Wednesday, December 30, 2009

International Travel, Security, and the Utter Failure that is the TSA

Here's something I never thought I'd say ...US airports are not the worst-run in the world.  The US TSA is still, sadly, run by semi-trained apes.

Over the past 2 years I've been traveling regularly cross-country (and even up into Canada) on business and have had some abysmal experiences with airports ... but then I found myself on holiday in Holland (Amsterdam to be precise) the day after the idiot from Nigeria tried to blow up his crotch and a Northworst Airlines (now Delta) plane.  Let me tell you that the Dutch airport security at Schiphol airport took inconvenience and stupidity to an entirely new level.

It's important to remember that this experience was the day after the dumbsh** tried to kill several hundred people over Detroit, so the level of knee-jerk "security" measures was unprecedented since the 9/11 atrocities.  This is my personal experience ...and will naturally have a lot of my highly-opinionated commentary so grab a coffee, sit back and enjoy.

First ... Holland (and really, northern Europe) had been absolutely buried in a massive snow-storm the likes of which they hadn't seen in >20yrs according to locals, so I was already bracing for the long lines, cancellations, delays and silliness that goes along with poor weather.  Second, I was already expecting people to be hyper-vigilant to a point of stupidity given that the attacker had left Amsterdam's Schiphol airport the day before and now all eyes were on the Dutch.

The flight I was on was supposed to leave Schiphol airport (UA 947) at 12:20pm (local time).  When I got to the airport at 9:30am, I figured it was a safe bet because there were undoubtedly slight delays in security measures.  I had also heard of some of the absolutely ludicrous security measures the TSA had enacted like "nothing on your lap, or standing up for the last hour of flight" and the 1 carry-on only rule... and I was annoyed. When I checked in, and dropped off my bag the United agent was absolutely super-polite and checked mine and my wife's suitcase and told us that we would need to be at our gate by 10:30am which meant I still had time to have a cocktail (or two) in the lounge, and get to the gate with plenty of time.

My wife and I arrived at the gate at precisely 10:28am, only to see an absolutely empty gate with lots of people standing around looking very confused.  [Another note- Schiphol airport apparently does their security at the gate rather than at one central point.  This is something very important to remember as it is a drastically different model than we're used to in the 'States.]  Anyway, getting there and seeing no one from the airport staff for a full hour really got to me, and many of the other passengers, so you can imagine that when the 4 airport workers (security staff) showed up with a cart full of tensa-barriers at 11:35 there was a riot about to break out.  By now I had learned that most people there had connecting flights, must like my wife and I, and only a few of them were actually staying in Washington DC (Dulles was the landing airport).

The airport security folks took 15 minutes (give or take a few) to set up their barriers and start barking out orders.  They explained that due to heavy new rules everyone would be, as they put it, "100% checked" before getting on this plane.  What the hell is 100% checked mean?  I didn't see any rubber gloves so I thought were were safe.  Wrong.

We were 2nd in line in the priority line which didn't seem to matter because both the priority line and the economy line were moving just as slowly.  The person in front of us had her passport taken, was drilled with questions then pulled aside.  She had her purse gone through, more questions, and then had to take off nearly everything that was decent and send it through the X-ray machine.  She was then patted down, no I mean really patted down...  On the other side of the x-ray machine, both her purse and her carry-on were opened, emptied and each item was inspected one by one.  No privacy screen, no caution, no care for people's decency/privacy.  It was revolting.

My wife and I went through the same treatment.  They opened my camera bag, emptied it nearly breaking some >$800 lenses and asked what everything was and had me show them how everything worked.  Next came my completely packed laptop bag.  It took nearly 10 minutes to take everything out, inspect it, and tell me to put it all back together and move out of the way.

The whole ordeal for my wife and I took 17 minutes.  The really crazy part was that there was now a line stretching as far as the eye could see with people waiting to undergo the same gestapo security.  Between the time that the screeners showed up and the gate opened, and the time that the plane was actually ready to push back from the gate was nearly 3 hours.  Of course, this meant that we were really late.  The announcement from the captain was that of course due to increased security many people would miss their connections and United would do its best to re-book or ask flights to "wait on us".  Given that we had a connecting flight from Washington Dulles to Chicago O'Hare with only a 1 hour layover I wasn't holding my breath to make it home.

Surprisingly though we touched down with an hour left before my next flight was to take off, one gate over from where we had landed (we landed at C7, we took off from C5 in 60 minutes).  This is where the real adventure began... and underscores why I think everyone at the TSA should be strung up then fired.

The landing was as expected with the "nothing on your lap" rule 1hr before landing.  Oddly enough, I kept my iPod on, and kept reading my magazine and none of the flight attendants were around (because they were sitting, haha) to say or do anything.  How effective is this rule?  Hint: not at all.  I actually feel bad for those folks who have kids who have to go to the restroom in the last hour of flight because now you have to figure out a way to not only immobilize your kid with nothing to keep them occupied (you know, in case your 7yo is mixing a chemical bomb in their lap...) but keep them from having to go potty (good luck!)... Clearly none of the twits running the TSA have ever traveled internationally with children or they simply don't have the sense to care.  Either way - this is a massive failure... shocking.

After we landed we were herded off the plane, into US Customs (which was a surprisingly long, yet refreshingly fast-paced line) where the agent was polite, smiling and generally well mannered.  It gave me hope that the rest of the trip wouldn't suck.  Enter the TSA rules again.

Apparently when my checked and screened baggage got off the plane I was forced to pick it up, take it 15' into a "baggage re-check" (please, someone explain this idiocy to me!) and then go through security screening again.  You think the half-wits at Schiphol were tight on security... the nice TSA monkeys once again dug through everything as if I was traveling from Yemen and shouting anti-American propaganda ... my camera was apparently a weapon?  Oh, no wait, that was my monopod ... right - that could be used to poke someone I guess?  Again, morons.  Whiskey Tango Foxtrot.

FINALLY getting back on a plane and bound for home the ordeal was over... I hope never to go through that stupidity again; sadly I sense my request will be short-lived.

Now, after that harrowing experience I have plenty to say.

  1. What purpose does the "sit down and nothing in your lap for the last hour of flight" rule serve?  We all know this is at best a knee-jerk reaction by the monkeys at the TSA to appear as if they are doing something real to combat a threat that is unlikely to manifest itself in the same manner twice.  As far as I can tell this is just going to annoy legitimate passengers, and not deter any would-be bad guys from doing anything evil.  I think a better deterrent would be to keep re-airing that interview with the guy who tackled and beat the snot out of the would-be bomber ...that was a hero who actually contributed to security.
  2. Why don't we have those full-body screening machines at every airport?  That is a civil liberties trespass I, and I'm sure many of you, am willing to take to make sure some jackass doesn't try and light his balls on fire on my flight.  We bitch about real security being at the level of stupidity yet we're unwilling to allow for something that makes sense in?  I'm sensing this is all political - but I promise you that the next election if you didn't vote for the full-body screening machines, I'm not voting for you.
  3. Let's do a comparative study of the US TSA against any of the EU security groups.  I especially was impressed with Germany's security at Frankfurt airport.  They were all professional, were dressed in shirt/tie and looked official.  They didn't walk around talking about who was going on break next and what their evening plans were ...rather, they were there, polite and professional.  TSA take note: if you hire people who couldn't even get a GED and pay them minimum wage they'll behave like McDonalds workers and won't really be effective.
  4. Training... there's something I could write an entire blog post on.  The TSA isn't even smart enough to understand PDF redaction let alone how to actually effectively train their staff.  I'll revert to the point above in bold about minimum-wage drones.
Before this post gets too long, I'll just finish up by saying that we here in the USA are woefully behind.  To quote some anonymous gentleman who was sitting next to my wife and I ..."Europe hires security based on merit, while you Americans hire based on affirmative action, what do you expect?"... yikes.

Do I sound angry?  Goddamn right I'm angry.  I'm living in the greatest country on the face of the earth and we're light-years behind Europe in real security.  I loathe the TSA and everything they've done.  I don't believe we're one teencie bit safer than we were before the tragedies of 9/11.  I strongly feel that in spite of all the rules, rhetoric, and millions of dollars that have been spent we're just as blind to real threats as we have ever been... except now we're pissing off passengers and deterring good people from coming into the US.

Mr. Obama ... I'm still waiting for that "change I can believe in" ... so please FIRE THE TSA and appoint someone competent.


Armorguy said...

The reason we don't have full body scanners, highly professional security staff, and all of the other things you want to see at every US airport? Money.

The US taxpayer has not been willing to fund these things. You get precisely what you pay for and the public is not learning that is spades for air travel. You want low, low, low ticket prices and airport fees? No problem - but you're going to get crappy service across the board. No amount of anger is going to change that very plain fact.

Now, do I think that the Security Directives make sense? No. But, again, the fact is that the public is going to excoriate the gov't no matter what they do. Lack of reaction: Scream (read much about Obama not taking this 'seriously'). Reaction: OMFG THE WORLD IS ENDING!! SECURITY THEATER!!

So, in the end, I ask: What Do You Expect For What You Pay?

Rafal Los said...

@Armorguy: Exactly as the guy next to me said ..."what do you expect?".

I guess to that I say - exactly what we have now. I shudder to think that it will take another catastrophic event like 9/11 to make people realize this.

Unknown said...

@armorguy The reason TSA security sucks is lack of money because of US taxpayer?

You one of the tax payers who opted to bail out the banks, insurance and auto industry? What about the budget for the DoD? Any involvement in the decision to spend $200 billion in Iraq? Sorry but I do not recall the measure that asked for tax funds to make the TSA effective, can you point me to the measure, bill or bond request?

btw - I would be amazed if even the current TSA budget allocation is optimized and tehy couldn't use ome serious restructuring.

- Amrit

NObama said...

The specious argument that we simply don't spend enough is often thrown around. Apparently $6.4 billion isn't enough money. Pray tell, how much more need we spend?
I have more upon which to comment, but given it may 1. disclose my identity and 2. encourage some to amerce me, I shall refrain.

Armorguy said...

Amrit, security is what it is because the taxpayer (AKA the Flying Public) isn't willing to pay for all of the new technologies in the form of higher fees & fares. The public, whenever these things happens, goes to their elected representative who then pressures the TSA, yadda yadda yadda...

And the dig on bailout, banks, and brigades is some really good distraction but has *nothing* to do with this - and I suspect you know it.

NObama, dude, if you're skeered say 'skeered'. It's comment trolling to do what you did there. But, since you asked, I don't know how much it would take to get "optimal" security but what I can say is that we aren't spending the money where we need to. "What should we spend it on?", you ask.

Here's my list:

- Improve wages & working conditions for TSA screeners so you can hire and retain the best people.

- Improve security "under the wing" as the elephant in the room for aviation security is cargo.

- Improve the processes and quality of the Selectee and NoFly lists

- Deploy technology (like scanners, etc.) when they have reasonable rates of false positives and negatives where it makes sense to use.