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Can The TSA Do A Better Job?

Christopher Elliott   |   March 13, 2013    7:30 AM ET

It's been more than a decade since the creation of the Transportation Security Administration, the agency assigned to protect America's transportation systems.

Almost from the beginning, a small group of activists have kept a vigilant eye on the agency. When TSA agents pilfered your luggage, they spoke up. When the blueshirts forced us through inadequately tested scanners, they said something. When agents treated us like prison inmates, they fired up their laptop computers and they wrote.

Today, those watchdogs -- and I include myself in the group -- are at a crossroads. Some of our closest supporters are gently advising us to give it a rest. They say our relentless criticism of an agency that is just trying to protect us makes us look shrill and unreasonable.

Besides, every dog needs a break.

I know that's true. I had an opportunity to take my sons, ages 8 and 10, dogsledding a few weeks ago in Lake Louise, Canada. Our two lead dogs, Linus and Sally, reminded me of the friends I've worked with who are united by a concern about the TSA. They want to move forward no matter what.

Our guide told us his dogs would keep running despite their injuries.

But if you're racing sled dogs, you know that's impossible. You have to give the huskies a break and feed them. A sled dog can consume between 10,000 and 12,000 calories per day. If you don't stop every few hours to allow them to recover, your team will get run down and lose the race.

What do the TSA's watchdogs want?
If you rewind to 2010, when the agency began secretly installing poorly tested body scanners in America's airports, and then forcing passengers to use them or face a prison-style pat-down, the watchdogs have a lot to be proud of. Thanks to their advocacy, the TSA quickly abandoned its "one-size-fits-all" approach to aviation security.

Today, a select few passengers don't have to subject themselves to an invasive scan or a humiliating pat-down because the watchdogs said something -- even as others insisted that this was the price we had to pay for keeping America's skies safe. Yet a majority of passengers must still be screened in a way that critics claim is unconstitutional.

We're not there yet
Here's what the watchdogs want:

Decommission all full-body scanners. The technology is unproven and potentially dangerous. The expense can't be justified to the American taxpayer.

Fix the screening process. Every airline passenger should be checked in a way that is non-invasive, doesn't involve harmful radiation and respects their civil rights and the U.S. Constitution. We know the current system doesn't do that. Let's find something that does.

Kill VIPR. The TSA's Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response team, which patrols roads, NFL games and political conventions, needs to be shuttered now. No one asked for these ad hoc teams of TSA agents and no one will miss them.

Restructure the agency. The TSA needs to trim its $8-billion-a-year budget by eliminating a vast layer of ineffective middle management and reducing the size of its force, which is often referred to as "Thousands Standing Around."

Retrain TSA's workforce. Frontline TSA agents like to see themselves as the last line of defense against terrorism. They aren't. Rather, they are the face of the federal government, and at the moment, it's not a good one. Agents need basic customer-service training, and they need to be aware of the civil rights and disabilities concerns of passengers.

The TSA's critics have a vision of what the agency could be: rather than the paramilitary organization that strikes fear in the hearts of law-abiding Americans, an agency focused on excellent customer service that helps Americans travel more safely.

I've seen glimpses of this organization from time to time when I fly. It is the TSA agent who smiles and helps an elderly passenger in a wheelchair through the screening area instead of barking at her. It is the more common sense security line afforded to TSA Pre-Check passengers and airline crewmembers.

And I think: It could be this way for all of us. It should be.

When it is, this watchdog will rest.

By the way, after you've left a comment here, let's continue the discussion on my consumer advocacy site or on Twitter, Facebook and Google. I also have a free newsletter. Here's the signup form.

  |   March 12, 2013    4:41 PM ET

DALLAS -- American Airlines has "concern" over letting passengers carry small knives on planes, but it's stopping short of opposing the idea.

American's senior vice president for government affairs, Will Ris, said Tuesday that government officials should "reassess" changes to the banned-items list so that airlines and airline employees can review new rules that take effect April 25.

Nick Wing   |   March 11, 2013    5:29 PM ET

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) shared an unpleasant travel experience with her Twitter followers on Monday, claiming that she'd been subjected to extra screening by the Transportation Security Administration.

McCaskill has clashed with the TSA in the past, expressing her opposition to "love pats" in 2010. A year later she blasted certain screenings as excessive.

“When you have the traveling public tell you these pat downs are unacceptable, they are not exaggerating,” she told TSA chief John Pistole in 2011, recalling a particular agent whom she accused of particularly "ugly" security screening techniques.

Republicans used the remark to depict her as out of touch, especially considering it came on the heels of an embarrassing scandal regarding unpaid taxes on a private plane. She eventually sold the plane.

McCaskill later tweeted again, explaining her difficulty with airport security:

KEN KAYE   |   March 8, 2013    9:09 AM ET

The elderly, the disabled and those with medical conditions will now be able to get special assistance to move through airport security as quickly and painlessly as possible.

Beginning this week, the Transportation Security Administration is providing 28 passenger support specialists at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, 5 at Palm Beach International and 38 at Miami International.

They are not additional staff but rather specially trained officers who took on the duty on top of their regular jobs. To be selected, they had to demonstrate an ability to deal with complex passenger issues and be customer friendly. Then they received four hours of training, including instruction on the civil rights of those with disabilities and medical conditions.

They also learned how to be discreet.

"I've had women come up to me and say, 'I have breast cancer,' and want to keep that private," said Jayashrii Dwivedi, a TSA specialist based in Fort Lauderdale. "Accordingly, we work with them."

The passenger specialist program is getting underway as the TSA gears up to ease some of its restrictions, allowing small knives and some athletic gear on planes as of April 25.

Although the two programs will speed travelers through security, they're unrelated, said Tim Lewis, federal security director of Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.

"This is where we've been driving for a long time," he said. "The TSA wants to provide world class security and world class customer service."

Although available to help any passenger, the passenger support specialists target those with health conditions and disabilities. While their role is to make the security process easier, they still must ensure every traveler is properly screened, TSA officials said.

Passengers who want to keep their conditions discreet can request private screenings or go to the TSA web site,, and print out a notification card that can be quietly handed to an officer.

Frequently, the specialists will approach travelers who appear to be having trouble navigating through the checkpoint.

For example, Dwivedi spotted Lou and Barbara Guzzo looking unsure at a security checkpoint. She helped the elderly couple place their belongings in a bin, advised them they didn't have to take off their shoes -- as people 75 and older no longer have to -- and walked them through a metal detector.

"She was dynamite," said Guzzo, a part-time Delray Beach resident, before he and his wife flew to New York. "She explained to me exactly what was going to happen and how to get through."

In the past week, Dwivedi assisted people who need to take insulin, portable oxygen tanks and other medical equipment that otherwise might set off alarms. She also ushered through security an elderly man who had a pacemaker and was in a wheelchair.

"He was able to remain in the wheelchair the whole time," she said. "Each customer is different, with his or her own special needs."

Under a similar program, TSA Cares, passengers can call the agency toll free at 855-787-2227 before heading to the airport to forewarn security officers they will need assistance. The support specialist program was a logical next step, said spokeswoman Sari Koshetz.

The passenger support specialists "are caring, empathetic, calm, poised, and determined to assist and solve any problem that arises," she said.

The TSA works with 50 organizations, representing an array of medical and disability conditions, to bolster the security officers' sensitivity. Among them: AARP, National Council on Aging, American Diabetes Association, Open Doors Organization, Susan G. Komen for the Cure and National Council on Disability.

As she roamed about the busy Concourse F at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International, Dwivedi, 31, a TSA officer for eight years, constantly asked travelers if they needed assistance. When she wasn't helping those in need, she ushered along everyday travelers and conducted random checks.

"A lot of times this is a thankless job, and we're not in it for the thanks," Dwivedi said. "But a lot of people really appreciate what we're doing." or 954-572-2085. ___

JOAN LOWY and JOSHUA FREED   |   March 7, 2013    7:29 AM ET

WASHINGTON — The head of Delta Air Lines on Friday joined the growing opposition to the Transportation Security Administration's new policy allowing passengers to carry small knives onto planes.

Delta CEO Richard Anderson said in a letter to TSA Administrator John Pistole that he shares the "legitimate concerns" of the airline's flight attendants about the new policy.

Does America Have A Secret Crush On The TSA?

Christopher Elliott   |   March 7, 2013    7:00 AM ET

Intrusive airport searches are just fine with a majority of air travelers, many of whom think the TSA has likely prevented a 9/11 repeat and that critics of the agency's current practices are nothing more than "anxious advocates."

At least that's the impression you might be left with if you read a recent editorial in the Chicago Tribune and other surprisingly favorable mentions in the mainstream media. Even amid the sequestration slowdowns, we're big fans of the TSA.

Connect the dots, and the conclusion is inescapable: There's a silent majority of Americans who really do believe the TSA is the "gold standard" in aviation security, as the TSA's John Pistole recently proclaimed. We're safer today because of the TSA, and out in flyover country we feel nothing but gratitude toward America's airport sentries, who are the last line of defense against terrorism.

But if you're a regular reader of this feature, which tries to hold the TSA accountable to the taxpayers who fund it, you might find those revelations troubling. Because if they are true, then most criticism of the agency assigned to protect America's transportation systems is undeserved, unfair -- even unpatriotic.

The complaints about the scans, the pat-downs and the alleged civil rights violations are nothing more than whining by a small group of protesters. After all, hasn't the TSA protected us?

Can America really feel this way?

But a closer reading of the editorial and a review of a few often forgotten facts suggests otherwise.

Complaining about an "inconvenience"

The Tribune commentary starts with the premise that the "inconvenience" of intrusive searches is "an infinitesimal price to pay for the relentlessly safe flights they enjoy." But that's a false premise, say critics.

If you've just been given an aggressive pat-down because of a titanium screw in your leg or because you prefer not to undergo a full-body scan, you might beg to differ. It's more than "inconvenient" when a TSA agent repeatedly knocks your genitals, as the screener at Washington's Reagan Airport recently did to me. The blueshirt just seemed to be in a hurry, and he clearly didn't hold an "opt-out" passenger like me in high regard. But the pat-down hurt all the same. I'm not alone.

Also, to credit airport security for the airline industry's safety record is something of a stretch.

Planes aren't falling out of the sky because airlines, under the close supervision of the FAA, are sticklers about safety.

The story also labels critics as "complainers" for having the impertinence to take the TSA to task for deploying technology that hasn't been adequately tested and that shoots x-rays at passengers in order to see through their clothes. It's a funny way to describe agency-watchers who, as it turned out, had a perfectly legitimate point, since the government agreed with them when it decommissioned the backscatter scanners.

The Tribune then quotes a TSA spokesman saying something the agency has claimed for a while now, which is that it's moving away from a "one size fits all" model.

"That said," the commentary adds, "we can't stress too much that the whole point of airport security is to enhance the flying experience not by pampering travelers, but by keeping flights safe from saboteurs."

That's an interesting thing to say, actually. Because there's a whole list of special exceptions to the TSA's regular screening, including dignitaries, members of congress, active duty military, pilots, families with young kids, and frequent fliers. I document these inconsistencies almost every day on my customer service site. If these groups aren't "pampered," then you can at least forgive us for feeling that way.

"So the next time you hear someone carp about TSA procedures, ask him or her how many times the agency, formed 70 days after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has failed at that mission," the editorial concludes.

That, too, is an odd thing to say. Because the TSA hasn't apprehended a single terrorist with its vaunted 20 layers of security.

And the logic of claiming that because there's been no 9/11 rerun, the TSA has been successful, is a 21st century version of Russell's Teapot. Or, as my colleague Lisa Simeone would put it, it's like saying you've applied giraffe repellent to your front lawn and then claiming it worked because it's prevented a giraffe infestation.

Yes, terrorists have been stopped, but neither the underwear bomber nor the shoe bomber were apprehended by the TSA. They were stopped by alert passengers.

For members of the loyal opposition, being tarred as complainers and whiners may be discouraging. But the dissidents who will continue to criticize the TSA are used to it. They have thick skins.

Is opposing the TSA unpatriotic?

More problematic is that the Tribune's editorial, and others like it, suggests that since mainstream America agrees the TSA is more or less fine just the way it is, then the complainers are ... well, complainers.

Two recent surveys underscore that conclusion. One finds that a majority of Americans think the TSA is doing a good job (never mind that half of those polled admitted never having flown). Another says a majority of travelers would support prison-style cavity searches at the airport, if necessary.

Opponents of the TSA's current screening practices shouldn't be angry at the Tribune, which is just carrying a message from mainstream America. Instead, maybe they should start worrying about the hearts and minds of the average travelers, who, for reasons they can't comprehend, are fans of the TSA.

If they only knew the TSA the way the rest of us do.

By the way, after you've left a comment here, let's continue the discussion on my consumer advocacy site or on Twitter, Facebook and Google. I also have a free newsletter. Here's the signup form.

SEE What The TSA Means By Allowing Knives, Bats On Planes

Kate Auletta   |   March 6, 2013   11:56 AM ET

John Pistole made headlines on Tuesday when he announced a series of changes to the TSA's 12-year-old policy on knives and sporting equipment on planes.

Starting April 25, certain retractable knives, novelty bats and sporting sticks will be allowed as carry-on items for the first time since 9/11. Fliers reacted on Tuesday, saying that the new rule was "common sense." One traveler arriving in Los Angeles after a trip from Colorado told the Associated Press, "You can make anything into a knife so I don't have a problem with it at all. You can sharpen a credit card to make a sharp implement."

The TSA issued a statement about the policy, saying:

Through TSA’s layered approach to security, and to align more closely with International Civil Aviation Organization standards, effective April 25, 2013 TSA will allow knives that do not lock, and have blades that are 2.36 inches or 6 centimeters or less in length and are less than 1/2 inch in width, novelty-sized and toy bats, billiard cues, ski poles, hockey sticks, lacrosse sticks and two golf clubs as part of their carry-on baggage. This is part of an overall Risk-Based Security approach, which allows Transportation Security Officers to better focus their efforts on finding higher threat items such as explosives.

Additionally, the TSA released images of just what these changes mean on their blog. Here are a few items travelers could soon be schlepping onto planes.

knives allowed on planes

knives allowed on planes

knives allowed on planes

knives allowed on planes

knives allowed on planes

KAREN MATTHEWS   |   March 6, 2013    9:34 AM ET

NEW YORK -- Some family members of victims killed in the Sept. 11 terror attacks said Wednesday that they are outraged by the Transportation Security Administration's decision to let passengers carry pocketknives on planes.

TSA Administrator John Pistole announced Tuesday that airline passengers will be able to carry pocketknives with blades less than 2.36 inches long and less than half an inch wide. Souvenir baseball bats, golf clubs and other sports equipment also will be permitted starting next month.

TSA Announces Big Change

Kate Auletta   |   March 5, 2013    1:49 PM ET

For the first time since 9/11, the TSA will allow retractable knives (with blades shorter then 2.4 inches and narrower than .5 inches at the widest point) as well as a certain bats and sporting sticks in carry-on bags starting April 25, according to Bloomberg.

The change was announced by TSA Administrator John Pistole at the 22nd AVSEC World conference in New York, Air Transport World reports, in order to comply with European Union rules.

Passengers will be allowed to carry on various sticks used in sports such as lacrosse, billiards and hockey, plus ski poles and up to two golf cubs. Bats will have to be less than 24 ounces in weight and 24 inches inlength in order to make it on board, reports.

Pistole cited the holdup these types of items cause at security checkpoints as one of the reasons for the change. "Frankly, I don’t want TSA agents to be delayed by these,” Pistole was quoted as saying. Of the decision, the TSA said in a statement, "This is part of an overall Risk-Based Security approach, which allows Transportation Security Officers to better focus their efforts on finding higher threat items such as explosives," NBC New York reports.

As a result, passengers coming into the U.S. from overseas will no longer have to check these types of items. Box cutters, razor blades and any knife with locking blades or molded handles are still banned. "There is just too much emotion involved with those,” Pistole said, as box cutters were used in the attacks on September 11.

In response, the Flight Attendants Union Coalition, which represents nearly 90,000 flight attendants around the country, said in a statement:

Today's announcement to permit knives back into the aircraft cabin is a poor and shortsighted decision by the TSA. As the last line of defense in the cabin and key aviation partners, we believe that these proposed changes will further endanger the lives of all flight attendants and the passengers we work so hard to keep safe and secure.

The TSA does still allow pack knives, meat cleavers, sabers, brass knuckles, throwing stars, billy clubs and even swords and cattle prods in passengers' checked luggage, the AP reported last year.

The announcement comes as the sequester has already begun to affect air traffic in this country. The TSA issued a statement Monday saying that "travelers can expect to see lines and wait times increase as reductions to overtime and the inability to backfill positions for attrition begin to occur this month...while wait times can vary on a number of factors, due to the reductions mandated by sequestration, TSA will put in place a hiring freeze, which will result in up to an additional 1,000 TSO vacancies by Memorial Day Weekend and up to 2,600 vacancies by the end of the fiscal year."

Sequestration Won't Clip Airports' Wings

Zach Carter   |   March 4, 2013    6:21 PM ET

PADUCAH, Ky. -- Despite extensive warnings from the Obama administration over the effects of sequestration budget cuts on air traffic control staff, the practical impact of layoffs at the Federal Aviation Administration is likely to be minor, according to airport officials.

The cuts will likely lead to some inconveniences, and airport officials say they strongly prefer to keep their air traffic control towers functioning. But airports will not have to shut down, and the sequester is unlikely to spark lengthy delays on its own.

"We will be able to function without new delays," said Gertrude Roof, manager of Barkley Regional Airport, which is likely to operate for a time without its air traffic control tower. "We'd obviously rather have our tower, but we operated without one for years during the '80s."

While Barkley's tower provides added safety precautions and more convenient operations for the airport outside of Paducah, Ky., its essential functions can be rerouted through the airport at Memphis, Tenn., about 75 miles away, Roof said.

Barkley has a very low traffic volume, even for a regional airport, offering just two flights a day to Chicago, and two flights in from the same city. But larger airports fielding more than 150 flights a day, like Bowman Field in Louisville, Ky., also expect to weather the cuts without much delay.

Bowman handles smaller corporate aircraft and flight school training sessions, explained Trish Burke, spokeswoman for Louisville Regional Airport Authority. She said the airport already operates without a control tower from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m., and added that the loss of the tower would not pose a safety risk. "Pilots follow these procedures all over the country in non-towered environments," she explained. "They are used to following it at Bowman."

Sequestration's other effects are likely to be more severe. Sucking $85 billion in spending out of the economy will hamper the economic recovery and significantly increase the chances that the U.S. will dip back into recession. Cutting anti-poverty programs that make up only a tiny percentage of the federal budget will be devastating for low-income families.

But the Obama administration's repeated warnings about the effects of these cuts on airports do not match the expectations of airport personnel. A gap between the administration's rhetoric and the practical reality could undermine other more credible claims about sequestration's overall impact on the economy.

Last week, the Federal Aviation Administration released a list of over 200 air traffic control towers that may have to be shuttered if sequestration is fully implemented. The FAA can't meet its current staffing levels if the sequestration cuts are implemented, making furloughs and layoffs a certainty that airports would like to avoid.

Those furloughs and layoffs will prevent some towers from operating during all of their current shifts, and in some cases, towers will have to be closed altogether. But losing an air traffic control tower will not dramatically disrupt air travel for many small and mid-sized airports. Some flights may have to have more space between them, but operations should continue to be broadly unaffected. When President Ronald Reagan abruptly fired nearly all of the nation's air traffic controllers in 1981 to break a strike, flight travel was initially significantly disrupted, but many smaller airports shifted their operations to function without control towers, and were able to function for years without them.

Passengers may see greater impact at airports from cuts to the Transportation Security Administration, which issued a statement on Monday saying that "travelers can expect to see lines and wait times increase as reductions to overtime and the inability to backfill positions for attrition begin to occur this month." The TSA went on to write: "while wait times can vary on a number of factors, due to the reductions mandated by sequestration, TSA will put in place a hiring freeze, which will result in up to an additional 1,000 TSO vacancies by Memorial Day Weekend and up to 2,600 vacancies by the end of the fiscal year."

The agency added that during busy travel periods, wait times could double at the larger airports for those already waiting 30 to 40 minutes. Others expecting minimal wait times at less busy airports could now find themselves in a half-hour long wait.

Some international flights have been delayed as well. In a statement, U.S. Customs and Border Protection reported that during the first morning of sequestration, it experienced "spikes in wait times at the top two international gateway airports." The extended wait times were due to reductions in staffing, the agency reported.

"At John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) in New York, CBP had approximately 56 flights with wait times in excess of 2 hours, and 14 flights over 3 hours," CBP explained in its statement. "Miami International Airport (MIA) reported 51 flights over 2 hours, and 4 flights approached/exceeded 3 hours.

"These wait times are not typical for this time period, and are related to decreased booth staffing."

Along with a hiring freeze, the border patrol agency expects furlough notices to go out on March 7.

Love The TSA? Here's The Cure For That

Christopher Elliott   |   February 28, 2013    7:30 AM ET

It happened again.

At a time when the federal agency assigned to protect America's transportation systems can least afford it, there was another dust-up involving a young passenger -- this time to Lucy Forck, a three-year-old with spina bifida flying to Disney World with her family.

When the little girl in a wheelchair is pulled over for a pat-down, her mother starts taping the procedure on her phone, which is permitted.

"It's illegal to do that," an agent says off camera, as Lucy sobs.

"I don't wanna go to Disneyworld," the girl cries.

After a 20-minute delay, the family was allowed to board their flight. The TSA eventually issued a tepid apology. The agency watchdog site TSA News Blog documented the controversy and added its two cents.

"The tactics here are insensitive and unkind on their face, as well as pointless," wrote blogger Deborah Newell Tornello. "Not only is this little girl so obviously terrified to the point of crying out loud, and desperately upset that her comfort toy -- her stuffed animal -- is being taken away, she is distraught that her parents' attempts to protect her are being summarily ignored."

And that's where it would have probably ended. Except that another site, which is probably best described as "pro" TSA, caught wind of the post and the predictable outrage being generated in the comments.

And it had a very different perspective.

"If I've said it once I've said it a million times," the blogger wrote on a Boston-area sports site. "There is no bigger supporter of TSA on the planet than me. I'm team TSA loud and proud. I pretty much side with them 1,000 percent of the time in situations like these. And guess what? I'm siding with them again here."

The Boston sports fans collided with the civil liberties activists on TSA News, creating a digital mushroom cloud. Eventually, the comment thread had to be shut down.

Where did these apologists come from?

It would be tempting to dismiss these TSA defenders as nothing more than social media plants paid by the Department of Homeland Security to rally support for a demoralized TSA. But that explanation would be too simplistic.

While there's plenty of evidence that the American federal government is actively engaged in blogging and other forms of social media, it's also an undeniable fact that some air travelers stand behind anything the TSA does -- no matter how ill-advised or constitutionally problematic.

One of those voices belongs to travel guidebook personality Arthur Frommer, who comes to the TSA's defense at regular intervals.

"We should be grateful to have a serious, dedicated TSA working hard to prevent terrorists from taking weapons onto a passenger airplane and seizing control of it," he wrote on his blog recently. Frommer has also dismissed the TSA's critics as "alarmist" and "sensation-seeking."

Is there common ground?

Are these TSA defenders right? Are the agency's critics just a small group of activists hell bent on letting the terrorists incinerate another plane over America's skies?

I don't believe so. Based on the support and readership of my TSA coverage, and the many other critical voices that cast doubt on the agency's current procedures, I'm fairly certain that the "Team TSA" passengers are a misunderstood minority.

What's more, I think they can be persuaded to come over to the right side -- to "Team Passenger" (which, parenthetically, the TSA should be on, too). Their arguments come unraveled after just a few short minutes of dialogue.

Read the comments on the TSA News story for an example. The agency's defenders insist that if we don't remain vigilant, we will have another 9/11 on our hands, which is a fair point. But then they suggest that bending the Constitution and the law in order to achieve security is justified, and that the proof this questionable strategy has worked is 11 years without another terrorist bombing.

The TSA critics reply with cold logic. If you start reinterpreting the Constitution and passing laws that infringe on our basic rights as Americans, it's a slippery slope, they say. And besides, the absence of another 9/11-style attack doesn't necessarily mean that the present measures have been effective; it's possible that the terrorists are just looking elsewhere to inflict damage.

The response? Personal attacks, which is what TSA apologists like to use as a weapon of last resort. They call the activists "cowards" and paint them with a broad brush of unpatriotism, or worse. That's because they've effectively lost the debate.

Maybe you shouldn't make generalizations about TSA supporters based on the rants of a Boston sports blog, but you certainly can get a feel for where they're coming from. They just don't understand how anyone could question an agency that's ostensibly there for our own protection.

And yet, there's also common ground. When we fly, both the activist and apologist are on the same plane. But one group feels that as long as the flight lands safely, every step that was taken by the TSA is justified. The other believes how we arrive safely does matter.

And patting down three-year-olds in a wheelchair is not acceptable, say critics.

It's hard to argue against that.

By the way, after you've left a comment here, let's continue the discussion on my consumer advocacy site or on Twitter, Facebook and Google. I also have a free newsletter. Here's the signup form.

Why I Hate The TSA

Tristan Higgins   |   February 26, 2013    9:22 AM ET

Some days are worse than others. I've talked a lot on my blog about what I experience as a butch lesbian, specifically how people interact with me when they see that I don't conform to the gender identities that they expect. I feel all lined up on the inside -- I am a woman physically, and I feel like a woman -- but I don't always look like a woman, or at least what society expects a woman to look like. The expectations go like this:

Big and tall? Male.

Short hair? Male.

Strong, unapologetic presence (i.e., swagger)? Male.

Soft face? Female.

Woman's voice? Female.

Breasts and no Adam's apple? Female.

All of this frequently adds up to confusion at best, and hostility at worst, when people encounter butch lesbians. There have been really great pieces written by various butch bloggers about the horrific bathroom incidents that we butches routinely experience. The bathroom really seems to bring out the worst in everyone, doesn't it? I have also written about how my femme girlfriends have experienced their own version of this confusion and/or hostility; it's unpleasant, even infuriating, for our femmes, too.

So why am I ranting now? Not long ago a gay flight attendant called me "sir." Right. Duh. Whatever. Not long thereafter, on a different plane, another flight attendant called me "sir," and she didn't even acknowledge me when I corrected her. Dumb people suck. But the real reason for my rant is the TSA. I'm going to tell you why I hate them. Yes, "hate" is a very strong word, and I never use it casually. Indeed, it's considered a bad word in my house, and the kids can't use it. I use it here only to convey the depth of my anger.

On at least three occasions prior to the incident that inspired this post, I went through the body scanner at airport security and then had to wait a moment longer or be rescanned. I knew that this was because they thought I was a guy, but then my body scan showed a body other than what they expected -- boobs, and no penis, to be specific. As a result, waiting in the security line when there is a body scan ahead has become quite anxiety-inducing for me. Will they get it today? I wonder. Will they ask themselves while looking at the scan, "Where is that guy's penis?" or, "Why does he have boobs?" Ugh. How embarrassed will I be?

So on this particular occasion, I prepared for the security line as I always do. I am a rule follower, and I don't want anyone to have to wait for me, so I always get it right: liquids out; laptop in the bin, all by itself, nothing on top of it; briefcase directly on the belt; shoes and jacket off; and bracelets, rings, watch, wallet and belt removed and put away. I saw the body scanner ahead, so I also took my charms out of my pocket, even though they don't set off the metal detector. Though stressed, I was ready.

I was sent to the body scanner. I stood there, making sure to shadow the drawing on the wall in front of me with my arms up, holding my breath. Three seconds. Rule follower. I stepped out and waited in that spot where we all wait while some anonymous stranger decides whether we are a threat, whether our body scan matches up with expectations. Well, it turned out that mine did not. I knew it was coming, because I'd spotted two "alarm" squares show up on the chest of the male figure on the screen, right where my boobs would be.

The guy keeping me from my plane (you know, the one who stands there right in front of you and tells you when you are free from that little pen) asked, "Would you mind going through again?"

"No," I replied, with dread rising in my stomach and chest (where my womanly boobs are, right where everyone can see them). I turned around and waited for the person behind me to be scanned. From this spot I could see that the woman running the machine had to push a button on the screen before it started. Now I could see that I'd been right. There were only two buttons on the screen, for "male" and "female." They were even color-coded, to make it idiot-proof, I suppose. What colors do you think they were? Blue and pink, respectively. So, so creative and forward-thinking, TSA!

The passenger behind me was lucky that he was all lined up as a man. The woman operating the machine hit the "male" button. Zip, bang, boom! The man got to step out and go on his merry, male-identified way. Now it was my turn. Whee!

The woman signaled for me to step back inside the scanner, and then -- here's the kicker -- she asked me, "Would you mind if I ask you if you are a man or a woman?"

Really? Yes, really. And hell yes I mind. Wouldn't you mind? Hey, are you a man or a woman? Are you a freak? I can't tell. Hey, do you have a penis to go with those breasts? Yes, I mind. I would mind. And that day I minded.

But remember that I was in a little pen, waiting to get to my flight. I couldn't get to the rest of my day without answering her, and if I made trouble for her by, I don't know, yelling, "Of course I mind, you ignorant fool!" then I wouldn't be making my plane. And on top of that, there was a flock of people there who weren't friends of mine, who would assume I was a terrorist, or a jerk, or whatever they would assume, and who would certainly be irritated if I caused a delay or made a scene.

You may be thinking, But you are a big, tough, outspoken butch. Why didn't you give her a piece of your mind? Well, have you ever been pulled over by a cop for a traffic violation that you didn't do, and you know that you were pulled over because of profiling, or because you were in the wrong place at the wrong time, or maybe because the cop was just bored? And did you scream at the cop? Did you refuse to give the cop your license? No. You can't do that or you will get arrested. And if I'd done anything like that at airport security, I most certainly would have been removed to a private room and strip searched or detained. No matter what, I would not have been making my plane.

So I didn't say what I wanted to say. Instead, I simply said, "No. I'm a woman." With that I was ushered into the machine, where I stood once again, making sure to shadow the drawing on the wall in front of me with my arms up, holding my breath. Three seconds. Even when hurt and angry, I am a rule follower. This time she pushed the "female" button (it's easy to find, being pink and all), and my body lined up with it. No little squares on my chest this time. The machine now validated my very womanhood: She's a she, and she's got bumps where she should, and none where she shouldn't. Whew. What a relief.

Are you kidding me? I'm laughing now and writing about it to try to work through the pain of it. How crappy is this? I can't really explain adequately how much I hate the TSA.

After the body scan, I waited for my belongings to come out of the belt, and after I'd collected them, I walked over to the bench. I was numb. No, not numb. I was actually feeling lots of things: bad things, painful things. Really, I was in shock. I was embarrassed, and I could not believe what had just happened. I walk through life proud and tall. I am certainly insecure, but I am never ashamed of myself or apologetic about who I am. Ever. I won't apologize for not looking the way you think I should. And if you don't like it, you will not be in my life, or, if you must be in my life, you will get the barest possible minimum of involvement from me, and certainly none of my heart (unless you read my blog -- plenty of heart there).

But this situation was different. It wasn't like when some idiot calls me a dyke from across the street. In that situation I can just say, "Eff off!" or, even better, "Thank you!" But at the airport I didn't have my friends with me, or a girlfriend to squeeze my hand and whisper, "It doesn't matter, baby. It's OK." I was without coping mechanisms in that situation. So what did I do?

First, I tweeted about how angry I was, including to the TSA. Then I took a few minutes to call a very good friend for help. She was on my side, and I teared up as I told her what had happened. Sigh. It couldn't be right that it had happened that way. And I wrote, of course. It made me feel better immediately. Thank you for listening, by the way.

I am filing a complaint with the TSA. They need to know what this feels like. They need to make some changes. There should be another way to do this, another way to handle those of us who don't conform to gender stereotypes, so that we don't feel less than human. I'll let you know what the TSA says. How awesome would it be if something came of this?

Until then -- and I've said this before, but it bears repeating -- remember that it's butch to be yourself, no matter the cost or what some stupid machine thinks of you. Be butch.

A version of this blog post appeared on Tristan's personal blog, ButchOnTap.

Sequester the Heck Out of National Airport

Chris Weigant   |   February 25, 2013    8:34 PM ET

Every once in a while I get an idea that is so crazy it just might work. What with all the sequester talk in Washington, it occurred to me that the Obama administration has a better option for pressuring Congress than they may have thus considered. Instead of making life hard for Americans everywhere with the across-the-board cuts (in the hopes that enough citizens will complain to the elected representatives), why not get rid of the middleman, and just make life hard for those in Congress? Announce that the very first budget cuts to be implemented will be sequestering the living heck out of National Airport.

Announce that National will only have the benefit of one air traffic controller at any single time. Further announce that the T.S.A. will only have one security checker for each security gate at a time -- so be sure to get there early! Really twist the knife and announce that parking lot security will be drastically cut back -- starting with the "members only" congressional parking lot.

Announce that such cuts will take place next week. Further announce that in two weeks, similar (but not quite as drastic) cuts will be made to Dulles airport in Virginia and Baltimore/Washington airport in Maryland. Any and all other federal budget furloughs or cutbacks will follow these as the flagship cuts which will be made after the sequester happens.

Those not familiar with the habits of Capitol Hill denizens might wonder what all of this is supposed to achieve. What it would achieve would be massive pain and rampant headaches for those who fly in and out of National Airport on a weekly basis. In a word: Congress.

Congresscritters used to mostly live in Washington, with their families. What with cheap and reliable air travel (and what with working a noon-Tuesday-to-noon-Thursday week many weeks), Congress now mostly lives in their home district and commutes to Washington. Much of this congressional commuting takes off and lands at National Airport (note: I refuse to use the new name of National, since it was named for a union-buster who fired air traffic controllers en masse). It is convenient as all get out for congressmen, being pretty much right next to the halls of government, over the Potomac in Virginia. The airport actually bends over backwards to provide such convenience, with the aforementioned members-only congressional parking lot, situated with the shortest-possible walk to the terminals.

Since all of America (air travelers in particular) are about to get hit with a summer of delays and frustration in the airports across the land, why not start with Congress' favorite field? Imagine the delays. Imagine the lines at the security checkpoints. Imagine the grim atmosphere Congressfolk would have to face twice a week. One week of runway gridlock at National, and then "phase two" would kick in, and Dulles and BWI would get hit as well. No escape.

Of course, some in Congress represent districts that are close enough to take other forms of transportation. Most notably, those in Maryland and Virginia who are close enough to drive home from Washington. But they won't be spared the pain, either -- they'll be quite busy fielding outraged calls from their constituents who are used to the Washington region's airports actually functioning in a normal manner. This segment of the public will bear the punishment right along with those in Congress, so the car commuters in the House and Senate are definitely going to be impacted as well (if not quite so directly).

Is this unfair to the Maryland and Virginia residents who use these three airports? Well, yes. Yes, it is. Sorry about that. But the rest of us will be paying the price a little further down the road as well, since you can't solve all the budget problems with just three airports. All I'm saying is make drastic cuts to the Washington airports a few weeks early, as a demonstration.

The problem with many in Congress (and I am not even discriminating by party here) is that they get incredibly out of touch with how the decisions they make in the halls of Congress actually affect Americans' lives. For once, shouldn't they be the first ones to feel the impact of their actions (or, in this case, inaction)? It seems entirely fitting and reasonable to me to move cuts which make life tough for Congress to the front of the line in the budget wars. Bringing the Washington-area airports (starting with National) to a crawl would indeed hit home. In fact, it would hit them on their way home.

The public (at least those outside of the Beltway region) would probably support such a move. Obama could pitch it as: "Want to slash federal spending? Okay, you first!" I'm sure a lot of folks would see the justice in such an approach. In my opinion, it's certainly worth a try. Want the sequester to happen? Fine. Then we'll just sequester National Airport into the ground, until it (or you) screams for mercy.

I bet it would take less than three weeks for Congress to crack.


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How We Could Screen Airline Passengers

Christopher Elliott   |   February 23, 2013   10:00 AM ET

If you look enviously at the TSA Pre-Check line whenever you're at the airport -- where pre-cleared air travelers breeze through the checkpoint without having to be scanned, remove their shoes or face a humiliating "enhanced" pat-down -- then join the club.

If you ask yourself: "What sets them apart from me?" and the answer is, "Nothing, really," then you're well on your way to answering a question that has haunted aviation security professionals since 2009.

Is there a better way to screen air travelers than scanning them?

Some say there isn't, and they'll insist that shooting X-rays or microwaves at your body is the only way to be absolutely sure you're not packing a gun or carrying explosives. But many of these "experts" have ulterior motives, because they happen to also work for the manufacturers of X-ray and millimeter wave technology.

Of course they want more machines. Their livelihoods depend on it.

But a hard look at the facts says otherwise. The scanners haven't foiled a single terrorist attack. In fact, their vulnerabilities are so well-known to the bad guys they would probably prefer a scan over a pat-down on their way to their terrorist mission, assuming they can't secure Pre-Check clearances. The machines have an obvious, and unfortunate, blind spot.

Gold standards?

A few weeks ago, TSA Administrator John Pistole proclaimed that American aviation security was the gold standard. This didn't sit well with the Israelis, who have long considered themselves to be the standard-bearer when it comes to aviation security. But the administrator can be forgiven for engaging in a little hyperbole; after all, he needs to raise employee morale at his $8 billion-a-year agency, which isn't exactly known for its happy workforce.

But a look at the real gold standard in aviation security -- yep, that would be Israel -- suggests full-body scanners may be worthless. Israel doesn't use them at all. A manager told Canadian officials in 2010 that the scanners were easily fooled, which is why Israel didn't rely on them. Although some scanners have been tested in Israel since then, security officials continue to refuse to use the machines as a primary method of screening.
A look at what the real experts are doing seems to suggest that the answer to the question, "Is there a better way?" is: absolutely.

A different scanner

One solution is to switch scanners. For the last few weeks, the folks who are developing a new kind of technology have been sending me information about their product. Iscon's Thermo-Conductive Mini-Portal Scanner promises a way to screen passengers without using radiation or creating a revealing image.

Instead of firing X-rays at passengers, this infrared body scanner detects hidden objects without penetrating clothing or making physical contact, according to the manufacturer. It recently completed tests at Bristol Airport in the U.K., where it "performed well," according to the company.

Certainly, the thought of waving an infrared scanner in front of passengers instead of bombarding them with radiation is enough for the TSA's critics to sit up and take notice. But the best scanner, they contend, is no scanner.

Time to remove the scanners?

The TSA is furiously backpedaling from its "one size fits all" solution to aviation security. It started by giving dignitaries and certain members of law enforcement a pass on the full-body scanners. Then came active-duty military and crewmembers. Next, it was elite-level frequent fliers and people who had undergone a background check. Now it's testing a managed inclusion program that would open the scannerless Pre-Check lines to anyone who has been cleared by a bomb-sniffing dog.

If those tests are successful, then I wonder -- who's left?

We're just a few short years, and perhaps months, away from admitting that the scanners and the punitive pat-downs that air travelers receive when they refuse to submit to a potentially dangerous scan, do not work.

Let's get a move on.