The Travel Detective

The TSA’s Security Theater And What To Do About It

Airport travelers face TSA's Security TheaterCheck out this interview from Peter Greenberg Worldwide Radio with’s “Ask the Pilot” columnist Patrick Smith on what the TSA is doing, and what it should be doing

Peter Greenberg:
I received a letter recently from a man with an 8-year-old son, also named Peter. He wanted to know how security will work flying with his baby from the Delta terminal at LaGuardia.

Patrick, what’s your answer to that?

Patrick Smith: I think the first thing you do is write a letter to Congress and see if we can get this TSA situation straightened out. Even if it means getting rid of the agency entirely, which is sounding more and more like a good idea at this point.

PG: Let’s get real, because we know why it was started. Because of September 11, and we know it became a huge bureaucracy. If you don’t train your people properly to have good intuition and common sense and street sense, you’re really doing security theater. We’ve just gone through the “introduction,” if you will, of the new scanning machines which was a public relations disaster for the TSA. The outcry was worse than the actual reality, but it was an outcry nonetheless. And nothing has really been resolved, has it?

Find out more about one thing the TSA isn’t doing to protect passengers: Air Cargo Bomb Plot Highlights Security Flaws.

TSA Sarcastic LogoPS: No, not really. The TSA has just dug in its heels and doesn’t seem interested in changing its protocols at all. You know it is interesting that you pointed out the agency was started after September 11. The big irony there is that the 9/11 attacks really had nothing to do with airport security when you look at it. What weapons the guys used didn’t really matter. They could have succeeded with pencils if it came to that.

It was all about the elements of surprise. It wasn’t about the type of hardware they used to get through airport security. They were taking advantage, not of a loophole in security, but in our mindset and our expectation of what a hijacking was going to be like.

I think it’s an important conversation because of important privacy issues, and it’s also good that there is a groundswell of resistance against TSA or some of their policies anyway. But on the other hand, I’m some what disturbed by all of this controversy because it kind of distracts us from asking more important questions about TSA’s approach to security overall. I think the scanners are just a symptom of a very dysfunctional approach to airport security. By that, I mean a couple of things.

Learn more about the TSA’s controversial new procedures:

First, we have this system that treats everybody who flies, from a baby to a uniformed crew member, as a potential terrorist. In an air transportation system where you have more than 2 million people flying every day, that is just not a sustainable approach. Ultimately, our own rules are unenforceable because the system is just too big to have every single person looked at on equal footing.

TSA's New ProVision X-Ray ScannersThe other thing is these scanners are part of an arms race, for lack of a better term. First it was pointy objects, then it was liquid and gels, and then shoes, and then came the underwear bomber, and now we’re being groped and look at naked. What’s next? We need to step back and realize we’re never, ever ever going to be fully safe and protected from every conceivable means of attack. We need to start getting more bang for our buck, start reevaluating the hierarchy of threat, and concentrating on areas where there’s a more potent threat than this zero-tolerance, across-the-board philosophy we have.

PG: Without being too insensitive or flip, I’ve always made this argument that if the underwear bomber had stood up in the course of trying to detonate his bomb and sang, Mary Had a Little Lamb, the TSA would have instituted a new rule forbidding nursery rhymes to be sung on airplanes.

PS: Right, it just goes from one thing to the next. The TSA says, “We need to stay one step ahead of the terrorists.” Actually the terrorists, almost by definition, are one step ahead of us. That’s the way it’s always going to be. A resourceful enough saboteur is always going to figure out a way to skirt the system. So we need to realize that we’re never going to be fully protected.

The TSA is no stranger to parody. Get a laugh with Miss TSA 2011: Invasive TSA Scanners Inspire Sarcastic Pin-Up Calendar.

TSA Pat Down Should Be The Last Line Of Defense, Not The FirstThe other thing we need to come to grips with is that real airport security doesn’t even happen at the airport at all. It’s not the job of the concourse screener; it is the job of counterintelligence and FBI and the CIA and Interpol, and all that stuff that goes on behind the scenes. That’s not to say that the airport screener doesn’t have an important job, but it is not the job that they’re doing now.

PG: I think it is safe to say we all want great airport security. I don’t think there is any polling data that suggests otherwise. Even in the wake of the scanning machines and all that controversy it was still like 8-1 for better security. So, that is not really the issue; it is the implementation of it.

PS: Well, what is better security? Do Americans want to feel safe, and do they want to have this presentation of security? Or do they want to actually be safe?

PG: I go back to the stupid questions that were asked as recently as a week ago when I was coming back from Jamaica. It happens when you come back to the United States on a U.S. carrier. They always have someone there at the instruction of either the TSA or the airline ask you the three dumbest questions known to man: “Did you pack the bags yourself?” “Have they been with you at all times?” “Did anybody give you anything?” So even if English isn’t your first language, you can still get a guy to remember yes, yes, and no. That’s not solving anything.

Here’s an interesting proposal from our resident gadget guy, Phil Baker: Privacy Is Dead, Let Google & Facebook Take Over For TSA.

PS: We have this obsession with minutiae and rules for the sake rules. It is a lot of window dressing, and not a lot of real down-in-the-dirt security. That is not to say the TSA isn’t doing good work in places, but it’s usually not the stuff we see; it is the stuff the takes place behind the scenes. It is ironic that they’re still pulling corkscrews from people’s luggage and haggling with travelers over the size of a toothpaste tube, but they’re still not screening cargo for bombs.

TSA Full Body ScannersPG: I have a good friend of mine who flies for Continental. She is a wonderful pilot, and a professional. But she just almost got out of control one day at a security checkpoint when one of the TSA screeners wanted to take a pair of scissors from her, and she said, “Excuse me, when I go through this checkpoint I am going to be flying the plane. What do you think I am going to do?”

PS: The same thing happened to me. I had a butter knife taken from me while I was on duty in full uniform. It is just absurd. There are so many holes in the TSA approach.

PG: Patrick, I’ve got to ask you a question, you’ve opened the door here: What were you doing with a butter knife at security?

PS: The truth is I have a little silverware collection that I carry in my Rollaboard bag. It’s very useful on those short layovers in hotels when I need to have some Ramen noodles or whatever. I have a knife, and fork and a spoon there.

Is your body scan image secure? Learn more: TSA Privacy Backlash Grows With Release Of Body Scan Images.

PG: So we should do a new book called, “The Adventures of Patrick Smith and his Butter Knife.”

I Am TSA - Part Of TSA's Security TheaterPS: I can teach you how to make Ramen noodles in a coffee maker.

PG: At 3 in the morning. I love it. With the scanning machine issue we had a situation where the pilots got a free pass, if you will, only after complaining about not going through the machines. Now you show two pieces of ID and you don’t necessarily have to do that. The same thing with the flight attendants now. Is that correct?

PS: That’s correct. Initially we were being run through the scanners, and if you opted out of the scanners you were put through the invasive pat down along with everybody else. As an airline pilot I’m perfectly willing top go through security along with everybody else because as security experts will tell you, if you’re going to screen, it is important to screen everybody. But that is only if the screening itself is effective, efficient, reasonable, and rational. The screening we have now is not. So if you’re not going to fix it, then please let crew members go around it. Especially when you’ve got tarmac workers: the caterers, cargo-loaders, the baggage handlers, all these other people that have full access to aircraft. They’re not subject to regular TSA screening, and this is a huge contradiction, a huge double standard.

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