With the holiday season upon us, air travel is quickly ramping up as millions of Americans begin to move about the country to visit family, friends, or just spend time outside of their normal lives. With that in mind, the Transportation Security Agency (TSA) has released its normal list of steps passengers can take to make their screening process as simple as possible in preparation for what is being suggested as the busiest holiday travel season on record. The classic 3-1-1 rule, snow globe prohibition, and the perennial arms-up-face-forward position will be in full force, in addition to an increase in personnel and new technologies, including biometric identity screening for those taking Delta Airlines in Atlanta.
Trudging through TSA security checkpoints has become a national pastime for Americans who simply want to get home, see family, make a meeting, or arrive on time for a job interview, among the thousands of possible reasons someone would choose to travel by air. We grumble about it to other passengers in line (“This must be what cattle feel like!”), voice our displeasure at the blue later fingers reaching into crevices (“You could at least buy me dinner first…”), and complain about the lack of customer service or general humanity on social media (“Do you even read those complaint forms?”). But, we still submit to it as the necessary evil to travel three thousand miles in under six hours.
Having pilots in my family and having visited air shows all across the country as a child has given me a sincere admiration for the job and sheer miraculous reality of air travel. Seeing the calm disposition of pilots and crew members, soaring miles off the ground at great speed, while sitting in a chair reading a book or watching a movie, is an achievement that has lost its grandeur with the average traveler. Everyone from the ground crew, ATC crew, flight crew, and flight deck, to the engineers who designed the plane and put all of the nuts and bolts together, are the best in their fields and are worthy of praise. So why can we not hold those whose job it is to protect our national infrastructure of air travel in the same breath? Simply put, a nationalized agency can never measure up to the performance of a private industry.
Just over two months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001, Congress passed the Aviation and Transportation Security Act. This bill effectively eliminated the ability of private airlines and airports to utilize private security contractors at their discretion and created a national agency to take over all security screening. Thus, the TSA was born out of the belief that only a national agency could prevent a 9/11 style attack and fill any gaps in private security. But, has the TSA truly been effective in its task? Not really.
With nearly 50,000 officers stationed throughout the nation and an annual budget of $7.5 Billion, there has been no evidence of another terrorist attack since 9/11 being thwarted by the TSA. While it could be said that this kind of information is not released to the public for national security reasons, and to give passengers peace of mind, the TSA has never had a problem sharing images and lists of every firearm it takes out of a bag. Even when presenting these lists of firearms, the TSA admits that finding a firearm or other banned item is not necessarily a crime as some people simply forget. The TSA has neither the power to detain or arrest any individual; it must contact a police officer to make an arrest or detain a traveler for further questioning if such an item is discovered.
Beyond the lack of evidence for success is a cornucopia of evidence for failure. In 2015, it was revealed that TSA officers failed in nearly 95% of test scenarios in which undercover supervisors attempted to smuggle fake weapons and bombs through security checkpoints. If the true purpose of the TSA is to prevent another terrorist attack, one would think that any failure rate above 0% would be unsatisfactory. To be fair, that failure rate has improved to 70% as of 2017, although some estimates put that number closer to 80%.
So why the continued charade of a nationalized security guard company that fails to do its job, despite its seemingly immutable power to override the Fourth Amendment? Every level of screening has been challenged in the courts, but to no avail. At a minimum, one would think that a secondary screening, one that involves hands in places that would normally elicit a physical response, without cause (random searches), would be illegal. And yet, the budget continues to grow, technologies are continually introduced to undress travelers with electronic eyes, pat downs continue without inhibition, and change does not come. In fact, the courts recently ruled that TSA officers are essentially immune from lawsuits, on the basis of them being administrators and not law enforcement officers. The dissenting opinion of Judge Thomas Ambro characterized security screenings as essentially the same as a traffic stop, but the decision stands and TSA may now act with even further impunity, despite repeated accusations of theft, sexual harassment and assault, and a general lack of common decency.
The reality comes down to two simple things: a government jobs program and a federal subsidy. With the 9/11 attacks still on the nation’s mind and replays continually on the news, there was no doubt that the airlines were going to suffer as Americans opted out of air travel until the fear passed. A nationalized security force in our nation’s airports would be a way of providing peace of mind for travelers and encouraging Americans to go about their normal business. Disrupting air travel nationally would also impact the majority of industries around the nation, so at a time of great fear and panic, it made sense. In practice, however, it has been an abysmal failure. What it comes down to is the simple difference between real security and theater. Real security would be made up of things such as Air Marshals (although the Air Marshal program is plagued by their own deficiencies), law enforcement, intelligence reports, behavioral profiling, etc. A theater would be the painfully slow and invasive process of the security checkpoints, to act as a deterrent (although the failure rate does not bode well for that theory) and to make passengers feel safe, as frustrated as they are. This, of course, was all implemented after Congress provided the Airlines with $15 Billion in public aid. So, billions in direct cash, followed by an annual spend of billions for a blue puppet show. It also allowed for our representatives to funnel jobs and money directly into their districts, making the knee-jerk, patriotic decision just a little easier.
Now, the public is faced with a powerful union that’s seven hundred thousand strong and ending billions of federal funding being pumped around the country. However, airline stocks have returned to pre-9/11 levels as of 2017 and, as previously stated, 2018 is shaping up to be the biggest travel year on record. The weak basis upon which Congress justified the Transportation Security Agency’s existence has long been left behind. With increased aggression towards travelers and a complete disregard for the Fourth Amendment, and the sheer inability for the TSA to perform their actual duties effectively, it’s time for the tip of the spear to be retired and replaced with private security at the discretion of the airlines and airports, while working in tandem with law enforcement. The point of no return will never be reached if we are willing to assert our rights to privacy and to travel freely about the country, unencumbered by the prodding fingers of the state.