Flying under the influence of the TSA: What now?

Since the last time I wrote about the Transportation Security Administration, the agency charged with protecting air travel has encountered some unexpected turbulence.

First there was the embarrassing release of an un-redacted version of its Screening Management Standard Operating Procedures in early December. Although the agency claimed that the manual was obsolete, many observers felt that it was a how-to book for aspiring terrorists.

Then there was the attempted bombing of Northwest Airlines Flight 253 from Amsterdam to Detroit on Christmas day, in which Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried to blow up a plane using a packet of powder sewn into his underwear. The humiliating breach of security was made worse when Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano declared that “once the incident occurred, the system worked.” Her critics begged to differ, and the secretary issued a clarification.

But that wasn’t the worst of it. What followed was a knee-jerk response in which the TSA ordered airlines on inbound international flights to frisk their passengers, force them to remain seated during the last hour of their flight, confiscate pillows and blankets, and power down their in-flight entertainment devices. Those rules have since been eased. The agency didn’t bother to offer many details about the additional precautions, creating confusion the likes of which we haven’t seen since 9/11.

Somewhere along the way, I became part of the story. After I published the full text of the security directive on my blog, I was visited by a special agent from the Department of Homeland Security, who served me with a subpoena demanding that I reveal the source of the document. I refused. The agency withdrew its subpoena on New Year’s Eve, but the fact that an agent showed up on a journalist’s doorstep at dinnertime asking him to name names suggests that at best, the TSA is a troubled agency.

At worst? I don’t even want to go there.

I won’t insult my readers by repeating the obvious advice being dispensed by the so-called experts, such as arriving at the airport early or packing light. Instead, I’d like to take a longer view on traveling while under the influence of the TSA. Assuming that only half of the awful things people are saying about the agency are true, how do you fly?

One answer: You don’t. That’s what a growing number of Americans have decided. Scheduled passenger traffic on airlines dropped 5.5 percent in 2009, according to the International Civil Aviation Organization, and 3.1 percent worldwide. That decline is the largest on record. The recession no doubt contributed to it, but I’ve spoken with countless travelers who say that they’ve had enough with the long lines, the intrusive searches and the uncertainties of airport security, and that they’ve grounded themselves.

The other answer, for those of us who don’t want to spend days in a car, is that you fly despite all that — and you expect the unexpected.

The TSA has even said as much on its Web site, TSA.gov, which for now is the best place to find out about how to prepare for your next flight. “Passengers should not expect to see the same thing at every airport,” the agency declares. “TSA has a layered approach to security that allows us to surge resources as needed on a daily basis.”

What does “surge resources” mean? Who knows? But that passengers should not expect to see the same thing at every airport — that, we understand.

All this raises a question: Is the agency being unpredictable because it wants to be, or because it can’t help it? “Let’s call it what it is,” said frequent traveler Oliver Wilson. “It’s TSA Theater, and I’m being kind here. That’s it. That’s the bottom line.”

Wilson ought to know. He’s a Los Angeles-based television and film producer.

But is this a well-rehearsed play we’re watching, designed to catch the criminals who would blow up our planes, or random improvisations that would scare away only the amateurs? I think you know the answer.

That’s why TSA reform should be high on the legislative agenda in 2010. Finding credible leadership for the agency, weeding out managers with a wrongheaded view of security and restoring the public’s confidence in what is without question the most dysfunctional federal agency in the history of the union need to be priorities. And if it can’t be fixed, our elected representatives should do us all a big favor by defunding the TSA and starting over.

Where does that leave you? The same place you were before the Christmas day attack, the incomprehensible liquids-and-gels ban and even 9/11.

Air travel is not without its risks. The TSA can’t protect you from every terrorist any more than the Federal Aviation Administration can protect you from every accident or the police can protect you from every crime.

We have to fly, anyway.

(Photo: alist/Flickr Creative Commons)

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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