With TSA air security, travelers are flying blind

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By Christopher Elliott

The Transportation Security Administration TSA likes to keep terrorists guessing. Apparently, it likes to keep travelers guessing, too.

And we do. Shoes on — or off? Laptop computer in the bag — or on the conveyor belt? And what about tickets: should you include your middle name, middle initial, or simply go with just your first and last? Oh, and are they going to pull you over at the gate for additional screening?

“We don’t want to be consistent,” TSA spokeswoman Lauren Gaches told me. “We want to be flexible. And we don’t want a checklist mentality. If we are predictable, it could become easier for someone who wants to do us harm to figure out the system.”

A little context is in order

Gaches and I were discussing the TSA officers’ essential ability to use their discretion during the screening process. This led us to ponder why some of them, for instance, allow a half-empty tube of Crest in a carry-on bag to slide through, while others will pull aside travelers for no reason other than their perception that they appear suspicious.

There’s no denying that air travelers are often perplexed by the screening process.

Last year, for instance, TSA officers at North Dakota’s Grand Forks International Airport told Susan Jean Schostag that she could pack a few jars of peanut butter in her carry-on luggage. (Why on Earth would anyone bring 16 ounces of Skippy on a plane? Schostag, an administrative assistant who lives in Grand Forks, was flying to Germany. And if you’ve ever lived in Germany, you know it’s almost impossible to find good peanut butter there.)

Peanut butter was verboten in carry-on bags

But this fall, a TSA agent at the same airport told her that peanut butter was verboten in carry-on bags. “We know about the liquid rule, of course,” Schostag said. “But this is just stupid.”

Or how about Kenneth Akin — actually, make that Kenneth Alexander Akin Jr., a retiree from Sierra Vista, Ariz. His name is the problem. “I’m not really sure what the hell TSA is asking for and what the airlines are doing,” he told me. He’s flying to Mexico this month and can’t figure out what name should be on his airline ticket.

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In preparation for TSA’s Secure Flight program, which is intended to streamline the watchlist matching process and is now being put into effect, his airline asked him to update his frequent flier accounts with his full legal name as it appears on his ID. But that’s easier said than done. The name fields allowed him to revise his account only to add a middle name, but no “Jr.” “When I tried to do ‘Akin, Jr.’ I got a minus on my report card,” he said.

Airlines grading passengers?

What’s this world coming to?

“So TSA wants full name, but the airlines do not develop the form to input the full name,” Akin said.

There are perfectly good explanations for both of those apparent inconsistencies. Secure Flight, the TSA will tell you, is a work in progress, and the agency’s liquid-and-gel rules are clearly spelled out on its Web site. (How they’re interpreted — well, that’s another story.)

I asked security expert Bruce Schneier, one of the TSA’s most outspoken critics, why air travelers continue to be confounded by the rules. “Because,” he said, “they’re confusing.”

He doesn’t see the point to the airport screening theater. “If you try to figure out the point, you’ll be frustrated,” he told me.

Maybe the TSA is a little confused, too

Try working for an agency where you have to be transparent; however, at the same time, remain opaque; where customers expect consistency, yet you need to stay unpredictable; and where the only real measure of success is when nothing happens. No wonder the agency has an alarmingly high turnover rate among senior executives, according to a recent U.S. Government Accountability Office report.

I can’t be objective or even consistent on the subject of the TSA and the way it treats air travelers. I’ve been covering this agency from the beginning, and throughout the eight years since its creation, I’ve both criticized it and praised it. I’ve ridiculed it, called for more funding, and even advocated for it to be defunded. If TSA has been consistent about one thing, it’s the way in which it mystifies the travelers it’s supposed to protect.

There is no quick fix

You want a quick fix? Sorry. My best advice is to expect the unexpected when you arrive at the airport. (Read my guide on how to handle the TSA.) Give yourself more time than they say you need. Put everything on the conveyor belt. Be prepared for a secondary screening, a frisking, a game of 20 Questions.

That’s how the TSA likes it. Maybe it is time for us to tell the TSA what we think of it.

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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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