I’ll Fly Away

This past weekend was the busiest air travel weekend in the United States, because of the Thanksgiving holidays, and there’s been a lot of talk about the new security procedures put in place by the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA). Here’s a round-up of some links, along with some thoughts on the whole mess. Mostly, I’m just glad I didn’t have to fly this weekend.

Maybe you’ve heard the story of Stacey Armato, a woman who was held captive by the TSA as revenge for her complaint against them? [via] I recommend you watch the entire video and read the commentary, although it mostly just served to make me angry.

Some have rushed to say that breast milk isn’t affected by these low-level x-rays, that the scans employed at airports don’t pose a health risk to the child who will eventually drink the milk, and that Armato had no cause to require the alternate screening. That may very well be, but it’s not the issue. The issue is, the TSA has made breast milk an exception, along with other “medication and related supplies” and done so in their publicly available guidelines for travelers. But when a woman asked them politely to abide by those guidelines, which she had printed out for them, they refused. When she insisted, they elected to exact revenge on her the next time she came through their security checkpoint, by again refusing, by threatening to have her arrested, and then by using intimidation tactics until she missed her flight. This may be an isolated incident, more mismanagement at the Phoenix airport than a systemic problem in the TSA. But it is indicative of the general attitude apparent in the TSA, the disregard or unfamiliarity their day-to-day employees have with their own organizations’ guidelines, and the general “do as you’re told or you’ll be lucky if all that happens is you miss your flight” mentality that guides them, with little if any genuine oversight.

Some people have also rushed to say, “hey, the TSA has never been anything but professional to me…” Which has to be one of the worst arguments ever. It proves only just that, and nothing else. I haven’t seen widespread abuse, so widespread abuse must not exist. I don’t have a problem with the new security measures, so everyone else must be over-reacting. Just because a small percentage of TSA workers have been nice to me, and they’re only doing a job, that does not mean they should be given carte blanche to do whatever they want.

In linking to that piece by Michael Kinsley, Mark Evanier writes:

I’ve long assumed that the reason they search old ladies and folks in wheelchairs and nine-year-old girls is that they think while those folks are surely not terrorists, some terrorist might have the idea to hide or plant a weapon on one of those folks, then reclaim it once they’re past the security checkpoint. It’s not that they think Grandma will knowingly have a gun in her purse but that it wouldn’t be that hard for someone else to stash one in there when she wasn’t looking.

Whereas I think it’s more likely they check little old ladies and people with children more often simply because those people are less likely to make a fuss.

Roger Ebert also acknowledges most of the TSA workers we see at airports are just average folks, looking for “a good job in these hard times of high unemployment.” They’re not evil. But that doesn’t mean we don’t ever draw the line at what they’re allowed to do:

Are we doomed to submit to humiliation every time we fly? Perhaps you can argue that the terrorists have won a victory just because of the cost and nuisance of airport security. Not exactly. They have generated vast numbers of jobs for security agents, and inspired millions of dollars in contracts for scanning machines and so forth. Indeed companies have spent frtunes to lobby for their machines to be required. One of the big supporters of scanners is Michael Chertoff. Under his face on the news it always says, “Former U.S. Homeland Security chief.” It should say, “Board Member of Companies Selling Scanners.”

I’d like to think, like Christopher Bellavita seems to want to, that all of this grumbling about the TSA, its new full-body scans and invasive pat-downs, was building to something, that it really does mark “the beginning of the end of complacency.” Because I agree with Bellavita that:

[i]t is now apparent to me that in the haste to ensure compliance with procedures that are inconsistent if not inarticulable, TSA has hastened the likelihood of failure. If we do not insist that TSA work to create articulable policies that make sense, procedures that are explicit and consistent and training that supports both, then we are complicit in what will inevitably be an ultimate compromise of TSA.

That compromise may come in the form of terrorist attack, or it may come in the form of a collapse of public support. Either or both are inevitable. Either or both are preventable. [via]

But I’m not so sure. The TSA has already exempted politicians from the new procedures, and President Obama is again displaying an unfortunate lack of spine when it comes to this and other important issues. It’s one thing to “understand our frustrations,” and I certainly don’t expect nothing to be done to ensure airport security. But the TSA isn’t doing that; it’s engaging in security theater and intimidation and sometimes borderline criminal activity, and that’s not just frustration at long lines and having to take our shoes off talking, Mr. President.

Maybe you’re wondering: has the TSA ever caught a terrorist? The short answer is: almost certainly not. [via]

At least Jet Blue hasn’t hired Steven Slater back.