The crazy standards of TSA

Anyone who travels a lot can tell  you how silly most airport security methods employed by the TSA are. Consider:

  • You’re required to show an ID and your boarding pass in order to make sure the names match. What does this really do? And now that I can print out a boarding pass at home, or even use the digital image of one on my iPhone, how much security does that provide? Especially since the form of ID is regularly faked by high school students?
  • How many times have you gotten through security, taken your flight, and unpacked at the hotel only to discover some contraband you forgot to take out or throw away?
  • Shoes are, apparently, really important to put on the belt rather than in a bin, yet I rarely see that happen in regular practice.
  • Flight crews often just have to flash a badge rather than scan it. A uniform and an ID badge (both real or both fake) can breeze you not only through security without scrutiny, but getting to go straight to the front of the line.

There’s an assumption in the TSA guidelines that flight crews are unflinching, background checked protectors of our nation’s air security. Just look at the recent letter from the head of American Airlines’ Pilot’s Union to the TSA:

“Our pilots are highly motivated partners in the effort to protect our nation’s security, with many of us serving as Federal Flight Deck Officers. We are all keenly aware that we may serve as the last line of defense against another terrorist attack on commercial aviation. Rather than being viewed as potential threats, we should be treated commensurate with the authority and responsibility that we are vested with as professional pilots.”

On one hand, I understand this thinking. Many (all?) pilots have been background checked, and many have security clearances. But considering how easy it would be to pass as a pilot, and considering that flight crews and pilots alike have no liquid restrictions going through security, isn’t it foolish to believe that changing the standards without changing the methods of verification is ridiculous?

And yes, I recently watched a flight attendent walk through the metal detector at AUS with a large cup of coffee. When I asked about it with the TSA supervisor, I was told that since they had had a background check, they were able to do things normal passengers weren’t. And besides, he asked, why would I distrust my flight crew? Yeah, I was scared out of my mind for the next few flights. A few years ago, I sat across a table from the TSA Administrator who told me very, very clearly that 3 ounces of liquid is safe when it comes to explosives, and 4 ounces+ is very, very dangerous. And flight attendants or pilots, with barely a glance at their ID can walk through security with unlimited liquids.

I truly understand the pilot’s concerns for significant radiation doses, intrusive pat-down methods, and other problems with the current process, I don’t believe that they should be entitled to alternative screening methods until several things happen:

  1. Actual identification verification methods are used consistently across all of our nation’s airports.
  2. Crew only lines are moved out of sight of the passenger lines, or clarity and openness about what crew member background check processes are used is shared with the world. If TSA is asking passengers to be vigilant, nothing kills that desire quicker than seeing near unfettered access by flight crews without an understanding of what protections they have that I don’t. After all, Air Marshals don’t take their ankle holsters and pistols off and put them in a bin, right?
  3. Non-flight crew citizens have the ability to apply for similar background check methods. After all, there are plenty of military personnel who have security clearance. There are plenty of frequent fliers (myself included) who would happily pay a fee to undergo a background check yearly that grants them privileges like avoiding taking out liquids (or being able to carry on more), skipping the removal of their laptops, or even being able to avoid the scanning metal detectors that broadcast an image under your clothes to some random person doing lord knows what in a room somewhere in the airport or D.C. Certainly if this is the kind of thing that pilots are wanting, expecting to be able to opt out of because of their backgrounds, we can and should be able to apply that to other citizens too, right?

I understand the irritation and concern pilots  are feeling. I’ve probably flown as many flight this year as some pilots have. I get it. But before we go removing restrictions, I’d sure as hell like to feel good about the poor implementation of the ones we already have.


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