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Saturday, March 28, 2009

TSA Protects America...and pigs fly

TSA Protects America...and pigs fly
Copyright 2009, Jim Penny
Word count: 950

I'm sitting in the lobby of the Logan Airport Hilton this morning, waiting for colleagues to arrive for a couple of work days. By the vagaries of independent travel planning, I arrived two hours early, and we agreed to meet here for breakfast before getting started.

On my way into the restaurant, I picked up a copy of USA Today, and I'm greeted by an above the fold front page story about how TSA is going to start doing more gate searches. The idea is to make us safer. The fact is that they will only increase my need to blood pressure medication.

Concurrent with picking up the paper, a colleague flying from Raleigh to DC sent a text message about being selected for the extra pat down. I sent her a picture of the paper and asked if the TSA agent was cute.

Let me give you a brief review of my day so far, and you can decide just how much safer you feel.

I arrived at RDU, the Raleigh airport, at 4:30 AM. The lines were short, as you might expect. I used the new terminal because I'm flying American today. (American has non-stop flights between Raleigh and Boston, as does Delta. I have no idea why.)

The security lanes have three starting places. One is for airport and airline personnel. We only occasionally see flight crews here. I guess they sneak in at odd hours. Nonetheless, the scanner is usually on and waiting for them. The second starting place is for the general traveling public and business travelers like myself who have no status with the airline and who are flying coach. The third starting place is for the pretty people in first class.

The coach line wanders back and forth, making about six switchbacks before finally reaching the end. The first class line skirts around the edge of the room until it joins the coach line. Often there is very little gained from using the first class line, and if your timing is poor, the first class line can be longer and slower.

At the top of the line, someone checks your government issued identification card to determine that you really are you, that your name is on the boarding pass you're holding, and that you really are boarding a plane. This person initials your boarding pass; I do not know why. Sometimes the initials look more like an attempt at gang graffiti.

With your boarding pass initialed, you'll be directed to one of the screening machines. Here, you empty your pockets of all things metal, take off your coat, take off your belt and shoes, remove your computer from the bag, and then put all this mess in little plastic tubs. These tubs go onto the conveyor belt, which will carry them through the x-ray machine.

Special note: If you have liquid, cremes, or gels in your carry-on bags, you must handle these special. First, no individual container of anything may hold more than three ounces. Secondly, all the containers must fit in a 1-quart plastic bag. Third, you may only have one plastic bag. Yes, I have a plastic bag just like this for short trips, and today, just as most days, I forgot to remove it from my carry-on, and no one in security noticed. Well, if anyone noticed, nothing was said.

And that's it. They use an x-ray machine to look for suspicious shapes. Occasionally, an airport will have a sniffer. From the news, it would appear that we're returning to the days if just after 9/11 when people were randomly detained and searched at the gate, after having passed through the initial screening. The biggest effect of the gate search is that you'll be the last one on the plane, and all the overhead bins will be full. If you're flying Southwest, it also means you'll doomed to a middle seat.

The thing is that the TSA agents are doing their job. The problem is that the job was defined by by an idiot, someone who apparently doesn't fly much, doesn't spend much time in airports, but who certainly understands the importance of looking good. Very little of what we see the TSA agents doing contributes to the security of this nation's airports.

Think about it. What happens to those dangerous things they confiscate? What becomes of that bottle of water you forgot about? They throw it in the trash, right there in front of you. Plomp! Now if we really do believe that the bottle of water really is a dangerous substance, shouldn't we treat it with a little respect, lest it go boom in our face? There are procedures for the disposal of dangerous substances. We should see these procedures in the airports if we believe the confiscated items are dangerous.

When lighters were banned on flights, the TSA had barrels filled with the things at every scanner. Now exactly how safe is a large bucket full of disposable butane lighters?

Meanwhile, my 3-1-1 baggie, all full of deadly deodorant and toothpaste, has been overlooked repeatedly through the last two months of flying. What happens? I forget about it, and leave it in my carry-on bag. It's not that I'm being hard to get along with, thumbing my nose at the rules. It's that I'm being tired and forgetful. Maybe that baggie rule is about to go away and we don't know it.

Now, why do I have the feeling that my next encounter with TSA is gonna be something special and just for me?


VeggieAmanda said...

TSA frequently misses the lotion and/or lipstick I forget to take out of my purse and put in the baggie. If they miss that, I wonder what else they miss.

The Crow said...

On my last visit home (from New Orleans), I bought some sample bottles of Hove's colognes for my daughter. They had been wrapped nicely in pink tissue paper before being placed in the clear plastic boxes, which were clearly labeled as to their contents.

I knew I had to place liquids in the zip plastic bag, but didn't know I had to take it out of my suitcase. I was escorted over to another security station, given the wand again, then had to open every last plastic box and unwrap every bottle of cologne. I could not rewrap them to their prior, pristine state.

It obviously wasn't enough that I had to stand there, surrounded by 5, count 'em FIVE, armed security guards/po-po, three of whom had their hands on their weapons, all the while the passengers for my plane slow down slightly to memorize my face, just in case they later have to identify the suspicious character for the on-board marshal...no, I then had to endure The Lecture, delivered by a matron straight out of a 1950s women-in-prison movie. She had cotton-mouth eyes.

The Lecture: a 3-minute presentation on why the TSA employees have to do what they do, why the rules are the rules, and why - next time - I will be further detained if I should neglect to remove such items prior to approaching the security station.

"Have a nice flight," she offers, as I am met by one of the stewards, who was sent to fetch me before the plane departed.

"Bite me, honey!"

I like Am Trak, even if it does take about six times as long to get back home.

Sorry for the rant, Jim. (Sigh.)

Good post.