Are airlines responsible for America’s TSA disaster?

One of the more interesting reactions to last week’s post arguing that the TSA as we know it is dead came from a publicist for one of the airline trade associations.

In a polite but insistent email, he claimed I’d misunderstood the congressional testimony by one of his executives. The airline industry rep was criticizing government regulations — not the TSA — for being expensive, inconsistent, and reactive, he said.

It made me wonder: Why would airlines not want to be seen as criticizing the TSA? Everyone else is.

I mean, how could airlines not have a problem with what critics say is an $8 billion boondoggle? No one has to work closer with these troubled federal screeners than commercial air carriers, so when it comes to the topic of much-needed improvement, you’d expect airlines to offer Congress an earful.

It’s their TSA

When you scroll back to the beginning of this 11-year-old agency, it’s clear why the airlines don’t want to be heard bad-mouthing the TSA. Before 9/11, air carriers had to pay for their own security screening, which was an added expense they didn’t want.

Today, passengers pay through a combination of taxes and a 9/11 surcharge added to their tickets.

Dig deeper, and it’s hard not to conclude that, in some respects, the airline industry has a TSA it’s always dreamed about. Not only does the agency deal with the pesky back-end security processes, like pre-screening passengers based on their personal data and matching them against the terrorist watchlist, but now airlines also have a convenient place to send all of the passenger complaints about pilfered luggage.

That’s right, they pass them off to the TSA.

Unfortunately for a vast majority of passengers, the TSA is a black hole for complaints, to the point where most air travelers don’t even bother filing one when something is stolen from a checked bag during screening. The latest agency figures say only 3 in 100,000 air travelers file a claim, and its rejection rates are high. I’ve lost count of the number of air travelers who have simply given up after filing a claim with the TSA and waiting.

Special status

But why would the airline industry support an agency that, in the minds of its passengers, is deeply flawed and in dire need of reform?

Sadly, it’s probably because the status quo suits it. Pilots and flight attendants get access to special lines and are spared the most invasive screening — the humiliating full-body scans and pat-downs.

Are airline employees less of a security risk than passengers? Not necessarily.

Who can forget Clayton Frederick Osbon, the JetBlue pilot who had a “psychotic breakdown” on a flight from New York to Las Vegas earlier this year. Or EgyptAir first officer Gameel Al-Batouti, who, investigators concluded, committed suicide when he crashed EgyptAir Flight 990 into the Atlantic just south of Nantucket Island in 1999.

What’s more, the TSA’s authoritarian attitude sets a tone for the entire flight, so post-9/11 passengers tend to be more cooperative when flight attendants ask them to comply with their instructions. Having passengers heel obediently when someone in uniform barks an order seems to fit the airline industry agenda. After all, the interior of an aircraft is no democracy.

To be fair, I’m sure there are many airline employees who are horrified by what’s become of the TSA and support the reforms suggested by agency critics and Congress. But at least on the record, their employers seem to like things the way they are.

Why? For the airline industry, even a bad TSA is better than what they had before. Key security responsibilities and costs have been removed, thanks to this overfunded agency. And its employees have special status, effectively enjoying the same security screening experience as they did before 9/11, for no other reason than that they wear a uniform. What’s not to like about that?

Who fixes this mess?

Should airlines clean up this mess of a federal agency? It is partially responsible for today’s TSA, no doubt about it. But there’s plenty of blame to go around for America’s mismanaged and heavily criticized airport screening bureaucracy.

In order to create a dysfunctional TSA, many key stakeholders essentially remained silent for a decade. That includes an apathetic electorate, which failed to see the constitutional, privacy, and civil rights problems of the current TSA. But it’s especially true of the most powerful airline passengers, the elite-level frequent business travelers and the corporate travel managers controlling their purse-strings. These road warriors, who really should have known better, gave the current TSA their stamp of approval by staying quiet as a group, and their silence has been rewarded with a “free” trusted traveler designation that lets them shortcut the worst of the screening experience.

But it’s safe to say that without the support of airlines, the TSA would have never become America’s most-hated federal agency — and that without its help, we don’t stand a chance of reforming the TSA.

The airline industry’s inaction in the face of gross incompetence, criminality, and unconstitutional behavior by the TSA, may have served its interests in the short term. But over the long term, it will hurt everyone.

Are airlines responsible for the current TSA?

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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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  • cjr001

    Airlines are partially responsible for all the reasons you give. But much of the responsibility is still passengers, who care more about getting from A to B than their rights, and Congress.

  • RetiredNavyphotog

    Put the blame squarely on the Federal government. If you go to TSA’s website, it is http://www.tsa.gov.
    The “gov” stands for the Federal government – not the airlines, not the travel industry. Unhappy? Make a ruckus with your elected representative.
    I wouldn’t even blame United airlines for this one.

  • FrankInFL

    “Before 9/11, air carriers had to pay for their own security screening…:

    Yes, but this screening was done by government (airport) employees because ‘security’ was an airport (not an ‘airline’) responsibility.

    So, airlines were paying, via landing fees, gate rental charges, etc. for ‘security’ that was essentially worthless. 9/11 proved that.

    Why would they want to go back there?

    This article misses the underlying problem completely: why do we need security?

  • SoBeSparky

    The TSA is responsible for the TSA. Its lack of adequate staff training results in horrible customer relations. Most successful private sector firms train employees with public contact on how to resolve difficulties. Apparently, TSA does not do this or does not monitor this.

    Further, customer service training is a highly refined art. Most times, the customer’s problem is not what the public-contact employee is addressing. A good employee listens more than talks. Have firms with the highest customer satisfaction ratings help train TSA employees. Those who do not pass are fired for failure to meet the requirements of the job.

    The technology TSA uses is picked by the TSA, after input from powerful lobbyists, as noted by Christopher.

    Who is reponsible for the TSA? The TSA.

  • EdB

    “So, airlines were paying, via landing fees, gate rental charges, etc. for ‘security’ that was essentially worthless. 9/11 proved that.”

    The security was not worthless and 9/11 did not prove that. Even if we had the type of “security” we have today back on 9/11, it still would have happened. Why? Because at that time, box cutters were not on the prohibited list. I would guess that those cutters were detected by the magnetometer but because they weren’t banned, they were allowed to go through.

  • EdB

    Agreed. If we are going to blame the airlines for the TSA then we must also blame the passengers who willingly gives up their rights and allow themselves to be assaulted by these government sponsored thugs.

  • Joe Farrell

    The re-election of Barack Obama and his policies of spending ever more money and covering ever more people in government programs is evidence enough that people don’t understand the government that they inherited, and at the present rate, will leaving nothing for their grandkids to inherit. Its sad really. . . .

  • Joe Farrell

    We need security because it costs tens of thousands of dollars and more for an airline to have an aircraft diverted to Havana or the Sears Tower. The true issue is why do we need the level of security we have now? What we need is security that works with our heads, not with our sensory organs. Instead we don’t target the most likely offender . .. I often say that when the police are looking for kidnap victim in a white van driven by a 50 year old man they don’t pay as much attention to the Mercedes Convertible driven by a blonde housewife . . . . under current security the police would stop every car to look for the kidnap victim, instead of light colored vans . . .. does that make a stitch of sense?

  • cjr001

    As apparently needs to be pointed out yet again, TSA – and it’s overlord, the DHS – was created under Bush with widespread approval from all the Congresscritters.

  • Frank Windows

    Chris, I disagree with your assessment that the electorate has been apathetic. Surely the majority of the electorate does not fly regularly, but for my part, I have emailed my President and congressfolk, and with only a couple of rare exceptions, I have refused to walk through the nukers. I am also one of those elite-level flyers (75k this year). I have written to my airline of choice, telling them that the TSA is costing them business, in that I now drive to locations I would formerly have flown, purely to avoid the TSA hassle. Next on my list is to write to the major airport in my area to tell them that I use alternate airports when possible that do not yet have the nukers, and to write to those airports to tell them that if they get the nukers, they will lose most of my business.

    I am now in the pre-check program (awarded by my airline), and yes, I do take advantage of it when it is available — after dozens of pat-downs, one can use a break. But pre-check is only at a few airports, and I usually wind up opting out on at least one leg of every trip. And while I may be simply justifying the guilt, it is my hope that the sight of me whizzing through pre-check will help motivate the casual-flying have-nots in the regular lines to complain when they realize how unfair the system is.

    Point is, plenty of us (even the elites) are doing our part, and calling us apathetic does not solve the problem. A better strategy is to remind people what they can do. One person throwing pebbles does little damage, but a million people throwing pebbles is a different story.

  • Frank Windows

    Annnd, it also needs to be pointed out that Romney’s “solution” for the TSA was to privatize it, so that we could be groped at a profit. Not to turn this into a political debate, but let’s remember that we got into this mess because of Bush’ policy of spending ever more money on an unwinnable war, with no plan to pay. “Tax and spend” beats “Just spend” any day.

  • http://tsanewsblog.com/214/news/history-repeats-itself-with-tsas-strip-search-tactics/ Lisa Simeone
  • Alan Gore

    I don’t think airlines invented the TSA, but it certainly serves their purposes. After the TSA has confiscated your toothpaste and shuffled you across muddy floors in your socks, the airline’s silly rules seem like a more normal part of your travel day. Mandatory gate check for that expensive camera gear you’ll never see again, sir? Stuff you into an uncleaned seat that the last passenger peed on? Welcome to the world we let the make.

  • jim6555

    Check the historical records and you will find that the screeners who let the 9/11 hijackers through airport security in Boston were employed by a private security firm, not by the Federal Government. I remember going through screening at various airports prior to 9/11 and seeing names of security firms on the jackets or shirts of the screeners. My recollection is that the Feds had no involvement in the day-to-day operations of passenger screening at that time.

  • jim6555

    These people give up their rights because they are afraid of the consequences if they speak up or do anything that is out of the norm. This is the way that totalitarian regimes subjugate their citizens.

  • http://www.facebook.com/sommer.gentry Sommer Gentry

    Great work, Frank! Thank you for what you’re doing – I am also writing letters and protesting at every opportunity, and diverting much of my travel from air to rail. Many of us are throwing pebbles, and I think our persistence is causing the drastic change in tone of Congressional hearings on TSA. We’ve gone from “TSA protects us” to “This makes me think you’re clueless” to “This kind of arrogance and malfeasance continues…” Unfortunately, Congress still hasn’t cut off the money, which is the only thing they can do to stop this abusive state of affairs.

  • http://www.facebook.com/sommer.gentry Sommer Gentry

    The Feds, before 9/11, imposed very strict rules requiring pilots and flight attendants to cooperate with hijackers. 9/11 was not a screening failure, it was a failure of government.

  • EdB

    They can opt to skip flying and not be subject to giving up their rights. Even if they speak up, if they continue to allow themselves to be violated in this way, they are supporting it.

  • frank windows

    If you live in Ohio and you have a sick relative in San Diego and only a weekend off from work, then no, you cannot skip flying. Air travel is no longer just a luxury in modern American society; in many cases, it’s a necessity. As such, it’s important that the government help and not hinder our ability to move about freely.

  • http://www.facebook.com/sommer.gentry Sommer Gentry

    I think airlines are afraid to confront the TSA’s abuses because the TSA can punish specific airlines. It’s simple enough to cut staffing for checkpoints that only serve that airline that said something bad about TSA, and TSA retaliation like that can throw off the airline’s schedule nationwide. The TSA has the power to unilaterally impose huge financial penalties on airlines, so it’s not surprising that airlines refuse to advocate for their customers. But the airlines are already suffering because TSA hassles and abuse are diverting passengers to other travel modes.

    There is no fixing this – airlines should be providing their own security because only airlines have the incentive to treat passengers like human beings. No one at the TSA cares if passengers hate screening and hate flying because of checkpoint harassment. With the way TSA officially thumbs its nose at passenger complaints, it’s clear that John Pistole regards being loathed as a badge of honor.

  • EdB

    I’m sorry, but no one is holding a gun to your head telling you to get on the plane. What would you have done in the situation before airplanes? Yeah, NOT FLOWN! In this situation, you are CHOOSING to fly. Visiting a sick relative is not a necessity but a desire.

  • http://elliott.org Christopher Elliott

    I agree with you completely. None of us are off the hook — we all did our part, unfortunately.

  • http://elliott.org Christopher Elliott

    I didn’t mean the entire electorate, of course. I find your efforts to be very encouraging, and I wish more people would do what you’re doing.

  • Nancy Nally

    I must fly cross country at least several times per year to various destinations. Not a choice. A necessary and unavoidable part of the job that supports my family. Driving would double the length of the trip, from one week to two. I despise dealing with the TSA and the stormtroopers that call themselves flight attendants on many airlines now that they have the threat of arrest to back up their simplest command, but I have no choice but to fly. And don’t tell me that “I can change jobs” – that’s getting ridiculously extreme. Every job at my level of my industry requires such travel. It really is unavoidable for some people to travel.

  • EdB

    Are you a pilot or flight attendant?

    Still a choice. My job required me to fly too but when the TSA started getting as extreme as it is, I informed my boss to provide an alternative means. Why there was an alternative available for my work, if there isn’t one for yours then you are still choosing to fly by staying in the job or not demanding your employer finds another means for your to perform your work without having your rights violated.

    Sometimes to evoke changes in society, we have to take the “ridiculously extreme” actions.

  • Louis DaKine

    Just to be clear, the TSA was created by a bill passed in the Democrat-controlled Senate. The bill passed by the Republicans in the House would have allowed the agency oversight over screening functions but would have allowed the actual screening to continue to be done by private security firms, as was the case pre-9/11. Sadly, the Senate version is the one that was agreed to in conference and subsequently passed by both houses and signed by President Bush.

  • Mundane Lustrator

    I think that choice is up to the individual and just because people choose to fly does not mean they are supporting the TSA nor their invasive tactics. This isn’t a strict two-choice issue.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001768830492 Elmo Clarity

    You have a choice to submit to their unconstitutional actions thus validating their existence or avoiding them because you refuse to be subjected to their unlawful actions.

  • Mundane Lustrator

    I believe I understand what you are saying, Elmo. I still say some can and will continue to fly, but by doing so do NOT validate or accept TSA’s abusive actions. These flyers will continue to watch, report, and lobby to get the rules changed.

    I think the real point is not the action of flying or not flying. It’s about watching, reporting, and lobbying to get our legislators to fix the TSA problem.

  • EdB

    As long as people continue allowing the TSA to abuse them, the TSA and airlines have no reason to change. Only if we hit the airlines in the pocket book will things change.