Did TSA turn off its scanners again to keep things moving during the holidays?

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By Christopher Elliott

That’s the question asked by Tom Westerman, who flew from JFK to Atlanta on Dec. 23 and returned the 30th. Both were among the busiest travel days of the year.

“We saw the scanners at both airports and they were just turned off,” he says. “I didn’t see anyone else going through them on other lines. At JFK they had a rope across them to prevent people from going through. At ATL we were just directed to go around them.”

When I heard from Westerman, my initial thought was: “Oh no, does this mean I have to write another post about the TSA?”

Suspicious machine shutdowns at TSA checkpoints

The topic is so old that media outlets are starting to recycle stories.

Then I flew on Jan. 1, and wouldn’t you know it — the Rapiscan Secure 1000s “backscatter” X-Ray machines were powered down and roped off at our screening area in Orlando, too.

The last time TSA was confronted with multiple eyewitness accounts that it switched off its controversial Advanced Imagine Technology in order to expedite screening (and thwart “opt-out” protests) it offered a wishy-washy denial that was easily debunked.

(By the way, the TSA went through the extraordinary step of removing a courtesy link to my story that its blogging software automatically places on its post, called a trackback. Apparently, it didn’t want people visiting this site to find out what questions its “denial” raised. Tsk, tsk, Blogger Bob.)

TSA could also say that it is trying to be random and unpredictable by shutting down the machines, a line they’ve used on me many times before, and which would certainly be true. Switching off a backscatter or millimeter-wave unit, each of which costs taxpayers between $100,000 and $200,000, certainly is unexpected.

Concerns arise as TSA machines go unused

But I think taxpayers in general and air travelers in particular, have a reason to be concerned that the machines aren’t being used. (Here’s our guide to handling the TSA when you travel.)

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What if TSA decided to stop using its magnetometers? Or the X-ray machines used to screen baggage? Isn’t this supposed to be our last line of defense against terrorists? And didn’t the bad guys try to bring down a plane last Christmas (you remember Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, don’t you?).

It just doesn’t make sense. Why turn off the machines at precisely the time when you claim to need them the most?

But I’m not complaining. We had arrived at the airport extra early, because we made the decision that we wouldn’t allow our three children to be scanned. No amount of radiation, even the “ultra” low doses Rapican claims to use, is “safe” so we were prepared for the modified pat-down that the TSA has developed for children.

I am very uncomfortable with a TSA agent touching my kids. If the agency did the slightest amount of common-sense profiling, they’d know that my children are a threat to no one. There has to be a better way.

Westerman agrees.

“I was a bit stressed about the trip,” he adds. “I love to fly, but hate airports.”

Unused scanners as a waste of resources

He adds,

I’m not complaining. I don’t like the scanners. Now I just see them as a waste of money sitting in the airport.

So do I. They are collecting dust, along with those fabled “puffer” machines that cost us millions but did absolutely nothing to protect us.

TSA should either use the scanners or unplug them and send them to the dumpster. But having the machines take up valuable space at the airport, as an empty deterrent to would-be terrorists, is not an efficient way to spend six figures.

Stories like this just take us one step closer to reforming the TSA. It can’t happen soon enough.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

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