Will TSA’s new senior exemption make air travel safer?

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By Christopher Elliott

Nothing makes you forget bad news faster than a little manufactured good news — a PR secret the TSA seems to have stumbled upon last week.

The agency charged with protecting us from airborne terrorists revealed it would allow wedding dresses to be carried on the plane as luggage. Seriously, the TSA says yes to the dress!

Never mind that there’s no evidence jihadists ever have or ever will try to blow up a plane with a bridal gown.

In a second, more significant announcement, the TSA said it would begin testing “modified” screening procedures for passengers 75 and older next Monday. Senior citizens will now be allowed to leave their shoes and light outerwear on. They will also be allowed an extra pass through the full-body scanners before having to undergo a pat-down.

Both these changes were timed to offset the unfortunate news earlier this month. Those scanners are easily foiled, a fact the government desperately wants you to forget.

A questionable solution with unintended consequences

We are not so easily fooled. It probably isn’t a matter of if, but when, all that “advanced” imaging technology will go the way of the failed puffer machines. Remember them? Carving out two new screening exemptions is hardly enough to sway public opinion or the votes of their elected representatives, who will likely soon end funding for the controversial machines.

But it’s worth asking if the TSA, in its haste to make air travelers forget about its technological shortcomings, just made flying a little more dangerous.

Reaction to the over-75 rule was predictable. Most travelers said it made perfect sense. Grandma is about as likely to blow up a plane as a 12-year-old. She incidentally is also subjected to a new “modified” screening procedure. Stephen Colbert mocked it. And Joy Behar worried about 90-year-old terrorists on The View.

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I’m not joking.

Too many exemptions

Even though Behar is obviously paranoid, her question points to a valid concern: Has TSA — in a misguided effort to create a more “risk-based” screening system. Or to placate an increasingly angry flying public — just added one exemption too many?

In the recent past, TSA agents have done a thorough job (perhaps too thorough) of giving older passengers a once-over.

But most successful terrorist are young and male. The oldest of the 9/11 hijackers, Mohammed Atta, was 33 and the rest were in their 20s.

But not all of them fit the profile. Consider Lalihan Akbay, who at the age of 102 holds the distinction of being the world’s oldest terrorist.

Akbay is reportedly being investigated for “making propaganda for a terrorist organization.” Speaking in her defense, her son Tevfik says she can’t understand, speak or hear properly, and can’t remember what she has just said.

And yet Akbay would qualify for the TSA’s new “modified” screening procedures. I feel much safer now.

It goes the other way, too. This 11-year-old holy warrior, believed to be the world’s youngest terrorist, would also get to keep his explosive shoes on when he goes through airport security in the United States. If he ever made it here.

There has to be better way. (Here’s how to handle the TSA when you travel.)

Maybe the TSA is going about this all wrong. Maybe instead of a foolish process of elimination, which still leaves a small but not insignificant risk, the government should reverse its approach.

Innocent until proven guilty

Instead of thinking of air travelers as guilty of terrorism until proven innocent, why not think of us as innocent until proven guilty? (There’s something so American about that, isn’t there?)

The TSA is busy creating special groups that it believes don’t present a threat. It includes high-level government officials. Members of the armed services and their families, airport workers, children, senior citizens and frequent fliers with their special little FastPasses.

But why not spent all that money trying to identify the bad guys before they board? You know, like the law enforcement officers they like to think of themselves as.

Flashing an AARP card shouldn’t exempt anyone from being carefully screened, or probably more to the point, pre-screened. (OK, technically you qualify for an AARP card at 50, but you get the point.) Offering all senior citizens a waiver makes about as much sense as giving wedding dresses and the women carrying them a pass.

After all, what kind of threat could a bride present? She has her whole life ahead of her, and so much to lose. She couldn’t possibly be carrying a bomb — could she?

To those of you who have pointed out that the poll question is absurd as the TSA’s actions — thank you. Exactly my point.)

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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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