New Security Procedures for Flying to the U.S. are Stupid

The TSA has had employees roaming the airports watching passengers, using their spidey senses to figure out who might be a terrorist.

Four years ago the Department of Homeland Security’s Inspector General concluded that the TSA’s behavior detection efforts didn’t work and racially profiled. I’ve argued that TSA literally has no science in its files to support its efforts. And the government agrees.

Indeed the ‘checklist’ they use considers criticism of the TSA to be a sign you’re a terrorist.

Now they’re rolling out behavior detection worldwide. And they’re bringing back other silly ideas as well.

That’s why I even hesitated to put the word security in the title of this post, that’s the word used by the people who put on the farce but the new procedures really do nothing whatsoever to promote security.

Passengers bound for the US are now interrogated as part of the check-in process. This isn’t entirely new, it was in place for Paris Charles de Gaulle earlier in the year. But it’s spread.

  • The questions are stupid. Domestically airlines no longer ask us have we packed our bags ourselves and have our bags been outside of our possession because those questions were stupid they never actually assisted in any way with protecting planes or passengers. After enough years even the government figured out those questions didn’t get us anything, and they stopped asking. Now those questions are back, indeed I was asked them myself before being permitted to board a flight from Hong Kong to the U.S. on Saturday.

    Here’s the head of the TSA when the questions were eliminated in 2002,

    Ticket agents have been required for the last 16 years to ask passengers two questions: “Has anyone unknown to you asked you to carry an item on this flight?” and “Have any of the items you are traveling with been out of your immediate control since the time you packed them?”

    The questions are being phased out because they create a hassle and have never prevented a bombing or hijacking, James Loy, head of the Transportation Security Administration, said Wednesday.

    “Over the years, they have lost whatever original value they contributed and can now be safely eliminated,” Loy said.

  • Behavior detection questions are worse. What did you do on your vacation? What do you do for a living? What do you do when you’re alone with your wife? They don’t care about your answers, they care about how you answer — whether you stammer or stretch to think of a story or whether answers come naturally. But the government already revealed this year that there is absolutely no science behind its behavior detection programs.

Asking what you do when you’re alone with your wife (or perhaps when you’re alone and haven’t seen your wife in awhile) isn’t going to reveal who is or is not a terrorist. It’s going to slow down airports. It’s going to divert resources from activities that actually could improve safety.

However the TSA has also admitted they have essentially no mechanism in place to evaluate relative effectiveness of different security techniques, falling back on “layers of security” to claim that it all matters — when the point is that resources need to be directed to where they make the most difference since we cannot have perfect security. We don’t make everyone fly naked after cavity searches.

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, 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. Leaving Paris CDG bound for CLT on AS, the check-in agent spent 10minutes asking me how I care for stroke patients in Neuro Intensive Care.

  2. Experienced this last week in Amsterdam. Standing in a line 8 people deep and watching the interrogator engage in a 4-6 minute conversation about lifestyle and travel experiences with each person. Stupidest thing I’ve seen in the name of “security”. Added 30 minutes to the checkin process overall. Would have been nice to use the lounge for a cup of coffee but instead I spent all of my available time in line watching the pretend investigator screen everyone.

  3. The UK, Israel, etc. have been doing this for a long time, even on transfer traffic. Obviously the questions and answers aren’t the purpose of the screening it’s your reactions or physical reactions.

    It does remind me of the scene in the old Clint Eastwood Firefox movie where the USSR immigration folks ask him a bunch of questions at the airport before they allow him entry.

    Most of this doesn’t bother me much as there is not really that much to do at the airport anyway. It’s just part of “Security Theater”

  4. The questions were useless and only served to irritate me as I just wanted to check in and ask some questions about moving seats, so kept talking to my travel partner to then ask for us both. The agent demanded my attention about what I did for work… ‘I consult for companies and find inefficient, useless things they do that they could stop doing and save money, much like this interview.’ I told her to look through my passport, the 20+ countries’ visas, the back cover full of security stickers, the fact I’m in the Priority line with OneWorld Emerald status, and to re-think if her efforts here are really the best use of resources. Interview over. No further questions.

  5. Last week in ICN for a Korean Air flight to ORD. There was an airport agent randomly selecting people just before entering the ramp to board the aircraft (this is after showing gate agent boarding pass and passport). There was a station set up where 2 other agents were inspecting bags and conducting interviews.

    Personally, I felt it was all for show.

  6. @Danin – but these screeners don’t get sufficient training, and the training they do get isn’t based in any sound science, for them to be able to identify behaviors that will correlate with risk. The Israeli model simply doesn’t scale.

  7. Flew BA India-LHR-USA yesterday — wasn’t asked a single question at any point during the process.

    Noticed nothing different than how it was before the current round of hysteria.

  8. Just another wasteful government policy that had good intentions but applied idiotically like other rules in different industries that protect no one and waste everyone’s valuable time and money. In the mortgage and real estate industry for example there are several idiotic government imposed rules that benefit no one at all and force the transaction to take longer.

  9. I’m with Danin. Granted, the TSA has not reached the sophistication of the Israeli security authorities, but the principle is sound. A liar or a person with something to hide is likely to become frustrated or even flustered with having to make up more & more BS that does not contradict his original statements.

  10. “The UK, Israel, etc. have been doing this for a long time, even on transfer traffic.”

    Which is why I won’t fly there. Sorry, my vacation doesn’t need to begin with the most dumb ridiculous pointless meaningless interrogation.

    P.S. flew to Scotland from Ireland this summer and was thrilled there is no U.K. Immigration when going this way … avoided the ridiculous humiliating questions

  11. B1BomberVB,

    The “principle” of this approach is sound how? It’s only sound if the purpose is to put on a dog and pony show to make people encounter more being done in the name of “security” but generally not improving the security outcome one iota if the threat is physical safety of the persons on the plane and of the planes.

    I had Israeli screeners ask me these ridiculous questions and I managed to repeatedly pull their leg without them even having a clue that my answers were misleading in one or more ways if the questioning took longer than a few seconds. Every second they waste asking questions is a second where they could have been looking at persons and items for contraband weapons, explosives and incendiaries.

  12. Time to start coming up with some entertaining stories, I suppose. Is it working both ways? The last 20 times or so I’ve flown to the EU it’s just been a quick passport check at immigration. Today, several questions about my plans and itinerary.

    Usual security theatre. The really bad guys would get thorough training in how to respond, whlie the first time flyer will get nervous, and the frequent traveler will betray exasperation at the inaninity of it all.

  13. Similar experience last werk leaving Zurich (on a very tight connection from Porto) for the U.S. My wife was asked where we’d woken up that morning. My mother was asked about her favorite experience on the trip. I was asked what I do for a living, where I work, and how long I’d worked there.

  14. Flew from Munich to Washington DC last week on Lufthansa and saw no evidence of any new security procedures. The only annoyance was the additional passport check before entering the gate area, but no questions were asked of any of the passengers. My passport passed muster three different times: at the check-in counter, at passport control, and at the gate area.

  15. @ Danin and @ B1BomberVB:

    The Israelis who conduct these interviews are actually trained … that’s a big item to just gloss over. I agree that the Israelis know what they’re doing WRT aviation security … but that doesn’t mean blindly following the same tactics without the training to actually implement it effectively is sound policy.

    No idea about the Brits…

  16. Got this entering the gate area this August while flying out of Amsterdam. The questions were stupid, and the guy was asking for documentation of our hotel stays in the EU which we didn’t have (why would you keep them?). My wife is more respectful of authority than I am and she really didn’t like it. I was close to just telling the guy off, but didn’t want to get tossed from the flight.

  17. I think this is a Republican thing. We (passengers) were terrorized under Cheney. So we will be terrorized again under Trump. Until he bans foreign travel all together.

  18. I think its a Democrat thing. Ever since Bill Clinton, the govt. thinks we’re all a bunch of suckers.
    And want to take our money so they can spend it. On bringing people in to the US to take jobs away from citizens.

  19. On recent return trip from Oslo, got rerouted through DeGaul. When boarding the Paris to JFK flight, my wife was pulled out and sent to a table past the gate check personnel and adjacent to the walkway to the plane. They searched her purse, asked about a benign item, then proceeded to talk amoungst themselves for five minutes. I stood a few feet away as the flight was boarding a few feet away. They finally let her go (flight in final boarding stage). But she hard to repackage her purse and get her boarding pass back from them. I might mention that I’m retired military and both of us are in our 60’s.

  20. All the above suggest why people like me are not remotely interested in putting up with such shit. The US and its TSA can protect whoever it is from whatever form of terrorism it deems necessary. That’s fine by me, but be fucked if I am going to pay to be asked such stupid questions. My suggestion is why don’t they introduce random water-boarding and see what they can come up with. I am glad I do not live in a world of fear and paranoia even if I have to live with the Generals who oversee constraints on civil society in Thailand. I don’t dislike Americans or America but what is being described here is “over-kill”……

  21. Even in the US the process is dumbing down. Leaving Palm Springs, TSA Pre card in hand, I was told I was a random electronics check. The guy took my phone, wiped it and put the wipe in the machine that has probably never detected anything. He never even turned it on which would seem like a netter test than trying to detect a chemical or whatever it is that they were doing.
    They also took my wife’s shoes (she is also TSA Pre) and we wasted time waiting for those slipper like shoes to appear.
    The process might just reflect the dumbing down, in general, in DC?

  22. Dear B1BomberVB, your claim is backed by zero science and completely without merit. It’s nig-nogs like you that create problems for the rest of us by destroying our personal liberty and freedoms.

  23. These are not stupid questions, as was pointed out above, countries that actually know how to do security, like Israel, have been using them for years. Profiling isn’t bad either, the TSA doesn’t profile, that’s the problem. How ridiculous it is that someone can have TSA Pre, Clear, a top secret clearance and then get selected for further screening 50% of the time, this is in the lane specifically designated for TSA Pre, i.e. people who have been pre-screened. Behavior detection is a brilliant idea, much better than anything else that’s being done. Also the issue isn’t the TSA, rather it’s the fact that other countries don’t have security that meets the TSA standards. If they did then security would be no different from going through domestic security.

  24. Bruce, your freedom disappeared decades ago. Welcome to the 21st century. By the way what freedom are you scared about? The freedom to not be murdered?

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