The TSA is having a heckuva summer. From a new “trusted” traveler system it’s pushing on passengers, to a peculiar new rule that requires certain electronics to power up before they can fly, to numerous bizarre incidents at screening areas, the federal agency tasked with protecting America’s transportation systems has been in the news for all the wrong reasons.
But that’s not the headline. No, the story is us — you and me — and our reaction to the agency’s antics and missteps.
More than 12 years after the TSA’s creation, it seems our anger and outrage have run dry. Travelers have come to accept anything the agency throws at us, no matter how nonsensical and despite its civil-rights implications.
The story is our TSA apathy
“I’m tired of complaining,” says Pam Miller, a frequent flier based in Seattle. “It’s an ineffective use of time and energy.”
Consider Pre-Check, a system that’s being deployed at America’s airports with dizzying speed. Not a week seems to go by that the TSA doesn’t issue a press release on its new trusted-traveler program (seven in May and three in June, by my count). Problem is, there’s nothing “trusted” about the program, which costs $85 to join. Screeners often randomly upgrade non-Pre-Check passengers into the shorter lines, using a tablet computer with a mysterious “randomizer” application.
Passengers sent to a Pre-Check line don’t have to remove their shoes or laptops or submit to a dreaded full-body scan. A respectful screening ought to be included in the price of every airline ticket, of course. But this summer, the complaints about the uneven and unfair implementation of Pre-Check are indifferent, at best.
Passenger frustration grows over airport security measures
“I always feel like the treatment I receive is completely arbitrary,” says Sara Shopkow, an editor based in Oakland. “Frankly, I’d rather just walk through the checkpoints naked. It would be much less humiliating.”
Passengers also reacted with a collective shrug when, in early July, the Department of Homeland Security announced new “enhanced security measures” at certain overseas airports with direct flights to the United States. In case you missed it, the new precautions ask passengers to power up their electronic devices. If they couldn’t, the powerless gadgets would not be permitted on the aircraft. The TSA doesn’t administer these screenings, but it has some oversight.
Media reports of widespread complaints were impossible to verify. In fact, I’ve received exactly zero grievances about the TSA’s war on dead cellphones.
From cheese searches to airport anomalies
Howard Zoufaly, a business consultant from Broomfield, Colo., reports that while the TSA allowed his charged phone to travel with him on his last flight, he notes with some weariness that it did find the cheese in his carry-on as he transited through the screening area in Milwaukee. Cheese isn’t banned by the TSA, but as a precaution, a screener tested his hands for explosives anyway. “The TSA has yet to catch a terrorist,” he sighs.
If the preposterous Pre-Check program and the no-fly rule for certain electronics isn’t enough to spark outrage among the flying public, then surely the latest headlines are. How about the guy who managed to drunkenly pose as a TSA agent at San Francisco International Airport and is alleged to have groped at least two women? Or the TSA agent at my hometown airport, Orlando, who rejected a passenger’s Washington, D.C., driver’s license and demanded to see a passport because he’d ‘never heard of the District of Columbia'”?
Still not steamed? Then consider this: A few weeks ago, the TSA’s “September 11th Security Fee” more than doubled, from $2.50 each way for non-stop flights to $5.60. On flights with layovers longer than four hours, the government stipulated that each leg is charged $5.60. Unbelievably, the money is not all going to airport security. Of the $36.5 billion the TSA expects to collect in fees over the next decade, $12.63 billion will go to the U.S. Treasury’s general fund. (You can read here about the TSA’s apology to a woman detained over breast milk X-ray refusal a year ago.)
The unsettling reality of TSA fee increase and public apathy
The reaction from the flying public: yawn.
In any other summer, all of this would send air travelers into a tizzy. But not in 2014. We’re fatigued and beaten down by the federal bureaucracy. (Here’s how to handle the TSA when you are traveling.)
“It reflects a larger issue of disappointment and disillusionment with the entire political process,” says Sommer Gentry, a math professor from Baltimore and a critic of the TSA. “The people have no voice, not to get the TSA out of our pants and not to make any other of the obviously necessary policy changes that have vast popular support but can’t get through Congress.”
So what will make that change? Heck if I know.
Get TSA to fly right
• Don’t vote for the status quo this November. Ask your congressional representative about his or her views on the TSA, and if they don’t align with yours, consider supporting another candidate.
• Don’t be passive. Consider joining an organization like Freedom to Travel USA (fttusa.org), which advocates for sensible airport screening that respects your civil liberties.
• Don’t consume the TSA’s products. Opt out of the full-body scanners, refuse to participate in Pre-Check, and, if possible, choose an alternative to flying. It’s the only way to show your disapproval.