Not long ago while walking through the airport, the following announcement caught my attention: "Will the person who forgot their hearing aids please return to the Transportation Security Administration security checkpoint to reclaim them." It took me a moment to absorb entirely the irony of the message — to see the pointlessness of the broadcast — but ultimately I did, and I grinned.
Not at the thought of some unfortunate golden-ager, shuffling along behind a low-speed walker, sporting Velcro orthopedic shoes and forgetting to gather up his ear trumpets. No, that wasn't why. And surely, not from the knowledge that countless others, all paying passengers, are commanded each day to surrender their canes, dentures, prosthetic limbs, bottles, stuffed animals and other personals and necessaries — a sort of inverse profiling, where the very people who present the lowest possible threat are counterintuitively hassled and probed for gratuitous "security inspections," X-raying and explosive-residue swabbing.
Likewise, the grin wasn't prompted by the thought of countless other travelers, all stressed out in varying degrees, earnestly negotiating the indelicate pat-you-down, feel-you-up ordeal that has become a TSA security checkpoint. Rather, it was triggered by the utter ridiculousness of the announcement itself. Did this TSA employee actually hear himself, I wondered?
According to the TSA.gov website, the agency — with an annual budget of $7.6 billion — boasts employment of "nearly 50,000 security officers" working each day to "safeguard more than 450 airports across the country." Really?
Color me skeptical, but regarding their hiring practices and attendant vetting processes, the TSA could do better. As a group, TSA employees — government dole recipients all — seem to share apathy and indifference first, followed closely by inefficiency and idleness.
Consider this as well. Evidently, some of the TSA hewers of wood and drawers of water are not given, do not bother to read the employee handbook that summarizes, among other things, the policies and procedures regarding larceny and drug-smuggling, which states that both are prohibited. The result is that more than a few have been caught in the act of "safeguarding" our collective stuff — iPads, iPods, laptops, jewelry and anything of value — by pilfering it.
Others have exploited the seemingly many opportunities — whether directly, by handling the Acapulco Gold and Panama Red themselves, or indirectly, by looking the other way as drug mules stuff faux suitcases full of the good stuff — that we read often await TSA security screeners.
Recently, the TSA was in the news once again. This time, the agency wants to change the rules — to the breathless lament of flight attendants, pilots and airline management alike — to permit passengers to transport "knives with blades up to 2.36 inches long, hockey and lacrosse sticks, small baseball bats and golf clubs."
The logic? "Too much time" is spent collecting and confiscating such items during the security screening process, says John Pistole, TSA administrator. "Baggage screeners would better search for explosives that could bring planes down if they weren't worried about small knives." To lessen the burden on these overburdened security officers, said items should now be permitted. Huh?
As I recall, the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, were perpetrated and coordinated by a group of radical Islamist extremists with belligerence, brute force and small knives — not explosives.
Perhaps a more prudent move for the TSA would be to have its employees end the practice of exasperating the elderly, infirm and mothers with young children. They could also discontinue the excessive loitering of its workforce — screening areas often look a lot like where shift-change meets day-labor pick-up encampment with numerous "security officers" standing about, hands in pockets — and turn their attention to screening for and confiscating all knives, blunt objects and explosives.
While they're at it, perhaps the TSA could work on improving its customer-service dexterities, too. Whether the "security officers" realize it or not, the traveling, taxpaying public is their customer, too, and treating passengers poorly never bodes well for the collective job security of those of us who earn our living working in the air-transportation business.
Still, anyone with critical faculties really ought to be asking, as many have: Does the TSA — with all its badges, blue shirts and bureaucracy — make us any safer?
Alas, as someone who works in the trenches of the transportation industry, and thus has some familiarity, I'm inclined to answer with an unqualified no, we're not any safer. We merely have the perception of — not the reality of — increased security. Our false security costs us billions each year, along with an erosion of many of our basic liberties.
David Bittle is a pilot for a major airline.