A silent majority sounds off about airport security

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By Christopher Elliott

Intrusive airport searches are just fine with a majority of air travelers. They also think the TSA has singlehandedly prevented a 9/11 repeat. And they think critics of the agency’s current practices are nothing more than “anxious advocates.”

At least that’s the impression you might be left with if you read a recent editorial in the Chicago Tribune. Even amid the sequestration slowdowns, we’re big fans of the TSA.

Connect the dots, and the conclusion is inescapable: There’s a silent majority of Americans who really do believe the TSA is the “gold standard” in aviation security, as the TSA’s John Pistole recently proclaimed. We’re safer today because of the TSA, and out in flyover country we feel nothing but gratitude toward America’s airport sentries, who are the last line of defense against terrorism.

But if you’re a regular reader of this feature, which tries to hold the TSA accountable to the taxpayers who fund it, you might find those revelations troubling. Because if they are true, then most criticism of the agency assigned to protect America’s transportation systems is undeserved, unfair — even unpatriotic.

The complaints about the scans, the pat-downs and the alleged civil rights violations are just whining by a small group of protesters. After all, hasn’t the TSA protected us?

Can America really feel this way?

But a closer reading of the editorial and a review of a few often forgotten facts suggests otherwise.

Complaining about an “inconvenience”

The Tribune commentary starts with the premise that the “inconvenience” of intrusive searches is “an infinitesimal price to pay for the relentlessly safe flights they enjoy.” But that’s a false premise, say critics.

If the TSA gave you an aggressive pat-down because of a titanium screw in your leg or because you prefer not to undergo a full-body scan, you might beg to differ. It’s more than “inconvenient” when a TSA agent repeatedly knocks your genitals, as the screener at Washington’s Reagan Airport recently did to me. The blueshirt just seemed to be in a hurry, and he clearly didn’t hold an “opt-out” passenger like me in high regard. But the pat-down hurt all the same. I’m not alone.

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Also, to credit airport security for the airline industry’s safety record is something of a stretch.

Planes aren’t falling out of the sky because airlines, under the close supervision of the FAA, are sticklers about safety.

The story also labels critics as “complainers” for having the impertinence to take the TSA to task for deploying technology that hasn’t been adequately tested and that shoots X-rays at passengers in order to see through their clothes. It’s a funny way to describe agency-watchers who, as it turned out, had a perfectly legitimate point, since the government agreed with them when it decommissioned the backscatter scanners. (Here’s how to handle the TSA when you travel.)

The Tribune then quotes a TSA spokesman saying something the agency has claimed for a while now. It claims it’s moving away from a “one size fits all” model.

Airport security does not pamper us

“That said,” the commentary adds, “we can’t stress too much that the whole point of airport security is to enhance the flying experience not by pampering travelers, but by keeping flights safe from saboteurs.”

That’s an interesting thing to say, actually. Because there’s a whole list of special exceptions to the TSA’s regular screening. It includes dignitaries, members of congress, active duty military, pilots, families with young kids, and frequent fliers.

“So the next time you hear someone carp about TSA procedures, ask him or her how many times the agency, formed 70 days after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has failed at that mission,” the editorial concludes.

That, too, is an odd thing to say. Because the TSA hasn’t apprehended a single terrorist with its famous 20 layers of security.

And the logic of claiming that because there’s been no 9/11 rerun is a 21st century version of Russell’s Teapot. Or, as my colleague Lisa Simeone would put it, it’s like saying you’ve applied giraffe repellent to your front lawn and then claiming it worked because it’s prevented a giraffe infestation.

The TSA apprehended neither the underwear bomber nor the shoe bomber. Alert passengers stopped them.

It’s discouraging when people call you a complainer and whiner. But the dissidents have thick skins.

Is opposing the TSA unpatriotic?

More problematic is that the Tribune’s editorial, and others like it, suggests that since mainstream America agrees the TSA is more or less fine just the way it is, then the complainers are … well, complainers.

Two recent surveys underscore that conclusion. One finds that a majority of Americans think the TSA is doing a good job. Nnever mind that half of those polled admitted never having flown. Another says a majority of travelers would support prison-style cavity searches at the airport, if necessary.

Opponents of the TSA’s current screening practices shouldn’t be angry at the Tribune. But it’s just carrying a message from mainstream America. Instead, maybe they should start worrying about the hearts and minds of the average travelers, who, for reasons they can’t comprehend, are fans of the TSA.

If they only knew the TSA the way the rest of us do.

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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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