TSA Failure: Terrorists with Pilots Licenses


The New York Times reported another TSA failure today.  A man on the FBI’s most wanted list has been able to keep his pilots license and try to sell his old plane online:

With such a straightforward match, David M. Schiffer, president of Safe Banking Systems, said it was “highly unlikely” that, despite assurances in June, the Transportation Security Administration was matching the publicly available F.B.I. list with the publicly available F.A.A. list.

Classic TSA – make me take off my flip flops and take all of my electronics out of their cases (a five minute ordeal for a geek like me), but let known terrorists keep their pilot licenses.

TSA Failure: Leaving Orange County

View down the Southern California coast

View down the Southern California coast

My departure out of of John Wayne in the predawn hours of Saturday made me even angrier at the TSA than I’m used to getting.  The couple in front of accidentally messed up their boarding passes, but the TSA personnel needlessly made a huge fiasco out of it at two different stages of the checkpoint.

An agent (I use agent instead of the TSA’s preferred Transportation Security Officer because these agents are not actually sworn peace officers) at the entrance to the screening area told the woman that she had to go back to the ticket counters to get  a boarding pass for her flight from Orange County to Atlanta.  She only had a boarding pass from Atlanta to Washington, D.C., while the man carried one for the Orange County to Atlanta leg.  I’m sure it happens everyday that people leave one or more of their set of boarding passes at the ticket counters.  In this case, it was a waste of time for the woman to have to go back and retrieve the additional boarding passes when it was abundantly clear that the couple were traveling on a legitimate itinerary.  It makes air travel no safer to waste peoples’ time in making them obtain duplicate information.

The man continued through the lines to the metal detector.  Upon passing through, the agent inspecting boarding passes said “This isn’t your name, is it?  Danielle?”  It turned out that he had been carrying his wife’s boarding pass for the first segment of their trip.   The fact that he had been allowed to proceed to the metal detector of course triggered a security breach.  One of the agents announced “Seven-November-One, wait no, Seven-November-Two !”, which presumably was a top-secret Homeland Security code for “one of our agents screwed up and read ‘Daniel’ instead of ‘Danielle’ on a boarding pass, and now it’s time for us to hold all these other passengers up and fire the agent at the front of the line.”  Whatever purpose the top-secret code had was eliminated as the agent sitting at the X-Ray, whom I will call Agent Crassa, fully explained the details and consequences of the security breach.  Two of the three TSA agents working the X-Ray machine I was at then had to escort the man back out of security.  Various passengers commented on how asinine it was for him to be escorted out of security, but we were reprimanded and informed that “It was for our own safety.” It makes air travel no safer to use needless “codes” or to require multiple agents to their stations and escort someone who is clearly not a threat back to the end of the line.

While I was waiting in line for the metal detector, one of the agents announced that they would be scanning all electronics, so we would need to remove all of our electronics from carry-on baggage to pass it through the X-Ray machine.  Anyone who knows me remotely well would know that removing all of my electronics from all of their containers would be about a ten-minute long process.  So, I did as I normally do when I’m told to remove all video cameras, large electronics, and laptops, and only took out my laptop.  After agent Crassa told me that I would need to unpack everything, I requested that someone do a manual search, since it would take less time.  She muttered something incoherent and I went through the metal detector.  She then asked the agent working at the end of the X-Ray machine conveyor belt to “come over here and unpack this guy’s electronics, because he’s refusing to do it himself.”  The agent then went to the other side of the metal detector, pulled out my DV cassette case, camera case, and removable hard drive case to go through the metal detector.  She asked Agent Crassa “Is this all you need?”  Agent Crassa replied “yeah, it’s just those tapes and adapters left in there,” loud enough for the rest of the line to hear.  It should be noted that the actual electronics were not removed from their cases, so there was actually no advantage to screening them separately.  It would have been “more secure” if someone had just looked through the items manually, as I had requested.  Instead, some electronics (e.g. power adapters) were not removed, some non-electronics (e.g. a mini-tripod) were, and the contents of my bag were announced to all of the other passengers in the line.  It makes air travel no safer to decline manual searches when travelers request them or to announce the contents of travelers’ bags to other passengers.

A summary of these complaints has been submitted to the TSA in the hopes that their abysmal service will improve.  I doubt I will receive a response.  I do think it’s important to not blame the TSA agents for all of this incompetence and unprofessionalism.  One of the agents was actually very helpful in helping me find my drivers license after a passenger behind me, angered by all the delays, threw his plastic bin onto my belongings.  The agents are doing their job in trying to follow prescribed procedures, even if these procedures are time-wasting bureaucratic routines supporting a culture of irrational fear and concomitant mindless obedience that do nothing to enhance safety.

As airline pilot Patrick Smith writes in Salon’s “Ask a Pilot”,

[W]e should hardly be surprised, perhaps, at the Frankenstein monster now before us. Propped up by a culture of fear, TSA has become a bureaucracy with too much power and little accountability. It almost makes you wonder if the Department of Homeland Security made a conscious decision to present bureaucratic incompetence and arrogance as the public face of TSA…

The only pleasant things that saved the morning for me were watching a flock of Canada geese flying directly over a US Air A320 while waiting on the tarmac and the clear skies that allowed me to see Downtown Los Angeles and Mexico after takeoff.

TSA Failure: My Dad, the Terrorist


My dad was unable to checkin online for his flight out of Philadelphia.  He apparently was placed on the government’s no-fly list over a year ago.  He requested that the TSA clear up the mistake, and after months of waiting, he receieved a response that the issue had been sorted out.  Since then, it’s been hit-or-miss whether he is permitted to checkin online or not.  If the government is going to subject citizens to inconvenient restrictions such as these, they should at least be consistent.

Las Vegas

Fountains at the Bellagio

Fountains at the Bellagio

I had a great time in Las Vegas for the 2008 International Writing Centers Association and National Conference on Peer Tutoring in Writing joint conference.  A fellow Writing Associate and I presented a poster of some research we have done on diversity in Swarthmore’s Writing Center.  We went to a great workshop on anti-racist work in the writing center and heard a great keynote address by Nancy Grimm, a scholar whose work we drew on.  I also got to meet and hang out with some writing consultants from the Harvey Mudd Writing Center.  It was quite fun, and Halloween on the strip was grotesquely intriguing.  Of course, the TSA had to do their part in dampening the fun.  Apparently, the Las Vegas snow globe that one of my travelmates bought for her niece was too much of a threat to homeland security to pass through the security checkpoint.

My first destination was the monorail station, of course

My first destination was the monorail station, of course


Lights and confusion

Our band of engineers was fascinated by the spiral escalators

Our band of engineers was fascinated by the spiral escalators

Pirate seductresses singing "let's go all the way"

Pirate seductresses singing "let's go all the way"

Fix the TSA

Airline travel used to be one of my favorite adventures.  Now I hate it, thanks largely to the TSA.  So in honor of the eight flights myself and members of my family have taken in the last five days, a rant about the TSA.

You would think, nearly seven years after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, that TSA would have gotten its act together. Not just tactically, but functionally. Take a look at the typical checkpoint. There are people yelling, bags falling, trash bins overflowing with water bottles. There’s nowhere to stand, nowhere to move. It’s a jury-rigged circus.

But we should hardly be surprised, perhaps, at the Frankenstein monster now before us. Propped up by a culture of fear, TSA has become a bureaucracy with too much power and little accountability. It almost makes you wonder if the Department of Homeland Security made a conscious decision to present bureaucratic incompetence and arrogance as the public face of TSA, hoping that people would then raise enough of a fuss that it could be turned over to the likes of Halliburton. (Funny, how despite this administration’s eagerness to outsource anything and everything, it’s kept its governmental talons wrapped snugly around TSA.)