TSA’s exemption shell game

by Bill Fisher on December 22, 2012


In a recent interview, TSA Administrator John Pistole acknowledged that his agency has been less than embraced by the public, and he again promised, as he has for two years now, to focus on improving passengers’ experience with TSA screening. In that interview Pistole said that it has become an adversarial relationship, “so what we’re trying to do through all these initiatives is change that paradigm and make this a partnership.”

The TSA said earlier this year that more than one million airline passengers have signed up for its Pre-Check program since its inception in October 2011. Now the TSA claims that there have been 5 million passengers given special treatment by this program, indicating that on average each member has used Pre-Check 5 times. The TSA doesn’t mention that, based on FAA data, approximately 850 million passengers have passed through security since Pre-Check started, meaning that this program helps only 0.1% of travelers, or 1 in 1,000 members.

The agency continues to issue press release after press release saying that it has expanded Pre-Check to 35 airports, allowing members who have been deemed low risk to sometimes keep shoes, jackets, and belts on. John Pistole said in the interview referenced above that the agency’s priority this year had been to “move toward a risk-based approach to screening, recognizing that the vast majority of travelers are not potential terrorists.”

Gee, who would have guessed?

TSA has ramped up press releases in the past month touting “feel good” changes to TSA security that will offer virtually no benefit to the average traveler, nor improve the quality of TSA workers, nor reduce harassment of travelers. These include a program that may allow expedited screening for active military personnel, which will only be available at six airports and will not extend to family members traveling with them. Children 12 and under and passengers 75 and older might receive expedited screening; at some airports, people with top-secret security clearances also qualify.

The TSA has also expanded the flight crew exemptions, adding flight attendants to the list, which already includes pilots.

As some readers will recall, the TSA reversed the policy that subjected pilots to full screenings and instead allowed them to go through a metal detector at airport checkpoints when they presented ID. While many argued that this new policy made sense (because obviously the pilot is in control of the biggest potential weapon of all — the plane), it was clearly capitulation by the TSA in response to threats by the pilots’ union to shut down aviation.

This exemption is a contradiction to Pistole’s earlier statements that these measures were necessary to assure that “everybody who gets on that flight has been properly screened.”

Beyond that, there was evidence both before that date and afterward that pilots were not immune to carrying weapons aboard or participating in acts of terrorism. While some pilots are allowed to carry a firearm as part of the TSA’s Armed Pilot program, this privilege does not extend to all pilots, resulting in several pilot arrests each year.

The expansion of this exemption to flight attendants is equally flawed in its logic. Given that there are more flight attendants than pilots, it isn’t surprising that there are dozens of stories of flight attendants carrying weapons through security. In the latest case, a 65-year-old flight attendant was arrested for trying to bring a gun aboard an airplane at Chicago O’Hare. This was a return trip to Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson, where she had successfully carried the gun through the crew-only lane earlier that day.

So far, all of these have been harmless oversights by crew members who forgot or perhaps didn’t know that there was a gun in their carry-on. And it demonstrates that crew members carry guns aboard planes on a regular basis

These exemptions also extend to the ubiquitous airport personnel, allowing workers to bypass checkpoints without any screening whatsoever, usually pushing carts of unchecked products to vendors in the gate areas or loading baggage onto planes.

And while TSA workers are ostensibly screened, several have been caught carrying weapons, including illegal ones, into airports, even though they above anyone should know that this is illegal.

So despite the flurry of TSA propaganda, it remains doubtful that there will be any improvement in airport security for the average traveler anytime soon. Perhaps the only glimmer of hope in this latest onslaught is that the TSA actually might stop harassing the elderly and children. Is it possible that they’re actually telling the truth for once? Hopefully, it won’t take another video of a sobbing 12-year-old being traumatized by screeners to get this agency to start acting like responsible adults instead of a band of prepubescent thugs.

(Photo: marxchivist/Flickr Creative Commons)

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