TSA to Address Incompetence with Longer Lines
Trips to the airport will now be even more fun.
The Transportation Security Agency failed to detect 67 out of 70 fake explosives and weapons in a recent audit, so they’re going to screw over the paying customer.
POLITICO (“TSA’s response to criticism: Longer airport lines“):
The Transportation Security Administration has a new strategy for improving its woeful performance in catching airport security threats — and it will likely mean longer lines and more government bucks.
A month after the TSA was embarrassed by its almost-total failure in a covert security audit, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson has ordered the agency to pursue an improvement plan that will require more hand-wanding of passengers, more use of bomb-sniffing dogs and more random testing of luggage and travelers for traces of explosives. It will also consider reducing travelers’ chances of being sent through the expedited PreCheck lines at airports.
Increased reliance on PreCheck is just one strategy TSA has used to become slimmer and swifter in the past few years, drawing buckets of praise from a Congress that’s otherwise largely criticized the agency. It has also relied more on technology like body-scanners and analyses of specific travelers’ risks while leaning less on labor-intensive methods like pat-downs, allowing the TSA to save manpower costs and shrink its workforce.
But then came the leak of a still-classified inspector general report in June, which found that TSA agents had failed to find fake explosives and weapons 67 out of 70 times during covert testing — and that the screening technology often just doesn’t work. The 96-percent failure rate drew sharp rebukes from Capitol Hill, led to the immediate ouster of then-acting Administrator Melvin Carraway and caused much shuttle diplomacy between lawmakers and the agency’s top brass.
Now the response threatens to gum up airport checkpoints.
“In light of the 96 percent failure, they’re probably going to slow things down,” House Homeland Security Chairman Mike McCaul (R-Texas) acknowledged in an interview. He added that “the technology failure was a big part of the problem” and that the DHS inspector general pointed to the agency’s policy of funneling travelers from regular security lines through the less-intensive PreCheck queues as one of the “big weaknesses.”
Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition, agreed that air passengers will probably feel the impact of the latest changes. “Things are going to slow down, and consumers are going to get increasingly frustrated,” he said.
Johnson said this month that he had ordered TSA to start doing more manual screening, such as using handheld metal detectors and doing more random tests for trace explosives, and to take a second look at the agency’s policy of selectively diverting non-vetted travelers into the PreCheck lanes.
Why they would put non-vetted passengers through PreCheck lines to begin with is baffling. Not only does that defeat the entire purpose of the program—to allow them to concentrate on people who haven’t gone through extensive background checks—but it adds insult to injury by lengthening the Pre lines that people have gone through the time and expense of qualifying for precisely so that they can go through the faster lines. Apparently, it was a marketing ploy:
The main problem, many lawmakers say, is TSA’s “managed inclusion” policy of giving that special treatment to travelers who haven’t gone through the program’s vetting process. To enroll in PreCheck, passengers must provide fingerprints, undergo a background check and pay an $85 fee.
One purpose of steering non-enrolled passengers into the PreCheck lanes has been to give travelers a taste of what life could be like if they signed up for the expedited screening program, said David Inserra, a homeland security policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation. It also makes more efficient use of TSA’s screeners when the speedier lines are drastically shorter than the regular queues.
“You’ve got these people working these lines, and sometimes they’re going to be doing nothing, or we can use them for something,” Inserra said. “But that’s not really a good security mindset. That’s really an efficiency mindset.”
Yeah, no kidding, Sherlock.
Oh, and this is rich. Remember the controversy over the body scanning-machines that allow strangers to look at your body parts?
Because the report is still classified, the agency hasn’t disclosed exactly which types of equipment were involved or how they failed. But McCaul and Rice identified them as the millimeter-wave body scanners, made by L-3 Communications Corp., that force passengers to pose inside a booth with their arms raised. The machines are supposed to find both “metallic and nonmetallic” objects hidden under passengers’ clothing, including guns and explosives, and “can detect a wide range of threats to transportation security in a matter of seconds,” TSA boasts on its website.
McCaul said his panel is looking into how much of the failure rate can be attributed to technology issues versus human error. He plans a hearing on the issue this month with testimony from new TSA Administrator Peter Neffenger, who assumed his post July 6 after being confirmed by the Senate.
Otherwise, though, it’s not obvious what problem we’re trying to solve here. Will bomb-sniffing dogs be better able to ferret out fake bombs than TSA agents? How many actual bombs and guns are making it through screening now?
And, to the extent that we have a real problem with people carrying dangerous items onto the plane—for what purpose, I don’t know, given that cockpit doors have been hardened to thwart hijacking attempts—wouldn’t it make more sense to eliminate most of the baggage going on board? Simply require everyone to check their bags, limiting them to purses, briefcases, diaper bags, and the like. That would radically streamline the screening process by narrowing the search to far fewer and smaller bags.
If I were a terrorist intent on wreaking havoc on American aviation, you know what I’d blow up? The airport security line.
Why go to the bother of trying to smuggle explosives on board an aircraft when you can just take four suitcases, filled them full with bombs, and then roll them right into the middle of a crowded, snaking airport security line, packed with hundreds of vulnerable passengers herded together as if in a pen, all put in place for you by the TSA? And you don’t even have to sneak anything in — you carry it all in openly, before the X-ray machines.
Do that three, four times and you’ve shut down commercial aviation.
What are they going to do then, make a security line to get onto the security line?
@Rafer Janders: I’ve thought that for years. I’m really surprised we don’t get Israel-style attacks in crowded public places.
Bush gets no credit for being smart because of the brush-cutting, good ‘ole boy persona he carefully crafted – but the TSA was a brilliant expansion of government, and it was done with the long-view in mind.
He knew there would continue to be security breaches and that the agency in charge would be blamed. It is classic Reagan-style government – set up the agency for failure then point out how government is the problem. Typically they set up the agency with inadequate funding (see IRS) but they were much more clever in this instance. In the meantime he consolidated the power of several agencies into one and expanded his empire.
FWIW, I’ve traveled in a number of countries where they take about twenty people at a time, swab everyone’s carryons for explosive residue, but then put all the swabs at once in a detector. Basically 20 of you go through in a group, then wait only the time it takes to do one scan. I assume if someone tests positive it would be an added inconvenience to everyone as they would have to be tested one by one. I’ve been through such lines a half dozen times or more and that hasn’t happened yet.
Let me see, the TSA has 3 mandates:
#1: Find all, and I mean ALL, bombs/explosive/incendiary devices, firearms, weapons of any kind and anything else that might possibly be used as a weapon.
#2: Don’t inconvenience any one ever and you damn well better not cost airlines any profits,
#3: Do it for free, or failing that do it for less than is humanly possible ’cause God forbid we might have to raise taxes or cut Defense spending.
Right after 9/11 #1 was paramount. In the years since, the image of the twin towers coming down has receded in the rearview mirror and #2 took over and then austerity became all the rage in Washington and now #3 is of utmost importance. But wait! We still want 100% security and 0% inconvenience!!!!
James, not even Jesus could pull off this miracle.
Carry-on bags are essential for people traveling with lots of breakable equipment like camera gear or external hard drives. Having to check those bags would cost those travelers a lot of grief and money.
Maybe it’s because the actual threat is a couple of orders of magnitude less than it is hyped to be?
@DrDaveT: Really??? Why I never… 😉
My family got Nexus cards a couple of years ago, which was a fairly time consuming exercise. The PreCheck line is a good bonus for having it, except the times you get stuck in line behind someone who has been waved over from the regular line and is trying to take a tool kit on the plane in their carry on.
I don’t fly that much anymore but when I do it’s first class. I have never been vetted for PreCheck but got to go through it anyway because I was flying 1st class. Always seemed strange to me.
I’m Executive Platinum with American and recently dropped from Diamond to Platinum with Delta. I travel on average more than 150K miles per year. I have gone through the rigorous expense and time the various procedures for Global Entry (GOES) and TSA Pre-Check (TSAPre). I travel so much that I know the TSA people by their first names at LAX. 9 months a year, I’m on the same Friday night and Sunday night flights.
My pet peeve is being in THAT line and seeing travelers (and their families) who are obviously not frequent travelers, who have no idea how to get through a security line, in the Pre-Check line. Here’s what I’ve learned:
1. Most people are morons. Yeah, that includes most of you when it comes to Airport Security. If there is a sign that says “Take your computer out of your carry-on”, don’t ask “Do I need to take my computer out of my carry-on?”
2. Most TSA Agents are morons. If they weren’t morons, they wouldn’t be TSA Agents. They’re police without the gun or badge, but with the power to do more damage to your future flying plans than anyone else.
3. TSA-Pre, when it stated, was a great idea. Now, they’ve just bastardized it, and let anyone apply, without the rigorous background check I had to go through 6 years ago.
4. See #2
5. See #1
@OzarkHillbilly: I agree that much of the anger at TSA is better directed at Congress. Still, there’s a lot of security theater going on that does little to address the (very low) threat of terrorism aboard flights while simultaneously inconveniencing everyone and costing money. So, they’re failing at all three tasks to give the appearance of succeeding at the first.
@Liz: We could carve out exceptions for exceptional cases. This would apply to maybe 2-3 passengers per flight. But allowing everyone to carry on those stupid roller bags that barely fit into the overhead so they don’t have to wait 5 minutes at the other side really gums up the security system and boarding/exiting process.
@DrDaveT: Well, sure. But the threat isn’t zero. If your intention is to terrorize by killing a large number of people and garnering attention for your cause, softer targets just make more sense. Sure, bombing the Boston Marathon gets you on TV. But so would bombing the Mall of America—and it’s easier.
Since (a) we don’t get those types of attacks, and (b) those types of attacks would be laughably easy to pull of, we have to conclude that (c) the number of people actually motivated and capable enough to carry out those sorts of attacks is very small.
Agreed. The situation reminds me of the revenue-enhancing ability to pay your way into carpool lanes (with dynamic pricing!) that has taken the country by storm.
The airline that removes overhead bins from their fleet is the airline that will have my eternal business – no matter what they charge for tickets.
My motto: If your crap can’t fit under the seat in front of you, don’t bring so much crap with you.
Only if the people don’t know how to pack their breakable equipment. In my business, we ROUTINELY ship commercially (UPS, FedEX, etc) and travel with cameras that are much more expensive than any that a citizen would carry. I recently checked a suitcase that had two Angenieux Optimo 24-290mm T2.8 Zoom Lenses inside. Each lens is worth more than $75K and I checked them. Of course, they were each enclosed in high density foam inside a hard-sided, custom made individual Pelican Case. And these two smaller cases were elclosed in more foam INSIDE another full size Pelican case. If you have any equipment that is sensitive and you travel, you should invest in the proper equipment to keep it safe during travels, and you should buy insurance for them.
I’ve seen people traveling with Guitars ON THE PLANE. Get a damn good case for it and check it. Don’t bring it on the f**king plane!!! Same with skateboards. Why they allow a skateboard on a plane makes no sense to me.
Lastly, stop it with the full size pillows. I don’t care if it’s a redeye. It’s not that long a flight and you’re not going to sleep anyway because you’re not used to sleeping with the baby crying the whole flight three rows behind you. So just stop it.
@EddieInCA: I am not a frequent traveler anymore so my experience with PreCheck is this: Invariably, after getting boarding passes, 1 or 2 members of the family are PreChecked and the rest are not. Either one of the children are prechecked and not the other or both parents are but not the kids. Doesn’t make any sense. And we all have DoD ID cards. What the criteria is, I haven’t a clue.
I almost agree with you. One of the greatest irritants is boarding, especially with all the carry-ons. I don’t have any sympathy for the airline since they incentivize carry-ons. I’ve learned to make sure I have only carry-ons and hope they allow me to check them at the gate for free. It works most of the time.
Of course, the inconveniences heaped upon the travelers are intentional so as to create incentives to buy more amenities (e.g. legroom).
Of course the TSA is security theater. The object is not to stop every weapon, but to complicate the planning of terrorist attacks. It’s a bluff, an elaborate bluff, to make it hard for Abdul T. Jihadi in Qatar to figure out how he’s going to get bombs on a plane.
Look at it from Abdul’s point of view. Osama Bin Laden pulled off an amazingly effective attack on 9-11. Now, Abdul can either try a downsized 9-11 and earn shrugs, or he can try to top 9-11. For that he needs a big operation. The bigger the op the more vulnerable it is to western intelligence, so that’s bad enough. But if he figures he’s got only a 70% of getting any single one of his bombs/weapons aboard, and he wants to hit four planes, the odds against his op are getting pretty long.
So in reality the security danger comes less from TSA incompetence and more from the exposure of that incompetence. We just brilliantly called our own bluff. So now Abdul can figure that the odds of getting any bomb aboard are pretty good, and even the odds of multiple bombs are pretty good.
When I hear people complaining about the TSA, I think about the old engineering adage ” fast, cheap, good-pick any two”. That applies to airport security too.What James wants is good, efficient, fast airport security on the cheap. Ain’t happening.
As to carry on luggage, one flight attendant offered the solution to me two years ago. She said they should charge people for carry on luggage, and allow people to check luggage for free. There would have to modifications to such a policy for it to work , but the standard should be that you shouldn’t be carrying on anything more than a backpack,briefcase, messenger bag, or a handbag. Everything else should be checked, and if you want the convenience of carrying your clothes, hairdryers, and whatnot onto the plane , you should pay for that.
@Scott: Airlines have so many ways of incentivizing carry-ons. There’s charging for each piece of checked luggage, the most obvious one. But there’s also gross mishandling of luggage (EddieinCA needs to google “United Breaks Guitars”, modern history’s best revenge video).
Then there’s lost luggage. It’s happened to me at least four times, and once my luggage had been “inspected,” all the containers opened and not properly closed, so my clothing was full of shampoo and toothpaste. I had a student who blamed the rapid disintegration of her marriage on the way that tracking down lost luggage consumed their honeymoon.
I always try to travel carry-on-only and yet I understand what a nuisance this is to everybody on my flight!
Correct. 100% detection or anything above 70% is probably impossible. It simply has to be enough to generate the perception that there is a good chance you will be caught. If a group decides to send 20-30 operatives at once then several will likely get through. But those odds seem to be enough to provide a deterrent. The kicker is that the testing group should probably have lied and publically reported a 78% detection rate. That would drive a call for some improvement but not advertise that the gates are actually wide open. Sometimes FUD is the less expensive way to go.
@James Joyner: Pick a bureaucracy and just sit back and watch the show. They all have theatrics, both private and gov’t. What you are complaining about James, is the human condition. This is what we are. I don’t know why you expect better from humanity when if you just accepted it you could move on to more solvable problems, like how to get your 2 year old to clean up her room.
Well, you’re obviously a lucky dumbass. Multitudes of folks lose their checked luggage. Good luck getting back the value of your lenses if your checked luggage is lost. (You do know there’s a rather low limit of liability for lost luggage, right? Usually south of $5k.)
All well and good, but what’s your plan if the airline doesn’t break your luggage, but just loses it? You can pack it as snugly as you want, but that’s not going to do you any good if it never actually gets there. Sure, insurance may compensate you for the loss of the gear, but that doesn’t compensate you for the loss of the purpose of the trip.
Seriously? Tell that to Panavision, who routinely puts $250K cameras on flights. Tell it to Keslow, Arri, or Sony – who routinely put expensive equipment on flights. If you don’t have insurance on a $75K lens, you shouldn’t have a $75K lens.
That’s very true.
So I guess you’re better have a backup option. Because even if you get your carryon bag through security, and if you don’t have a high enough boarding group, you still might have to check your “carryon” bag. What happens then?
And yet perfectly intelligent people seem somehow to believe that if they complain enough, the TSA will simply go away and everyone will be allowed to board as quickly as ever they can, carrying all the guns and bombs they like.
Then, when someone does fly a plane into the Capitol or the White House the entire country will shrug its shoulders and whistle a happy tune as they get on their next flight.
Right? Because that’s totally how people would react. “Three more planes flown into buildings, who cares so long as I save ten minutes in the security line?”
People are being f–ing idiots about this.
@ktward: @EddieInCA: I’ve flown exactly once in the last 10 years. My luggage was lost. Fortunately the airline found my bags a few days after my arrival. The lady who processed the return of my luggage seemed shocked they found it.
Bonus points on my way back there was a restroom fan fire in a control facility that caused thousands of flights to be canceled in Chicago where I was trying to fly out of.
I think the most effective part of the theatre is just to cause stress for the bomber. He is the one person in line who assumes he will be dead in a couple of hours. If I am a terrorist group leader in the Middle East I have to find someone who I can get into the States, who is smart enough to operate the weapon. This person also has to be suicidal, but at the same time calm enough about it to interact with TSA agents while knowing in the next couple of hours he will either be in an American prison or dead. And the leader has to trust this person enough to let them out on their own to fulfill the mission, as the leader isn’t going on the plane with them.
Since the implementation of yet ANOTHER government response whose sole purpose is to appear proactive while maximizing the fear factor, I have said one simple thing: “If the government was serious about protecting the flying public, they would have contracted with the security people of El Al to set up an efficient and effective TSA program.” Instead, we have just another example of that classic bureaucratic mandate of empire building. Add to that the absurdly ignorant and arrogant attitude of far too many Americans – “Don’t you DARE inconvenience ME!” and you have the proverbial no-win scenario, but let’s continue to milk it for all its worth.
@michael reynolds: This was already common knowledge to anyone paying attention. It’s been known since the beginning that you could sneak weapons on board through the body scanners and such. Anyone paying a slight amount of attention to the TSA and the security procedures already knew all of this. The bluff never existed in the first place.
That’s why many people have called this security kabuki since almost day one.
@michael reynolds: “People are being f–ing idiots about this.”
I do agree with your basic premise. And yet that’s not an argument the system can’t work more efficiently.
Here’s one thing they could do for a start — start paying TSA employees a lot more money. Yes, I know, it’s so terrible whenever we have to spend tax dollars on anything when it should all be free… but if you, say, doubled the starting wage at TSA, you’d have a lot better pool of applicants to choose from. And people who had the job would have a great incentive to do it well, because there would be real value to keeping it.
What are they going to do then, make a security line to get onto the security line?
And suddenly, a new position, the Undersecretary of Airport Lines, was born at The Department of Homeland Security.
That’s simply not true. If everyone were assuming we could take guns on-board, why are we all busy ditching our bottles of water when we get to security?
I’ve long advocated hiring retired beat cops, just to roam the ticketing and security areas. As a person who has been in trouble with the law, I can tell you that cops develop an instinct. I’m a white, middle-class looking guy and back in the day I would watch cops stop, slow, turn and look directly at me. Nothing they could do about it, but they ‘felt’ the disturbance in the force. A retired cop won’t be free of prejudice or error, but he’ll be pretty good at suggesting a bag that might be looked at more closely.
@michael reynolds: I have read tons of articles over the years highlighting the ineffectiveness of the scanners and the methods being used. This has been all over the libertarian and security blogs since the TSA was founded.
The water bottle ditching is pure kabuki. It’s meant to make people who don’t know better feel better..
Actually I’ve been caught more than once for water or other liquids. I’ve been caught in the scanner for having something like a penny in my pocket.
My point was that the general public obviously thinks it’s real enough.
What you don’t see from all those blogs and sites is a workable alternate. These people are essentially whining “I want a unicorn!” when faced with the reality that more security inevitably means less convenience, and then even then, more security doesn’t equal perfect security.
Who could possibly have guessed that turning the screener job into Civil Service positions would make them unaccountable?
Maybe we could have less security since we fixed the flying airplanes into buildings problem by securing the cockpit door.
The same security and less inconvenience. Explaining the truth is just a public relations problem.
well they “unionized’ so it’s expected that they’ll be slower than normal workers.
their policies are pretty lame anyways, i did some contract work at a new terminal a few years back and was able to skirt their rules with little effort. i could have smuggled a rocket launcher into that secured area with barely a 2nd look.
@Dave Schuler: “Who could possibly have guessed that turning the screener job into Civil Service positions would make them unaccountable?”
Yes, because if there’s one thing the glorious Free Market teaches us, it’s that the way to ensure great service is to allow private companies to pay their workers as little as the law allows, refuse to give them any benefits, completely ignore their needs when it comes to scheduling, and ensure that in any dispute they have no recourse whatsoever.
This is why Walmart and Burger King are such happy places to shop and eat, why employees there are always eager to go the extra mile for the customer, and why their service in general is so wonderful.
@stonetools: Well actually they do have suggestions for workable alternatives. Usually they start with suggesting we look at what the Israelis are doing which is FAR more effective then what we’re doing.
Then there’s the TSA itself and the culture that exists there…
I know it’s easier to just stereotype those that disagree with you but it’s not conducive for getting things done.