- - Monday, May 16, 2016


The good news is that summer and vacations are almost at hand. The bad news is that this year getting there won’t be even half the fun. Some of the nation’s airports, traffic managers and thousands of travelers have been overwhelmed by the first wave of summer travelers. The Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) knew the tide was running. At Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport thousands of passengers missed their flights and the lucky ones got a cot to sleep on until the airlines could put them on an alternate flight. Across town at Midway Airport, passenger lines weaved through the terminal and then to the sidewalks outside, waiting for a new flight. In Phoenix, thousands of pieces of luggage were piled up in the sun as flights took off with luggage bays empty. Two-dozen airports are looking for private security firms to do the work the TSA can’t or won’t do.

TSA, like all government agencies called to account for a job undone, says the problem is money. They never have enough of it, and hundreds of screeners have vanished, escaping the collapsing morale at the TSA itself and the Department of Homeland Security, of which the TSA is the most visible part. In response, Homeland Security chief Jeh Johnson called a press conference at Washington’s Reagan National Airport to answer charges that he and his minions are, not to put too fine a point on it, incompetent.

Not true, he assured reporters. It’s just that he and his are neither required nor much interested in the discomfort of the passengers they are commissioned to make safe. The reports of delays, he said, are overstated and besides, they’re not his fault. The fault lies with the fact that too many people are flying, he doesn’t have enough money and isn’t responsible for their comfort, anyway. The crisis, which he insists is not a crisis, recalls the mismanagement a season or so ago at the National Park Service, where agents said they were told to make life miserable for visitors to demonstrate the need for more money and more rangers. In Washington, the subway system is regarded as no longer safe, due to fires and breakdowns, and the management can’t understand why it should be blamed.

“I would not characterize [the long lines at airports] as a national crisis,” Jeh Johnson insists. “I do characterize our current situation as an aviation security imperative. Our job is to keep the American public safe. We’re dealing this summer with increased travel volume, which obviously puts an added burden on our [agents] and increased demand on the system. We will not compromise aviation security in the face of characterizations of this as a national crisis.” No one has suggested he should, of course, but when all else fails, change the subject.

In the days immediately following 9/11, the government called the airlines in to tell them that their mission was to make sure no airplane was ever again seized and used as a weapon by terrorists, “and if that means no plane ever flies again, that’s how it will be.” The man who made that statement, no doubt reaching for something dramatic to say, was quickly replaced by the Bush White House because the president understood that the government’s job was not to eliminate air travel, but to make air travel as safe in a way that strengthened security without sacrificing passenger convenience. Mr. Johnson will be leaving after the November election, and when he does and has to learn to live like the rest of us, we hope that his suitcase, after aging on the tarmac, is not doomed to the island of lost luggage.

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