Are you traveling more after the TSA’s unpopular scandowns?

by Christopher Elliott on February 24, 2011


Compelling journalism connects dots, telling a story by revealing a bigger picture. But what happens when you connect the wrong dots?

For example, here are two facts that should be connected only with great care and perspective: The latest Transportation Department numbers, which show domestic airlines carried 58.1 million passengers in November, up 6.1 percent from a year ago, and the introduction of the TSA’s unpopular scans and pat-downs, which prompted many air travelers to say they would stop flying.

Put them together and you get headlines like, Despite new security measures, airline travel soars.

Oh, really?

Really.

During the first month that the Transportation Security Administration launched a more aggressive pat-down search technique, the nation’s airlines saw the highest increase in passenger traffic in more than three years.

That may be completely true, but as anyone who travels knows, there’s a little more to the story.

First, most flights are purchased weeks ahead because of the airline industry’s strict advance-purchase requirements for reasonably-priced fares. Chances are, a significant majority of the folks flying in November made their plans before the TSA’s actions and were locked into their holiday travel plans.

Second, the economy is slowly emerging from a recession, so more people are traveling. A far better measure might have been last-minute flight cancellations, but those numbers aren’t reported to the DOT.

Connecting passenger enplanements with TSA policy without the benefit of this additional perspective tells an incomplete story. Passengers are as upset as ever about TSA policy. And they gave this particular reporter a piece of their mind in the comments.

“Looks like this writer is in the tank for TSA,” declared one reader. “The Sicko Agency likes to release these tidbits so talentless “journalists” can cut and paste a story without having to do any real reporting.”

That’s a little over-the-top. I know this reporter, and it’s far more likely that deadlines or a directive from his editors, who may or may not be intimately familiar with the airline industry, had more to do with the post than any political agenda.

So what’s really going on?

Passengers are, in fact, deeply troubled by what they say are the TSA’s unconstitutional actions. One disgruntled passenger, Terri Daniel, is even organizing a boycott of air travelers called “No-Fly Week” July 10 to 16. Here’s the group’s Facebook page.

“If the people of Egypt can overthrow a police state, why do we in America just sit still for ridiculous security practices and numerous other insults?” says Daniel.

Meanwhile, the government seems to be as tone-deaf as ever when it comes to reading the taxpayers who are footing the bill for the new body scanners. On Thursday, TSA Administrator John Pistole told Congress he wanted to broaden airport security to include vehicle checkpoints, small security teams patrolling the grounds and using officers who are trained to detect unusual behavior.

There’s some evidence that TSA has already started roaming beyond the screening areas and random gate checks. Last Sunday, Linda Morrison experienced what to her was a new security screening procedure in Seattle.

A lady wearing a TSA uniform came into the gate area where I was waiting for a flight and started going through people’s bags randomly. She seemed to be focused on larger carry on bags.

She did not approach me (or I would probably still be in detention) but I overheard her. She gave no explanation, cited no authority, did not give her name.

I truly felt the police state had arrived. The scary part was no one questioned her authority to do what I consider an illegal search. The bags had already been passed through security. Are they that insecure with their primary security procedures?

Apparently they are. It’s unclear if the TSA is authorized to make this kind of random search as passengers board. Under Public Law 107–71 (PDF), the legislation that created the TSA, it is allowed to screen passengers before boarding, but probably leaves open the possibility for such a search, however police-state-like it may be.

How long before TSA visits us at home to ask us a few questions about our upcoming flight?

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  • Janet

    I am going to travel when I have to for business, but have found ways to cut that travel. As far as personal travel, I have cut it 100%. It’s just not worth the stress or hassle.

  • Hapgood

    Extending “airport security” beyond the sterile area might, in theory, be a good idea. The current approach of making crowds of people stand shoeless at checkpoints waiting to be inspected and groped only creates a tempting target for terrorists.

    But the GAO thoroughly discredited the TSA’s “officers who are trained to detect unusual behavior” last year. So any such expansion will merely waste even more of our tax dollars uselessly hassling even more innocent people. The only possible benefit might be to convince more people that flying isn’t worth the hassle.

    I think Generalissimo Pistole should focus on making his empire more effective and cost-effective rather than expanding the size and cost of its useless intrusive hassles. Unfortunately, that’s not the way bureaucrats think, especially those that are exempt from the normal oversight and constraints.

    And besides, when the Generalissimo went on television to crush the pre-Thanksgiving “Opt-Out Day” rebellion, he most important message was that neither he nor the TSA care at all about what the public thinks of them. So if the Generalissimo decides to start strip searching anyone who happens to be driving in the vicinity of an airport, we had better accept it unquestioningly. He will pay no attention to what anyone thinks of it.

  • Puzzled

    I travel on business and have little choice in the matter but it’s become less and less likely that my husband and I will do so for pleasure.

    I talk with people literally everyday who relate exasperation with the TSA procedures, concerns as to what to expect, health concerns or personal horror stories. No, Americans are NOT traveling more because of the measures but rather in spite of them – and they are enjoying travel less and less.

  • Hapgood

    Of course I must point out that “travel” is NOT necessarily synonymous with flying! I suspect that many people who have given up flying may still be traveling as much or more than before– and also enjoying it more.

    That doesn’t necessarily mean being stuck with staycations. But thanks in large part to the TSA, I have found that discovering nearby places I had overlooked back when air travel was convenient and relatively pleasant is amazingly enjoyable and exciting. Get a guidebook for your home town or region, open your eyes, and start discovering!

    Generalissimo Pistole has made it clear he doesn’t care what we think of his agency. He will ignore any criticism of his empire or the way he rules it, except when he perceives it as a threatened rebellion that he needs to crush. So enjoying the many travel opportunities that do not require flying is about the only remotely effective measure we have to express our disgust with the TSA (and the airlines). If the airline executives see their Numbers declining too precipitously, they MAY be able to exercise their political clout to force the demotion of the Generalissimo into an administrator of an agency fully accountable to the public for effectiveness and cost-effectiveness. But I wouldn’t hold my breath.

  • PauletteB

    I fail to see what all the fuss is about. I travel solely for pleasure, and if my destination is too far to drive in the time I have (or a place I won’t drive to, like DC), I will fly. TSA is what it is, and I deal with it just fine. There are far too many REAL issues to worry about.

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