As TSA turns 10, agency critics call for reform — and more

On the eve of the TSA’s 10th birthday, and the official launch of TSA News Blog, critics of the beleaguered agency are lining up to call for the agency to be reformed — or eliminated.

The loudest cries are coming from Congress, where a new report (PDF) earlier this week concluded the agency was bloated, ineffective and in dire need of reform.

“Congress created TSA ten years ago to be a lean, risk-based, adaptive agency, responsible for analyzing intelligence, setting security standards, and overseeing the nation’s transportation security structure,” says Rep. John L. Mica (R-FL), chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. “Unfortunately, TSA has lost its way.”

Among the key findings:

• Since 2001, TSA staff has grown from 16,500 to over 65,000, a near-400% increase. In the same amount of time, total passenger enplanements in the U.S. have increased less than 12%

• Over the past ten years, TSA has spent nearly $57 billion to secure the U.S. transportation network, and TSA‘s classified performance results do not reflect a good return on this taxpayer investment.

• TSA‘s primary mission, transportation security, has been neglected due to the agency‘s constant focus on managing its enormous and unwieldy bureaucracy.

Some critics have gone further. Rep. Ron Paul in October called for the elimination of the TSA, as part of his budget-reduction plan.

And this week, he was joined by former U.S. Senator and Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern, who demanded that not only the TSA, but the Department of Homeland Security be dismantled.

McGovern, who was a senator from South Dakota before he was the Democratic Party’s nominee in 1972, said in his new book What It Means to be a Democrat that current airport security procedures were “ridiculous.”

“Watching the horrific events of events of 9/11 was an unimaginable shock to the American psyche,” he wrote. “We live with too much fear and not enough common sense.”

He added,

TSA has strayed from its security mission and mushroomed into a top-heavy bureaucracy that includes 3,986 headquarters staff, making $103,852 per year on average, and 9,656 administrators in the field. Currently, TSA has 65,000 employees. Unfortunately, over the past ten years, the agency has spent $57 billion on numerous operational and technology failures.

As the United States heads into a presidential election year, the TSA’s apparent failures are likely to become a campaign issue — although it’s entirely unclear which political party can claim the moral high ground. After all, TSA was created under a Republican president but its biggest controversies — including the body-scanner/pat-down problem — have happened on the watch of a Democratic president.

George McGovern calls for eliminating TSA, DHS

George McGovern, former U.S. Senator and Democratic presidential candidate, is doing what few in Congress (besides Ron Paul) are willing to do: calling for the elimination of the Transportation Security Administration and the Department of Homeland Security.

As The Hill reports, McGovern terms airport security procedures “silliness” and “a needless hassle.”

He quotes a figure of $7 billion a year to fund the TSA. Earlier this year, Janet Napolitano, head of DHS, which oversees the agency, asked for $8.1 billion for Fiscal 2012, which would go towards hiring another 3,270 employees, for a grand total of close to 60,000 TSA employees, most of them screeners. The budget of DHS is even larger — $42 billion, according to McGovern, with 200,000 employees.

With the economy in the doldrums and ordinary Americans being told they must face “austerity,” one wonders how the government can justify this extraordinary expenditure, especially when the result is to bully and harass those same citizens.

McGovern points out that the creation of DHS was a reaction, if not overreaction, to 9/11 and that the time has come for the country to stop making policy based on fear.

Canadian report finds private information breaches

The Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA) isn’t adequately protecting passengers’ private information, according to a report by Canada’s Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart.

In its annual report to Parliament, the privacy office determined that “CATSA acted beyond its authority by producing security reports on incidents not related to aviation security, and even contacting police about the legal activities of some passengers.”

CATSA agreed with the report and stated that it would stop collecting personal information as it related to legal activities (something the TSA in this country could learn from). There are also problems with CATSA’s holding on to certain private records, including financial data, long after they should have been deleted.

Another discovery was that in two cases, forbidden devices were found in the rooms where full-body scans were being viewed:  a cellphone and a closed-circuit TV camera. Followers of the TSA will recall that the agency has repeatedly declared that no such devices are allowed in the viewing rooms, an assertion we are meant to take on faith. No doubt such faith was also called upon in Canada until this report came out.

You can also comment on this report at Travel Underground.

New body scanner controversy erupts before the holidays

With only a few days before the American Thanksgiving holiday week — one of the busiest of the year for air travel — the TSA is facing two new body-scanner controversies.

TSA Administrator John Pistole appears to have backed off a public commitment to conduct a new independent study of X-ray body scanners used at airport security lanes around the country, according to ProPublica. The investigative news site had raised new questions about the safety of the scanners in a previous report.

At a Senate hearing after the story ran, Pistole reportedly agreed to a request by Sen. Susan Collins to conduct a new independent study of the health effects of the X-ray scanners.

But at another Senate hearing, he reversed course, saying he’d received a draft report on the machines by the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general.

“My strong belief is those types of machines are still completely safe,” he said. “If the determination is that this IG study is not sufficient, then I will look at still yet another additional study.”

In a related development, the EU earlier this week banned X-ray scanners now in use by the TSA.

“In order not to risk jeopardising citizens’ health and safety, only security scanners which do not use X-ray technology are added to the list of authorised methods for passenger screening at EU airports,” the EU said in a statement.

The move ratchets up the pressure on the agency to eliminate the scanners at U.S. airports, according to a British press report.

The American government is aggressively adding new body scanners, despite the safety questions. Earlier this week it began installing the machines in Portland. It has plans to deploy 1,800 airport scanners by 2014.

The timing of the EU X-ray ban and Pistole’s public statements just before the busy holiday air travel period may only fuel this controversy, as it did last year.

(Photo: Xoe Craft/Flickr)

Carry-on baggage boom leads to headaches for travelers and TSA

A new survey by the U.S. Travel Association shows 7 out of 10 air travelers are annoyed by passengers who carry too many carry-on bags on the plane (see update, below). To that list, add the TSA, CBS reports.

Passengers carried on 59 million more bags last year than the year before. This year, the number of carry-ons will jump another 28 million, according to the TSA.

Air travelers have a good reason for carrying their bags. They are trying to avoid a $25 fee for checked baggage which has proven highly profitable for airlines.

TSA Administrator John Pistole told CBS News it “obviously take more time in two areas. One is the sheer volume of the bags, the carry-on bags. But then two, most are fairly densely packed because people are trying to get everything in.”

Without the $3.4 billion generated by checked bag fees, the airlines would be in the red, according to CBS. The U.S. Travel Association, a trade group for the travel industry, believes said airlines should be required to let passengers check one bag for free.

Update: (9:30 a.m.) The U.S. Travel report is out. A few top-line results:

Travelers Support TSA’s New Initiatives – Believe TSA is on the “Right Track”

The TNS survey found that a majority of air travelers are satisfied with TSA’s overall performance
as it relates to security, with:

• 66.2 percent somewhat/very satisfied;

• 21.2 percent neutral; and

• 12.5 percent somewhat/very dissatisfied.

However, frequent air travelers are less satisfied with TSA’s overall performance than non-frequent
air travelers, with:

• Only 54.6 percent of frequent air travelers somewhat/very satisfied (compared to 67.8 percent of non-frequent air travelers); and

• 28 percent of frequent air travelers somewhat/very dissatisfied (compared to 10.4 percent of non-frequent air travelers).

The survey also found that a strong majority of air travelers support TSA’s new initiatives to improve passenger screening. Specifically:

• 74.5 percent are somewhat/very satisfied with TSA’s announcement that it will eventually phase out the requirement for persons to remove their shoes;

• 73 percent are somewhat/very satisfied that TSA will no longer pat down children 12 years old or younger except in unusual cases;

• 69.9 percent are somewhat/very satisfied that TSA is implementing a trusted traveler program called PreCheck; and

• 68.2 percent are somewhat/very satisfied that TSA will now use new software for full body scanners that displays a generic stick figure when viewed by security officers.

Blogger Bob issues 2011 holiday advice, new turkey jokes

Bob Burns, the TSA’s resident blogger has issued new tips for holiday air travelers. To agency-watchers, they’ll look familiar — except for the turkey jokes.

This year’s post had a grand total of four turkey jokes, up from three in 2010.

Our favorite?

“Travel Advice for Domesticated Turkeys: While you can fly on a plane, you can’t really fly.”

Repeating itself

Burns recycles, almost word for word, many of last year’s tips. Those include items on the MyTSA app, liquids and gels, family lanes, food, and Secure Flight.

Some of it is identical to the 2010 text.

Last year:

Pat-downs: A very small percentage of passengers will need to receive a pat-down. To reduce the need for a pat-down, the most important thing you can do is take everything out of your pockets before you go through screening. You can put these items in your carry-on bag. Don’t wear clothes with a high metal content, and put heavy jewelry on after you go through security. You will also receive a pat-down if you choose to opt out of our Advanced Imaging Technology.

This year:

Pat-downs & Body Scanners: A very small percentage of passengers receive pat-downs. To reduce the need for a pat-down, the most important thing you can do is take everything out of your pockets before screening. You can put these items in your carry-on bag. Don’t wear clothes with a high metal content, and put heavy jewelry on after you go through security. You will also receive a pat-down if you choose to opt out of our Advanced Imaging Technology. (Body Scanners)

What’s new?

• The Pre✓ Expedited Screening Pilot in several airports, including Atlanta and Dallas.

• Kids 12 and under can keep their shoes on as part of TSA’s move toward “risk-based security approach.”

• New privacy protection software on all millimeter wave body scanners.

• TSA’s new Known Crew Member program, which allows airline pilots to go skip some screenings.

• Expanded “chat downs” at Boston and now Detroit.

Barring another terrorist scare, this holiday season is shaping up to be far less eventful than the last one.

(Photo: inger Me/Flickr)