It’s time to trust the TSA

Minerva/Shutterstock
Minerva/Shutterstock
The TSA offered Sue Speck an early Christmas present when she checked in for a recent flight from Columbus to Los Angeles: a coveted Precheck designation on her boarding pass, which allowed her to avoid removing her shoes, taking out her laptop and most important, get around the agency’s dreaded full-body scanners when she was screened.

“It was easy,” says Speck, a sales administrative assistant who lives in Columbus. “There was no line.”

So easy that she found herself wishing for Precheck privileges on her next flight, even though she didn’t belong to the exclusive program.

Stories of heartwarming customer service at the latex-gloved hands of the TSA seem to be common during the holiday travel season. The agency assigned to protect America’s transportation systems is inviting passengers to experience its faster, more civil Precheck lines, even those who haven’t paid for a membership. It’s turning airport screening areas into hotel lobbies, featuring mood lighting, designer furniture and artwork. Its agents seem to be on their best behavior.

The charm offensive is meant to send a clear message: You can trust the TSA again.

That’s exactly what travelers should do.

They can trust the TSA to do what it always promised — to offer what it calls “random and unpredictable” security measures throughout the airport. Apparently, that means giving away Precheck to untold thousands of air travelers who never asked for it. Maybe it’s just a coincidence that the TSA recently announced the opening of a new enrollment center and a new site to accept applications at $85 a pop. If the agency’s goal is to sell more Precheck memberships by letting non-elites such as Speck crowd the fast lane, look for a large “Mission Accomplished” banner at your airport in 2014.

But even card-carrying frequent fliers who already belong to Precheck know their cards offer no assurances they’ll avoid intrusive TSA screenings reserved for mere mortals, where they’re forced to unpack liquids and gels, take off their shoes, then make the agonizing choice between an invasive full-body scan or an “enhanced” pat-down. No one is guaranteed expedited screening to retain “a certain element of randomness” to prevent terrorists from gaming the system, according to the agency.

Travelers can also trust the TSA to stay true to its core values. Sure, the re-imagined checkpoints in Charlotte and Dallas are impressive. They feature plush red couches where you can put your shoes back on, and full-length mirrors where you can replace your jacket after your screening. There’s mood lighting and alt-rock pumped in, all designed to calm passengers, says the TSA. Best of all, the agency isn’t paying for any of it. Marriott’s SpringHill Suites is picking up the tab in exchange for the advertising opportunity.

But makeovers aren’t really the TSA’s thing. Remember what happened in 2008, when the agency switched from its plain white uniforms with embroidered logos to its current royal-blue shirts and gold badges, which made screeners look like police officers? A few months later, the agency implemented some of its most unpopular policies, which led to protests such as National Opt-Out Day. When passengers see changes, they worry — and with good reason.

What about the kinder, gentler TSA that some passengers have reported? For example, one reader recently told me he witnessed a group of World War II veterans who were not only being screened in a thoughtful and compassionate way, but that the agents also took the time to thank each GI for his service. It’s these stories that are the hardest to reconcile with our traditional image of TSA agents barking orders at passengers as they’re being herded like cattle through the screening area.

Then again, wouldn’t you behave if you were on probation? As a series of Congressional reports makes clear, this agency is on the government’s “naughty” list. One study concluded the TSA is a bloated, top-heavy agency in need of reform. Another, released last month, found that the agency’s behavior-detection program, which has cost $900 million since 2007, doesn’t work and recommends that Congress “limit future funding” for the program.

You can trust the TSA to do whatever is necessary to keep itself from being defunded, privatized or eliminated. Even if it means sending random passengers to its Precheck line, remodeling its checkpoints or treating a select few with the dignity we all deserve.

Do you trust the TSA?

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HOW TO PRECHECK

What is it? Precheck is the TSA’s expedited screening program. It allows passengers to leave on shoes, light outerwear and belts, keep laptops in their cases and have bags of regulation-size liquids and gels in their carry-ons.

Where can you use it? Precheck lines are available at more than 100 airports. Participating carriers include Alaska Airlines, American, Delta, Hawaiian Airlines, JetBlue Airways, Southwest, United, US Airways and Virgin America.

How much does it cost? The $85 application fee is valid for a five-year membership in the program.

How do you enroll? Apply at universalenroll.dhs.gov or in person at Indianapolis International Airport.

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at . Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • Justin

    Socialism has NOTHING to do with the downfall of countries. Sweden has a very successful economy. If policymakers didn’t let everyone in the door, the system wouldn’t break. The United States faces the exact dilemma.

    Problem? Door is WIDE OPEN and I don’t care if you’re a Capitalist country, Communist, or Socialist market. There’s no way a country can absorb large influxes of migrants who fail to give back.

    Read my reply to Polish. I’m not going to type everything out twice.

  • MarkieA

    The problem is that a Socialist country – and we in the US have Socialist elements within our Capitalist society (our education system, our healthcare system – now) – invites immigration. The Socialist system itself invites people to take advantage of it, to rely on the Government for everything. It encourages folks to stop producing. What’s the incentive to work harder than the next guy if the reward is the same? We’re going to have to agree to disagree on this one; Socialism has MUCH to do with the downfall of a country. As I’ve asked before, name a successful. long-term socialist country. And I mean one that you would want to emulate. The USSR and China are/were not successful by my definition. The Chinese standard of life is atrocious.

  • Mundane Lustrator

    Buying back the chance of having your rights is more expensive and dangerous in the long run than you may realize.

    What the TSA selleth, the TSA may jack up the price or simply take away.

  • Mundane Lustrator

    No, the MUST take off shoes thing started slowly, with metal detector sensitivy being jacked up so metal shanks in shoes set them off, which then could mean a hand detector wanding, then it was “encouraged,” meaning if you didn’t take off your shoes you’d be treated like a criminal, to “SHOE BOMBER!!! We’re all gonna die!!!!!!” situation now.

    Unless you’re ages 0-12, 75-????, fly a lot, work for DOD, are active military, or randomly get picked by a poorly trained gov’t employee, perhaps holding an overpriced iPad with a magical “randomizer” app. (Give the guy a six-sided die and a printed chart for which numbers to send down which lane.) Y’know, because that’s all “risk based security.” ROTF!

  • PolishKnightUSA

    I regret saying what I already said because this blog isn’t a political forum. Putting things back on topic (kind of), the TSA like all government agencies becomes self-interested in the long run ahead of its charter. This happened to NASA when it covered up on shuttle accident and then let another one happen. The whole system ultimately seeks to bring in more recipients. Whether it’s state workers in Sweden or TSA workers looking to hold up people, the more inconvenient it is for taxpayers the more money they make. This also happens with private industries that gets their hands into people’s pockets (GM, Realtors, to name a few.) Sadly, the solution is not easy or intuitive.

  • Justin

    China and Russia (USSR) are communist countries. At no time in history have either been socialist.

    Second, Rome had it’s downfall. Countries come and go for various reasons. The United Kingdom is socialist and is still a Powerhouse in Europe. Far older than the U.S.

  • TestJeff Pierce

    I stand corrected. Richard Reid, the miserable failure of a shoe bomber, was in late 2001 so 2002 was the year they instituted that.

    We should return to reasonable screening and stop letting Osama Bin Laden’s crushing victory stand. He even defeated the NFL when it outlawed women’s pocketbooks and adopted the TSA “baggies”.

  • jim6555

    If all Americans should have it, is there a justification for the TSA charging extra to get it. Why not just revert all airport security to 2002 levels of screening and do away with the ineffective dog & pony show that the TSA uses to justify its $7.5 billion annual budget?

  • MarkieA

    Wow! Just wow! I guess if you define Communist countries as those governed by The Communist Party, then, yes, China and USSR were/are communist. However, neither fit the definition of true communism. True communism has no Government, no class system, probably no money. Everyone is equal. I don’t think that you’d agree that everyone was equal in “communist” Russia, or today in “communist” China. Socialism is the necessary stepping stone to communism. There have NEVER been any true communist countries. All countries that define themselves as communist are actually varying degrees of socialist.

  • MarkieA

    Oh, and I forgot to address your UK reference. The UK has Socialist elements (health care, welfare; again, sound familiar?) but they are not as far along on the “socialist ruler” as many others in Europe. Perhaps that’s why they are relatively – and I emphasize RELATIVELY – strong in Europe. The Scandinavian countries who have embraced socialist concepts more are struggling much more than the UK. Coincidence? I think not.

  • wiseword

    Immigrants are very bad for a country? Well, if this is a Navajo speaking, I tend to agree with him.

  • MarkKelling

    IAH is good. HOU is less expensive for just about everything. It just depends where I am flying from and to and which airline which airport I end up at.

  • BMG4ME

    Actually I got my TSA Pre through Global Entry which is not a TSA program. In any case, it’s there, and as long as it’s there, I’ll take it, and since I moved to this country because I trust the government here, I don’t see “buying back my rights” as more expensive and dangerous. In any case it’s not “buying back my rights” because you don’t simply buy the rights.

  • Justin

    I used both when living in Houston. Intercontinental and Hobby. After a while, I started flying Continental (forget which airport) and had great experiences.

  • Mundane Lustrator

    What I meant is that the TSA took our rights and are trying to sell them back to us. Like a thief stealing our property and selling it back.

    In fact, exactly like a thief because a lot of the property confiscated by theTSA is turned over to the states, who sell it in their surplus stores.