Every time I get stuck in a long Transportation Security Administration (TSA) airport security line, I recall John Hersey’s 1974 Kafkaesque novel “My Petition for More Space.” In the book, the anti-hero has to wait in milelong lines for six days in order to file a petition. When he finally reaches the window to file his petition, the window shuts.
A similar thing seems to be happening daily as people stand in horrendously long security lines for as much as two hours only to find that their planes have already departed. As a frequent traveler, I have driven several times to the Rochester airport, where the lines to get into the air traffic system are much shorter.
Changes to the system could be initiated here in Minnesota that could catch on in the rest of the country. The proof? In 1975, the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport (MSP) was the first in the country to ban smoking. And in 1999, state Rep. Barb Haake of Mounds View actually killed off a program that wasn’t working, namely emissions testing for cars. Before that, you had to drive to a testing station at which 99 percent of the cars passed. In comparison, does anyone know how many terrorists have been caught trying to get through the current airport security system?
The existing system can be replaced with one that has more common sense, uses psychology and needs political courage. Merely throwing more money and people at a systemic failure won’t improve anything.
By any measure, the current TSA system is a failure and is already imploding. The National Center for Policy Analysis notes that the turnover rate for TSA screeners is 2.5 times higher than the rest of the government. (How can one find job satisfaction going through people’s underwear daily and having most people hate you for it?) During the first 10 years of the TSA’s existence, there were 25,000 security breaches at U.S. airports, and 400 screeners were fired for stealing from passenger’s bags.
In all of this, the TSA is incredibly expensive. It has bought millions of dollars of machines to screen people, and these machines now sit idle. Some were produced by a company at which a former head of the Department of Homeland Security was a consultant. Today, the Government Accountability Office notes that the main focus of the TSA isn’t security but self-preservation. Passenger screening should be done by airports themselves, but this would mean cutting off the steady flow of tax dollars to the TSA.
How did we arrive at this juncture and, more important, how do we get out of it? The TSA was formed in 2001 under legislation signed by President George W. Bush. U.S. Rep John Mica, R-Fla., was a co-author. Mica is now the TSA’s biggest critic.
What to do?
• Use common sense. You would have to be a pretty dumb terrorist to stand in a line for two hours and have the chance to be caught smuggling a bomb on a plane when you can fill as many suitcases as you want with ammonium nitrate and accelerant (all of which can be purchased at a farm supply store) and blow up the terminal. To learn how to make these bombs, you don’t have to travel to Afghanistan, Iraq or Syria. To find bombmaking instructions on the Internet, just go to Google and enter “how to make a bomb.” Voilá! With hundreds of people standing around, I am more afraid than ever of being part of a mass target. As the Brussels airport bombing showed, the waiting masses are a bigger target than a plane.
• Use psychology. How many of us have watched TSA employees screen a grandmother with her grandkids in tow going to DisneyWorld? The Israelis have the best airport screening system in the world, and they use psychology to figure out who is a threat. The demographics of potential suicide bombers are well-known, so concentrate on those people instead of me, with my two artificial knees that set off the metal detectors and subject me to increased security.
• Have political courage. We are in an election year, and any change in the system would put the blame on the current administration rather than on the dysfunctional system itself. Thus Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson says the system has to stay in place: “We’re not going to compromise aviation security in the face of [long lines].” You need courage to change a bureaucracy, and that courage is lacking. We have a system in which other aspects of airport security — access, perimeter control and lobby control — are run by the airport, while passenger screening is run by the TSA, which regulates itself per congressional direction and funding.
I’m tired of having to drive to Rochester to avoid long lines to board an airplane, which — as things stand — is something I can do in less time than flying from MSP.
John Freivalds runs an international communications firm based in Wayzata.