Travel Trials and Tribulations

by , July 08, 2009

As I’m a somewhat frequent traveler and about to take a family vacation via airplane, I thought it would be appropriate to write about airport security. In the aftermath of 9/11, increased security was inevitable. But we’ve been obsessed with airport security, to the point where it has gone from the sublime to ridiculous. If the primary concern is preventing hijackers from using aircraft as missiles, simply prohibiting knives (and other knife-like instruments) just as we do guns, installing secure cockpit doors, and arming pilots would be enough.

Instead, we piled on. For example, curbside check-in was prohibited. And secondary, random screening at gates was instituted. What the former was supposed to prevent is anyone’s guess (and curbside check-in has since been reinstated). And the latter (which was stopped and then started again) was an admission that the Transportation Security Agency (TSA) couldn’t do its job (not terribly confidence-inspiring for passengers). The following incidents are from a July 11, 2004, Seattle Times collection of 100 media reports of airport-security breaches since the fall of 2002, when the TSA screeners took over (according to screeners, these were only a fraction of the incidents, most of which are never disclosed):

  • At Colorado Springs Airport on Christmas 2002, a screener spotted something suspicious in a bag being X-rayed. The screener mistakenly selected a different bag to search, and the passenger with the suspicious bag left the area. Passengers were taken off four planes, including three on the runway, while officials searched the concourse then spent two hours rescreening passengers. The delay affected 400 passengers and six flights.
  • At Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport on Oct. 10, 2003, TSA screeners detected what they thought was a knife in a man’s carry-on bag after it went through an X-ray machine. They scanned the bag a second time but didn’t see the item. The man and the bag were allowed to enter the concourse. TSA officials realized this was not proper procedure (the bag should have been manually searched) and called for an evacuation of the airport’s largest terminal. During rescreening, screeners discovered two other knives, but they could not determine whether either of them was the knife originally identified.
  • At Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport on Feb. 10, 2004, a female passenger who was supposed to be waiting for secondary screening walked away from a checkpoint. Officials evacuated the terminal and rescreened all 200 passengers. K-9 teams and law-enforcement officials searched the secure side of the concourse. The woman was not found.
  • At San Diego International Airport on April 2, 2004, screeners confiscated a pair of scissors from a carry-on bag but missed a Swiss Army knife that showed up on X-ray. About 1,000 people were evacuated and rescreened. Officials did not say whether the item was found.
  • At Baltimore-Washington International Airport on April 5, 2004, a knife in a passenger’s carry-on bag showed up on X-ray, but screeners failed to intercept the bag before the passenger grabbed it and entered the concourse. Passengers were rescreened, and 35 flights were delayed. Officials never found the knife.

One of the inevitable results of more onerous screening (passengers now must remove jackets, sweaters, and shoes to pass through security, pass laptops through the X-ray separately, and remove liquids and gels – which must be in no more than 3-ounce containers and all inside a one-quart clear plastic bag – from carry-on luggage) is having to wait in longer lines to get to your gate. (As an aside, I’m constantly amazed at how the lines and wait time seem so much longer at U.S. airports compared to international airports. Admittedly, my experience is anecdotal rather than statistically significant. But I’ve flown in and out of Heathrow International Airport in London on at least five occasions since 9/11, and I’ve routinely gone through security there faster than I have through Dulles International Airport in Washington, D.C.)

To shorten these lines, the TSA came up with the Registered Traveler program. The tradeoff is that people who want to be able to go through expedited security (they still must undergo the normal TSA screening, i.e., baggage X-ray and personal metal detector, and possibly secondary screening) have to be willing to undergo a background check to be certified. (It’s worth noting that many airports and airlines already offer access to shorter “priority” security lines to first-class or other status travelers without requiring any background checks.) In addition to the usual information, e.g., name, address, proof of citizenship, etc., biometric information – either fingerprints or a retinal scan – are required. All of this for a fee, of course.

Although the process is voluntary, privacy experts have expressed concerns that the extensive personal information and biometrics required for the Registered Traveler program could be misused. Now, for some 165,000 fliers who were registered with Clear (the largest company operating a TSA-approved Registered Traveler program at Albany, Cincinnati, Denver, Dulles Washington, D.C., Indianapolis, Little Rock, New York LaGuardia, New York JFK, Newark, Oakland, Orlando, Reagan Washington, DC, Salt Lake City, San Jose, San Francisco, and Westchester Airport), that has become a real concern.

In late July 2008, a laptop containing the personal information of 33,000 people (in some cases, including passport information) went missing from the Clear office at San Francisco International Airport. About a week later, the laptop was found back in the same office it was missing from. Despite this security breach, Clear was allowed to continue its operations (although the TSA did suspend future enrollment after the incident).

As of June 22, Clear ceased operations because they ran out of money. Although Clear claims it is protecting their customers’ personal information, the missing laptop incident can’t help make one question such claims. According to Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, "I think the customers of Clear should be concerned about this. Fingerprints are one of the most effective ways to [steal someone’s] identity."

Ultimately, the lost laptop and the shutting down of Clear and its Registered Traveler operations are symptomatic of post-9/11 syndrome. We are obsessed with security because we believe more security will make us safer against the threat of terrorism. And in the name of security, we gather more information about people who are not threats. But because absolute security is a Quixotic quest, we gain little (or nothing) for having given up much in terms of privacy, personal liberty, and constitutional safeguards. That and the $199 it costs to be a Registered Traveler.

Read more by Charles V. Peña