“Meltdowns” the TSA forgot to mention

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Christopher Elliott

John Mica is sounding the alarm bells about “another TSA meltdown.” In a vaguely worded press release issued late Friday, the Florida congressman, who chairs the committee that oversees the airport screeners, warned of a “dramatic meltdown of TSA operations” at an unnamed Florida airport.

He declined to provide details, except to say that it may involve a substantial number of TSA employees, including high-ranking airport security officials.

“When confirmed,” he added, “the significant security system failure at this Florida airport once again highlights the need to get TSA out of the human resources business and back into the nation’s security business.”

A nebulous press statement filled with hyperbole? Sounds like something a legislator might do during an election year.

Oh, wait. It is an election year.

But Mica’s rhetoric — and his obvious agenda, which is to privatize the TSA — looks amateurish when compared with the spin that’s sputtering out of the agency assigned to protect America’s transportation systems every week.

I’m referring to the weekly updates on the TSA’s blog. In the latest, delivered the same day as Mica’s oblique warning, the agency boasts of the dangerous weapons caches its agents discovered.

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“7 stun guns were found this week in carry-on bags,” it reports. “Among them were a couple of standouts both discovered at Detroit (DTW). One was disguised to look like a smart phone while the other doubles as a punching weapon.”

In all, the TSA confiscated 31 firearms last week — 22 of them loaded, 9 unloaded. It also discovered illegal narcotics in nine separate incidents, thanks to its full-body scanners. Although agents aren’t “looking” for drugs, the agency insists the busts are a “a testament that the technology works.”

Don’t you feel safer already? (Well, you shouldn’t; terrorists don’t carry guns or smuggle drugs — the last one to bring down a plane did it with boxcutters and brute force. Remember?)

No one knows exactly what Mica is referring to. The congressman says the TSA is keeping the press in the dark about it. Maybe it’s connected to the proposed termination of five agents in Southwest Florida the same day. Who knows?

What’s certain is that the TSA missed a few things last week — things that could be considered a “meltdown” in their own right.

For example, there’s the strange case of Marc Rory Duncan, 38, the stowaway on a commuter flight in San Diego. Just the night before, Duncan had been released from jail, where he’d been serving time for theft.

Duncan reportedly managed to penetrate San Diego’s TSA defenses and hop on a United Express plane just before it departed for Los Angeles. An alert flight crew noticed the ex-felon, who was making some “pretty incoherent statements.”

TSA says it’s initiating an investigation and will take appropriate action. But what, exactly, is appropriate when someone who is probably not in his right mind just waltzed through every legendary layer of security you have?

Chairman Mica? Anyone?

TSA misses — or meltdowns — are so routine, no one notices them even more. Just a few days before the former jailbird tried to fly in San Diego, the the U.S. Attorney’s Office charged a Piedmont Airlines pilot with attempting to board a flight in Buffalo, NY, with a loaded revolver.

Brett Dieter of Barboursville, Va., was charged with carrying a concealed weapon, but the specifics of his case are interesting. Apparently Dieter had been flying with his .357 Magnum for several days before it was discovered.

If I were an aspiring jihadist, the path to paradise would be clear to me now. I’d buy a pilot’s uniform and a handgun and walk through a TSA screening area babbling incoherently.

They’d have to let me through.

Do you really need me to tell you this isn’t working? Well, maybe you do. So I’ll say it again: the TSA is broken beyond repair. This isn’t security theater (and whoever coined that term has done us a great disservice by reducing it to simple theater) it’s incompetence on a grand scale, the likes of which we haven’t seen in at least a generation. This makes every Soviet five-year-plan look the very model of efficiency. The TSA, for its part, wants to double down its bet with its own five-year plan of sorts: an ambitious proposal to increase its size by doubling security fees for round-trip flights. The proposal is making some headway in the Senate.

The TSA’s critics — that would be every man, woman and child subjected to an invasive scan or pat-down this summer — might disagree. If the agency could show them a single terrorist caught, a single passenger saved from a criminal or a drug-toting passenger, they may see things the TSA’s way. They’d happily pay more to be kept safe from these dangers.

But as it stands, many air travelers can’t figure out exactly what the TSA is protecting us from.

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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 weekly columns for King Features Syndicate, USA Today, Forbes and the Washington Post. He also publishes 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 Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter. Read more of Christopher's articles here.

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