HONG KONG – There was much rejoicing last month when the U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) announced that it had canceled a contract with Rapiscan to supply hundreds of all-seeing body scanners for airport security.
Did this mean that the nonsense of stripping and exposing ourselves every time in airport security was at an end?
There was also perverse happiness when John Pistole, the TSA administrator, refused last year to testify before the House of Representatives aviation subcommittee on the curious grounds that it had no jurisdiction over his agency. Leading blogger Christopher Elliott listened to the general excoriation of the TSA and wrote that “The TSA as we know it is Dead.”
You might think that Elliott was right, given the vicious comments against the TSA during the session, which was convened on the subject of “common sense” improvements to America’s airport security. The acting inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security declared that the TSA was bureaucratic and dysfunctional. The representative of the International Air Transport Association said that government rules were expensive and inconsistent. Committee Chairman John Mica concluded, “As this mushrooming agency has spun out of control, passengers have not been well served.”
But any rejoicing is at best premature. The Rapiscan contract was canceled because its machines were revealing the full naked truth about passengers, but the TSA will still use scanners that show generic outlines rather than virtual nude images. In spite of the criticism of the TSA boondoggle, it still continues with a $8 billion a year budget only slightly trimmed. Airport insecurity rather than security is the order of the day in the United States.
Too many passengers going through U.S. airports have their own personal stories of incompetence or harassment. Mine are just humdrum. The security personal always make me think insecurity because they chat among themselves careless as to who might pick up unattended bags that are waiting for their owners to finish the undignified striptease that the agents of the TSA demand. They wear fancy military uniforms, demand obedience and have no sense of humor.
I had to undergo a patdown when the supposedly all-seeing new body scanner failed to penetrate my Indian-made cotton shirt. I had checked bags searched by the TSA in Washington and again in San Francisco — they left notices to say so — even though they were in transit in the care of the airline the whole time.
But in the last few weeks, too many people have real horror stories: a terminally ill woman passenger in a wheelchair asked to lift her shirt in public view even after the security agent had felt the feeding tubes going into her; the agent who tipped the crematory remains of a passenger’s grandfather on the floor and then laughed when he scrambled to pick up bone fragments; a new mother being forced to show her freshly pumped breast milk before being allowed on board with a breast pump; broken walking sticks and wheelchairs; crying small children; bags smashed and plundered; TSA agents admitting stealing $40,000 from inside a checked bag at New York’s JFK airport.
And that is ignoring claims of purloined or damaged electronic devices, with iPads a favorite target, the grossly sexist remarks, and the tendency of the TSA to target the vulnerable, the old and the young as potential terrorists.
The TSA proudly proclaims that in pursuit of keeping flights safe, it has confiscated guns and ammunition, grenades and land mines (though inert), knives and swords, a stun gun disguised as a pink smartphone, birds taped to a woman’s chest and leg en route to China, live fish and frosted cupcakes. But the bottom line is that in terms of terrorists arrested, the score is zero. If it had arrested any, the agency would have taken out full-page advertisements boasting of its success and demanding an increase in its billion dollar budget.
Even more damning is the verdict of most security experts that for all the fancy uniforms, the security queues, the inconvenience and sometimes harassment of passengers, the TSA checks are mainly theatrical.
Robert Yamin, a former Baltimore cop, said that of 40 patdowns he had experienced, only one was done properly. “To really search, you must basically but gently grab the testicles and feel if there is something hidden there,” he said. A former FBI agent with 25 years of experience, many of them in counter-terrorism dealing with al-Qaida, gave the TSA a resounding “fail.” The basic paradigm is fatally flawed. A half-capable terrorist would be able to fashion weapons out of common articles allowed on board, including pens and pencils, popsicle sticks, anything with wire or plastic or even newspapers.
But why bother, when there are real butcher’s knives and cleavers being used in restaurant kitchens on the concourse and when beaches adjoining airports, such as Los Angeles, are only lightly patrolled against a terrorist intrusion. The billions of dollars are spent on a pantomime because they are based on a false underlying belief is that every passenger is a potential terrorist, for which the security measures are insufficient to cope.
If security authorities want to make every flight safe, they should dress passengers in hospital gowns and give them a knockout drug for the entire flight.
Think of the boon for airlines, being able to cram 1,000 or more passengers into coffinlike spaces and not having to bother with food or drink or expensive entertainment systems or flight attendants whining for more pay for smiling.
Employ a nurse or two to check that no one wakes up early. As a concession, airlines could offer their VVVIP passengers the chance to drift off to sleep the traditional way with fine food, wines and movies at a proper price.
But if the pretenses are to be kept up, and air travel seen as fantasy and fantastic experience, American authorities should dismantle the TSA and go to Asia to learn how to check passengers carefully, securely and professionally without the pantomime hassles or wasting billions of dollars.
Most of Asia, apart from India, where the security staff seem to be taken from police or military lower ranks who failed the English test, does a good job and with courtesy singularly lacking in the U.S. Japanese staff are young and too much by the book. Hong Kong is by far the best.
Hong Kong Airport should be aggressively marketing its professional and polite expertise of capable security without the angst. Security staff have fancy braided uniforms to show that they are serious, but they also behave professionally, capably and politely.
They don’t smash locks or pilfer luggage; if they are in doubt about a bag after a six-step screening, they invite the passenger to open it for them.
I have never seen anyone browbeaten or harassed or in tears after security in Hong Kong. Remember that the real battle against air terrorism and piracy is being fought unseen by intelligence agencies.
Washington should dial 1-800-HKAirport to ask how to make passengers feel secure.
Kevin Rafferty, editor in chief of PlainWords Media, travels 150,000 miles a year