If airport security is so good, why do passengers feel so bad?
That’s a valid question, considering how the Transportation Security Administration seems to be spinning its performance lately. The agency wants you to believe the dark days of body scans and pat-downs, of liquids, gels and shoes obediently placed on the conveyor belt, are well on their way out, thanks to its vaunted new Pre-check system. And remember, there have been no successful terrorist attacks since the agency’s creation, it would hasten to add.
So why aren’t we buying it? Why are lawmakers such as Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., threatening to introduce legislation that would force TSA agents to mind their manners?
The answer may be simple: Airport security is not that good. Pre-check is a mess. The agency assigned to protect America’s air transportation systems is still ineffective, say critics. The TSA’s messaging, far from reassuring, is leaving some passengers uneasy about aviation security.
Take Pre-check. Recently at Orlando International Airport, a TSA agent informed me I’d been “randomly” awarded Pre-check privileges. Another agent waved me through a short line, where I left on my shoes, kept my laptop in my carry-on, and walked through the metal detector. Seconds later, I was on the other side of the security line, and if I wasn’t an instant fan of the TSA, I was at least hooked on Pre-check.
But hang on. Wasn’t everyone screened like this about a decade ago? Back then, we didn’t have to pay anything extra for it, as most Pre-check passengers do now. And if ever there was a time to give me a thorough screening, this was it. I’d bought my one-way ticket to Newark only a few hours before I left, and my travel agent had misspelled my name. All of those should have set off alarms.
The preferred lines aren’t necessarily better, as Naomi Shapiro, who works for a technology company in Austin, discovered recently. She qualified for Pre-check because of her elite status in a frequent-flier program, but on a recent flight, she discovered the benefits were questionable.
“Although I kept my shoes on, they gave me a more onerous check than when I pass through the regular line,” she says.
There’s still too much about security that just doesn’t make sense. Phil Flad, a sales manager for a cruise line in Alpharetta, Ga., doesn’t understand why TSA has bins labeled “water,” “alcohol” and “peroxide.”
“If they know what those liquids are, why are they confiscating them?” he wonders. “I didn’t see a bin labeled ‘liquid explosive — sure to bring down the plane.’ And if they believed my Dasani really fell in that category, would they just casually toss it into a bin called ‘water’?”
The TSA imposed a liquid and gel ban after a bombing plot was foiled in 2006. The current system allows small amounts of liquids, gels and aerosols and sorts the banned liquids in bins, “after conducting extensive research.”
Travelers are unconvinced — and unimpressed. It’s the way the TSA goes about “protecting” us that bothers them.