TSA watch: They’re looking for the wrong thing – and congratulating themselves for it

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By Christopher Elliott

They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. If that’s true, then I should probably feel privileged that my old friend Bob Burns has started a “week in review” feature on the TSA site to highlight the positive things his agency has done – and presumably, to counter all of the unfortunate events I tend to write about every week in TSA watch.

But in this week’s post, Burns covers one event for which the TSA deserves to be recognized — and several that left me puzzled.

Let’s start with the one I liked. It involves a passenger at Syracuse International Airport who discovered she had left her cell phone in her rental car after she’d gone through screening. A helpful TSA agent retrieved the handset for her, reported the Consumerist.

“She was polite, courteous, professional and extremely helpful,” the passenger wrote. “I feel like she went above and beyond the call of duty without compromising security at the airport.”

Neat story.

But TSA also tries to connect this customer-service coup with another “success” story that, like the first one I mentioned, has practically nothing to do with making air travel safer.

It notes,

So far this week, our officers have discovered 10 loaded firearms in carry-on bags at security checkpoints across the nation.

In addition to these loaded weapons that we’ve kept off of airplanes, there were also unloaded firearms, loose ammunition, and firearm parts detected that aren’t mentioned in this post.

TSA then goes on to list all of the incidents, which is a little unusual. Maybe it’s because only two of them – a loaded .380 caliber pistol in Salt Lake City and another in Seattle – made the news. Perhaps the agency wants full credit for discovering this cache. Perhaps the agency is trying to say that they are heroes.

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But the problem, as any levelheaded observer will tell you, isn’t guns on planes or ammunition on planes. After all, some pilots keep loaded pistols on the flight deck and air marshals carry weapons, too.

It’s guns in the wrong hands that are the problem.

The TSA’s post leaves me with the impression that the passengers behind these and other gun incidents may have had nefarious motives (it denies that — see Blogger Bob’s comment below). Maybe they should have also provided the names of these would-be terrorists and the charges that were filed against them.

TSA has no law enforcement authority

Indeed, the agency mentions nothing about who these passengers were or what actions were taken against them. In truth, these cases are handed over to local authorities, who might prosecute them — or drop them. TSA has no law enforcement authority.

Maybe it’s me, but I think the TSA should wait a while before patting itself on the back again. Even though I love the story about the agent who retrieved the cell phone. It can be done far cheaper by one of those meet-and-greet volunteers who work at the airport. It will save American taxpayers billions of dollars a year.

Likewise, the obsessive search for weapons, while it may make some of us feel a little safer, is wrong-headed. The agency should be looking for terrorists instead. (Here’s how to handle the TSA when you travel.)

When TSA catches its first Jihadist trying to incinerate an aircraft over American airspace, then it should post its next week in review.

Until then, maybe it ought to keep its “successes” to itself.

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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. He is based in Panamá City.

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