It’s time to tell the TSA what you really think of it – and for it to listen

ComplainbyBritta Frahm
Travelers love to complain about the TSA, and even though the agency assigned to protect America’s transportation systems claims to listen, most of us know better.

Don’t believe me? Try sending the agency an email, complaining about your last pat-down. Do you hear the sound of crickets? Me too.

But now a court has ordered the TSA to listen, and to pay attention — and maybe, if we’re lucky, to do something about it.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit has ordered the TSA to engage in something known as notice-and-comment rulemaking on its screening procedures, and specifically its use of full-body scanners. You can leave your comment at the Federal Register website until June 24th.

The TSA hopes the public it’s assigned to protect will approve of the scanners and the way they’re used. But it promises to “review and analyze” the comments to develop a final rule related to the use of airport scanners.

What could they do? That isn’t entirely clear. The lengthy document seems to suggest that four options are on the table:

1. Metal detectors and pat-downs. Under this scenario, the passenger screening environment “remains the same as it was prior to 2008.” Which is to say, metal detectors, not scanners, are used as the primary passenger screening technology. Any alarms are “resolved” with a pat-down.

What if it were adopted? That system worked before 2008, and it could work again. But it wouldn’t address the problems many passengers have with “enhanced” pat-downs as a method of “resolving” an alarm. Those pat-downs are sometimes said to be abusive and punitive.

2. Metal detectors and random pat-downs. Under this alternative, TSA continues to use metal detectors as the primary passenger screening technology, but it “supplements” the screening with random pat-downs.

What if it were adopted? Chaos, probably. Those selected for a pat-down would complain, there would be allegations that the randomness wasn’t so random, and at the end of the day, the airport wouldn’t be any safer.

3. Metal detectors and explosive trace detection screening. This option would see the TSA return to metal detectors but conduct explosive trace detection screening on random passengers. ETD screening is fairly non-invasive, and usually involves swabbing luggage.

What if it were adopted? This would eliminate the difficult choice passengers are often asked to make between a scan and pat-down, and would replace it with proven technologies that could identify most threats. It’s the alternative preferred by TSA-watchers and privacy advocates.

4. Full-body scans or pat-downs. The final option would be to leave things exactly as they are: Using the scanners, which have already cost American taxpayers roughly $1 billion, and resolving any alarms with an “enhanced” pat-down.

What if it were adopted? This would be an unfortunate choice, because it would mean the TSA didn’t bother reading any of the public comments and doesn’t care what the American public thinks about the way it screens them. The current system costs too much, both financially and in terms of the constitutional rights we surrender at the airport, say critics. We can do better.

So what do travelers have to say about the TSA’s rulemaking so far? Plenty.

• From Matthew Richard Glucksberg: “Please remove the charade of security provided by full body microwave and backscatter X-ray facilities.”

• Sabina Gasper writes: “Nothing is going to make flying risk-free, but the TSA is arbitrary, rude and unprofessional in how it deals with the public — scanners or no scanners.”

• Patrick Pascal comments: “My visits to the airport bring back a childhood memory of the ordeal of crossing the Iron Curtain during the Cold War. After earning the respect of my community, my industry and my church, I deeply resent the unwarranted suspicion and lack of respect I regularly receive from the TSA.”

To be fair, there are a few comments supporting the body scanners and the way they’re being used. They fall into two general categories: The “if you don’t like it don’t fly” contingent and the “I work for the TSA and am commenting anonymously” crowd. Both deserve to be heard, of course, but they represent a very small minority.

What will happen?

After June 24, will anything change? Not immediately, and maybe not for a long time. The Department of Homeland Security will consider the comments in final rule, which could be months or years in the future.

Given that the life cycle of the scanners, from deployment to disposal, is eight years, it’s possible the TSA may decide to decommission its scanner program at about the same time the scanners have become obsolete. One way or the other, it seems the scanners are going to go away at some point in the future.

You can help make the policy change happen faster by leaving a comment on the Federal Register site now and urging the TSA to embrace option three immediately. It is the only reasonable choice.

But the entire scan-versus-pat-down era, which historians will surely come to recognize as one of the darkest moments in our democracy, begs a bigger question: At what point is it acceptable to shortcut the regulatory process and not be forthcoming with the public when it comes to keeping America safe? Is it ever acceptable?

I would like to say “no.” You probably do, too. But no one knows what tomorrow will bring.

  • Susan Richart

    Now that I’ve got more time:

    #3 is reasonable ONLY if the ETD machines are either recalibrated so that they don’t alarm on hand lotions, grass fertilizer or other materials that most of us come in contact with every day or the TSA buys new ETD machines that ignore components of commonly used materials.

    Trips to the private hut must be eliminated completely.

    • TSAisTerrorism

      Also, it would be nice if they stopped searching for drugs, which they claim they don’t do, but do.

  • anc1entmar1ner

    I agree with posters who assert that many comments are being left off or never posted on the site. So… save any comment that you make and resend if it doesn’t appear within a day or so.

    For those interested, here is my current scorecard for posted comments:

    Total comments posted: 1605
    Anti-scanners: 1491 (92.89%)
    Pro-scanners: 104 (6.47%)
    Neutral or undetermined: 10 (0.62%)

    • TSAisTerrorism

      You’ve counted? Wow! That’s a lot of counting. Bravo!

      Of course, with a 93% against rate, TSA will just say that most people love the machines. When have they ever lived in reality with the rest of us anyway?

      • anc1entmar1ner

        I’m keeping a record of each posting in a spreadsheet and indicating oppose, favor or neutral for each. So every time I enter a posting I get an updated count and percentage.

        • anc1entmar1ner

          Here are the numbers as of the morning of May 21:

          Total comments posted: 1837
          Anti-scanners: 1698 (92.43%)
          Pro-scanners: 129 (7.02%)
          Neutral or undetermined: 10 (0.54%)

          A spate of pro-scanner comments appeared yesterday which moved the numbers a bit. If you haven’t commented yet, please do so.

          • Daisiemae

            If you have commented already, do it again since not all of the comments are being posted. Maybe if you submit five comments, one of them will get posted.

          • anc1entmar1ner

            Right, Daisiemae…don’t give up!

            Illegitimi non carborundum

    • Susan Richart

      Thanks for keeping track of the comments. I’ll resend mine as an attachment and see if it gets posted.

      Perhaps when we see our comments we might want to take screen shots of them just in case they disappear.

    • Thank you for keeping track of these important numbers.

  • eleanordew

    Is there a way to complain to the Court about this seeming delay in getting the comments available to the public, and the “disappearance” of some comments?

    • RonBonner

      TSA ignore the courts order for over a year and the court didn’t do a thing. Don’t look to this court to defend the people from government.

  • RonBonner

    I don’t think the people running TSA have the personal integrity to act on the will of the people. TSA has an agenda and come hell or high water that is going to be the final outcome.

    What needs to happen is to prosecute the most senior TSA employees for violating their Oath to the United States Constitution. A little time in a lock up never hurt anyone.

  • Daisiemae

    I have posted three comments. The first one appeared on the website a short time later. It is now no longer on the website.

    The other two have never appeared on the website.

  • Susan Richart

    3,478 comments received as of today and still only 1,605 have been posted.

    I posted 3 comments in a row. When one posts a comment, one gets a reference number. I posted my comments on April 23; they still have not appeared.

    I also note that according to the website, allegedly only 31 comments were received between 5/6 and 5/15.