Transportation Security Aggravation

published

While walking to my car this morning, I stuffed my hand into my pocket to fish out my keys. I do this every morning without incident. Except today. For the first time in the fifteen years I’ve had it on my keychain, I pricked my finger on my P38. It hurt like the dickens, and bled a little bit. Maybe that’s why the San Diego airport refused to let me carry the P38 onto the plane I was going to board. Weird, though, that Port Columbus didn’t complain at all when I carried the P38 onto my flight to San Diego.

When departing for our recent vacation the Port Columbus security checkpoint required everyone to take their shoes off. Yet when returning home through Reno Airport, the security personnel didn’t make anyone remove their shoes at all. It’s nice to know that federalizing airline security means that the same security standards will be used throughout the nation’s airports.

I know why people are required to remove their shoes, although I’ve got to believe that technology exists that can detect bombs without requiring people to doff their footwear.. I’d also like to know why we have to take laptops out of their carrying cases to be sent through the x-ray machine seperately. Did I miss a news story about someone with a lead-lined laptop case that prevented the x-ray machine from seeing the bomb-disguised-as-a-laptop?

The TSA offers some helpful suggestions for travellers, including such gems as:

Refrain from taking wrapped presents to the airport. TSA is recommending that you either ship wrapped packages ahead of time or wrap on arrival. If the package alarms, TSA will need to unwrap it to investigate the source of the alarm.
I fail to understand how a wrapped package sent via post is functionally different than a wrapped package carried by a passenger: both packages are screened and carried on an airplane. Unless FedEx and UPS have better screening technology than the U.S. government. In which case, perhaps the TSA ought to consider outsourcing airport security in much the same way that the Coalition Provisional Authority outsources security.

The TSA also provides a list of prohibitted items. My P38 isn’t listed, and it’s hard to say for sure where it should fall between the likes of permitted crochet needles, tweezers, corkscrews or cigar cutters and prohibitted knives, box cutters and ice picks. Interesting that mace and pepper spray are banned – I’m confident that many women carry canisters of such in their purses but I don’t recall seeing any women stopped for them. They might want to ammend the list of prohibited items to include free speech.

What I find distressing is the lack of information explaining why certain things are done as they are. Take for example the requirement to remove laptops from bags before sending them down the x-ray machine. What’s the point? I’m sure the TSA has a reason, and it may be a very legitimate reason. But without knowing what that reason is I’m prevented from weighing its merits against the realities that I experience in line: frustration as people wrestle with their bags, slow lines, and a general sense of mounting anxiety.

Another mind boggling “security” function in force at airports now relates to checked baggage. Gone are the luxurious days of watching your bag move along a conveyor belt to be swallowed by some mysterious maw, later to be vomitted out at baggage claim at the end of your flight. Now, after checking in at the counter and getting a boarding pass, the passenger is required to take their own checked baggage to an enormous security screening device and leave it there, in the capable hands of the TSA. Why? How does it improve security to make passengers wrangle their bags from the check-in counter’s scale, through another zig-zag of Insta-Maze and finally up to the two or three bored TSA employees staffing the baggage screener? I suppose there’s no room in most airports for this gigantic device except right up front where the customers are, and since the customers are so close why not just have them nip over with their own bags?

I’m willing to believe that transportation security is a ridiculously expensive program to implement and administer. I’m sure the technology is exhorbitantly expensive. I’m sure there are a lot of aspects to it of which I will always be completely ignorant. Be that as it may, I’d still like to put forth a few positive suggestions that might help the TSA, should definitely help the average air traveller, and might even help the country as a whole.

First and foremost, hire and train a lot more TSA employees. We’re in a jobless economic recovery, so there should be plenty of people available for work, right? Plus, it’s a government job so the benefits should be nice. With the large influx in new employees, the government ought to be able to better bargain for affordable health care for the TSA employees. With affordable health care, the TSA employees can feel a little more comfortable using just a little bit more of their salaries as disposable income, instead of hording it all for fear of a medical emergency. That helps the economy in general, right?

But what’s the problem with all the TSA employees I’ve interacted with? Very few of them have any sense of customer service - most are grouchy, or brusque at best. I’m guessing that this is because they, like so many other employees in other job sectors, are overworked and possibly under-trained. It’s probably not very fun screening the bags of anxious air travellers. The TSA screeners probably feel at least mild pressure to keep the lines moving. Pressure wears on people, and that effects people’s attitudes, and consequently their performance. Hiring additional TSA staff should help them handle more people more thoroughly in less time. A win for everyone. Some pleasant music might help, too.

All of these new TSA employees are going to need training, which means that the TSA can grow a powerful and effective internal training program. They can emphasize customer service and positive attitudes during this training. Trainers and auditors can be promoted from within the existing TSA ranks, raising talented and enthusiastic employees into new roles. This makes room for additional “front line” screeners, and ensures that everyone is being given actual job skills instead of just a script to follow by rote memorization.

Hiring additional TSA screeners should have some ancillary positive effects, too. First, all those TSA employees are going to get hungry and thirsty, so the airport vending machines will need to be kept regularly stocked. That means additional airport restaurant employees, additional delivery drivers, possibly additional cleaning staff, etc etc.
An aside: why the hell do all of the shops and restaurants in the St. Louis Airport close at 6 PM on a Saturday? Talk about a disservice to your customers. With all the new employees, cities can ramp up public transportation to and from the airport. Additional business services can sprout up around airports to service all the people now in the area.

Oh, but this is all going to cost a lot of money, isn’t it? How will we ever pay for it all?

One first step would be to have the airlines kick in a healthy contribution to the program (which they may already be doing – I don’t know). Airlines can stop wasting money on each of their own branded in-flight magazines. They can slim down in-flight beverage service (because the airports are more fully stocked with convenient refreshments, now, remember?). Beverage service could be reduced in any number of ways – either eliminating alcohol sales, or providing a less robust selection of drinks. Perhaps beverages could be handed out at the jetway before passengers board. Trimming beverage service should also improve turn-around times at airports, since the plane won’t need to be restocked. Faster turn-around at the airports should mean less service charges.

Airports could probably save even more money if they prevented their groundstaff from playing basketball at the terminals.

With the influx of TSA screeners, passengers might not need to lug their own baggage from the check-in counter to the baggage security thingie. Lines at the security gates could be shorter, and people checked through faster and more thoroughly. And with better training, maybe I can fly with my P38 again someday.


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