off I went. No pat down, no swabbing, just the dog. Dogs are almost the exclusive safety mechanism for Amtrak and just before VP Biden boards an Acela, a dog is used to sweep the train. If they’re good enough for Secret Service, they’re good enough for TSA. I’ve often argued that a dog should be at every TSA checkpoint, in lieu of NOSs. They’re a hell of a lot cheaper, and frankly, a hell of a lot more reliable.

  15. Gary your info about the capabilities of detection dogs is way off. Those studies cited had major flaws and you would do well to read more than the abstract. If you want to pursuit the clearance necessary to read the DOD’s studies on the dogs you will find the reason the Dogs are still employed.
    As for the TSA they are just like any other gov’t agency some good some bad
    Who cares about nude o scopes is everyone so shy, is everyone’s body image that bad?

  16. I will not be going to the US ever again after an incident in 2002 when my nail clippers were confiscated and thrown onto a pile, which looked like a mini-Auschwitz with its heaps of glasses. So I have no personal interest in the changes.

    However, I do have an opinion. And it is that abou 6% people are alergic to hair of domestic animals (not necessarily also wild animals), specifically primarily cats and dogs. To force them to endure being sniffed by a beast is abhorrent.

  17. CW,
    No, you should not apply that logic to University administrators.

    1) University administrators are not violating Constitutional rights every minute of the day.

    2) University administrators are not granted immunity for their sexual assault every minute of the day.

    3) University administrators aren’t stealing, assaulting, detaining without probable cause under the color of authority.

    It’s completely appropriate to hold these “officers” to a higher standard than University administrators, who are not given “super powers” by the government.

    Julian, when you throw out numbers like “100 times”, you’d better have the data to back it up. I guarantee that you don’t.

  18. I’m certainly no expert but I’m pretty sure a bomb-sniffing dog could care less about pot. I think they are trained to detect very specific scents, aren’t they? Similarly, a drug-sniffing dog would probably miss the scent of explosives.

    I’d rather be sniffed by a beagle than patted down by a human. But I must admit I prefer beagles to people, generally speaking, so I am biased.

  19. @Aviators, your argument sounds like one better directed at the Supreme Court than at me since you are clearly the preeminent constitutional scholar of our era. But last I checked, TSA agents were employed in a legally recognized profession and thus my argument stands.

  20. Cw,
    Actually my argument was only regarding your likening the behavior of the TSA to a University administrator. I was just pointing out why you shouldn’t make that likening, and why the TSOs should be held to a higher standard. There are many legally recognized professions that are held to a higher standard than others. There are actually laws about abusing the color of authority, and they don’t apply to University administrators.

    It so happens that I *do* have an issue with the Federal Courts’ rulings regarding the TSA, but that’s not what I’m talking about here.

  21. TSA employees, you’re no better than the disgusting organization for which you work. “Just doing the job” is never a defense. Ever.

    Please go away and let those that actually need to travel enjoy this blog. Nobody cares what you have to say.

  22. @Aviators, that’s fine then. Change it to doctors and then re run the search. You will see plenty of bad behavior. My sole point is that gary’s schtick where he is somehow purporting that members of this profession are more corrupt than those of others has no grounding in any statistically valid methodology.

  23. And @ Felix, while the suggestion that those questioning gary’s post might be TSA agents is a funny joke (and seeing that it came from Robert Hanson’s mouth, it really is a joke), has it ever crossed your mind that there may be perfectly reasonable people with a different opinion than you?

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