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.
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.