Are airlines responsible for America’s TSA disaster?

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By Christopher Elliott

One of the more interesting reactions to last week’s post arguing that the TSA as we know it is dead came from a publicist for one of the airline trade associations.

In a polite but insistent email, he claimed I’d misunderstood the congressional testimony by one of his executives. The airline industry rep was criticizing government regulations — not the TSA — for being expensive, inconsistent, and reactive, he said.

It made me wonder: Why would airlines not want to be seen as criticizing the TSA? Everyone else is.

I mean, how could airlines not have a problem with what critics say is an $8 billion boondoggle? No one has to work closer with these troubled federal screeners than commercial air carriers. So when it comes to the topic of much-needed improvement, you’d expect airlines to offer Congress an earful.

It’s their TSA

When you scroll back to the beginning of this 11-year-old agency, it’s clear why the airlines don’t want to be heard bad-mouthing the TSA. Before 9/11, air carriers had to pay for their own security screening, which was an added expense they didn’t want.

Today, passengers pay through a combination of taxes and a 9/11 surcharge added to their tickets.

Dig deeper, and it’s hard not to conclude that, in some respects, the airline industry has a TSA it’s always dreamed about. Not only does the agency deal with the pesky back-end security processes, like pre-screening passengers based on their personal data and matching them against the terrorist watchlist, but now airlines also have a convenient place to send all of the passenger complaints about pilfered luggage.

That’s right, they pass them off to the TSA.

Unfortunately for a vast majority of passengers, the TSA is a black hole for complaints. Most air travelers don’t even bother filing one when something is stolen from a checked bag during screening. The latest agency figures say only 3 in 100,000 air travelers file a claim, and its rejection rates are high. I’ve lost count of the number of air travelers who have simply given up after filing a claim with the TSA and waiting.

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Special status

But why would the airline industry support an agency that is deeply flawed and in dire need of reform?

Sadly, it’s probably because the status quo suits it. Pilots and flight attendants get access to special lines and are spared the most invasive screening — the humiliating full-body scans and pat-downs.

Are airline employees less of a security risk than passengers? Not necessarily.

Who can forget Clayton Frederick Osbon, the JetBlue pilot who had a “psychotic breakdown” on a flight from New York to Las Vegas earlier this year. Or EgyptAir first officer Gameel Al-Batouti, who, investigators concluded, committed suicide when he crashed EgyptAir Flight 990 into the Atlantic just south of Nantucket Island in 1999.

What’s more, the TSA’s authoritarian attitude sets a tone for the entire flight. Post-9/11 passengers tend to be more cooperative when flight attendants ask them to comply with their instructions. Having passengers heel obediently when someone in uniform barks an order seems to fit the airline industry agenda. After all, the interior of an aircraft is no democracy.

To be fair, I’m sure many airline employees are horrified by the state of the TSA. They support the reforms suggested by agency critics and Congress. But at least on the record, their employers seem to like things the way they are.

Why? For the airline industry, even a bad TSA is better than what they had before. This overfunded agency has eliminated key security responsibilities and costs. And its employees have special status, effectively enjoying the same security screening experience as they did before 9/11, for no other reason than that they wear a uniform. What’s not to like about that?

Who fixes this mess?

Should airlines clean up this mess of a federal agency? It is partially responsible for today’s TSA, no doubt about it. But there’s plenty of blame to go around for America’s mismanaged and heavily criticized airport screening bureaucracy. (Here’s how to handle the TSA when you travel.)

In order to create a dysfunctional TSA, many key stakeholders essentially remained silent for a decade. That includes an apathetic electorate, which failed to see the constitutional, privacy, and civil rights problems of the current TSA. But it’s especially true of the most powerful airline passengers. This will be the elite-level frequent business travelers and the corporate travel managers controlling their purse-strings. These road warriors, who really should have known better, gave the current TSA their stamp of approval by staying quiet as a group. They have earned a ‘free’ trusted traveler designation, which allows them to shortcut the worst of the screening experience by their silence.

But it’s safe to say that without the support of airlines, the TSA would have never become America’s most-hated federal agency. Without its help, we don’t stand a chance of reforming the TSA.

The airline industry’s inaction in the face of gross incompetence, criminality, and unconstitutional behavior by the TSA, may have served its interests in the short term. But over the long term, it will hurt everyone.

Are airlines responsible for the current TSA?

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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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