In Which I Defend and Congratulate the TSA..(!)

The TSA is an easy target. Most of what passes for airport security is really security theater, designed either to make us feel safe or to appear that the government is doing something. All of this is reinforced by manufacturers selling expensive equipment.

So it’s easy to point to stories like the screener arrested for stealing from a passenger who had a conviction for theft before even being hired by the TSA. Foreseeable, much?

(Not the first questionable pre-employment screening, who can forget the Catholic priest dismissed over child sex abuse who became a TSA groperscreener?)

Which is why each of these stories, taken together, sure looks like a pattern rather than a one off (a few bad apples who in no way undermine the hard work that thousands of men and women at the TSA do to keep us safe, day in and day out).

And yet — in a true measure of fairness — it bears pointing out that the TSA really does appear to be at least trying to make the right decisions for passengers and for security.

  • There are limited resources and not every negligible (or non-existent) threat can be defended against — focusing on non-threats takes resources away from defending against real threats. So the TSA tried to amend the prohibited items list so they wouldn’t be required to search for items that don’t really pose existential security threats. They were thwarted by Congress, grandstanding over the threats of swiss army knives. Here the TSA was actually trying to deploy its resources to maximize security.

  • PreCheck, mostly available to elite frequent flyers, makes the security experience much more painless. Shoes stay on, laptop stays in bag, liquids stay in bag (though you’re still limited to a Freedom Baggie’s worth). All this in exchange for providing data to the government prior to travel. At first I was regularly, ‘randomly’ denied use of PreCheck which made it tough to extract time ssavings from. But since I signed up for Global Entry I started getting to use PreCheck consistently.

  • TSA plans to let people register for PreCheck directly, rather than just getting it through an airline or through Global Entry or Nexus. The cost is $85 (Nexus is $50 and Global Entry $100, both of which offer PreCheck and other benefits) and for now will be limited to signing up at Washington Dulles and Indianapolis. But they’re driving forward on expanding the program, which is key.

  • TSA is considering implementing randomized security which is eliminates profiling and is much harder to game.

The TSA has never caught a terrorist. They’ve wasted billions upon billions of dollars inconveniencing passengers and serving as a drag on the economy (deadweight loss of waits, wasted time at the airport having to arrive earlier, missed flights). But they do seem to be trying, even if ‘we’ won’t always let them do a better job than they’re currently doing.

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About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Of course, the TSA would point out that few terrorists even bothered to try since 2001, despite the fact that terrorists still seem to have a thing with airliners (see: underwear bomber, etc.)

    The point of effective security isn’t that you catch the bad guys (although of course you want to do that), the point is that they don’t even try.

    Even the few attempts after 9/11 were all attempts using things that were guaranteed to get past security – shoes in the case of Richard Reid and liquids in the case of the sink bomber. You don’t plan a terrorist attack for months only to leave the execution up to chance (i.e. will I be able to sneak my weapon through).

  2. Well said, Andrew! That is exactly the point of the TSA… to act as a deterrent! As for your comment, Gary, “The TSA has never caught a terrorist” do you have data to back up your claim or are you pontificating from a position of just another passenger annoyed with the entire security process? Have you ever been to Israel? Do you want to see what real security is and how painful it can be? I’d be careful what you are wishing for here by proclaiming that TSA is doing nothing more than wasting billions of dollars… The amount of “wasted” time by implementing “real” security at our airports will make your current wait pale in comparison…

  3. The TSA may have never caught a terrorist but look at the upside. After hundreds of x ray scans they have managed numerous times after seeing/finding nothing with their elaborate billions of dollars worth of equipment to expose us to radiation and shove their hands down my pants and pat down my butt. The other major accomplishment something the bottled water industry applauds confiscated numerous bottle of bottled water
    I love how in Australia I can take a case of bottled water on any plane yet when here in the US I must pay the extortionate 5 dollars for a bottle of water once clearing security every time I fly
    I think years from now will find out that the TSA was in cahoots with the airports to pump sales up of bottled water and split the profits 🙂

  4. I am never going back to the US. In 2002 the TSa there impounded my gold-plated nail clippers, a gift from a very dear person who by that time was no longer, and which had passed through security at Oslo and Amsterdam airports on the same flight.

    To such a country of thieves I am never giving my business again.

  5. Are you serious? This is the most asinine post I’ve read on a blog in weeks. They aren’t trying to “do the right thing” they are trying to expand their grip and make more money.

  6. Gary, has anyone ever stated any known (e.g. insider) information on the rates at which people are allowed/denied PreCheck based on whether they have it standalone or through Global Entry? The word on the street (i guess these days the term would be “crowdsourced data”) has always been about a 70/30 accept/reject with standalone PreCheck (offered through FF programs) whereas I’m not sure I’ve ever heard of anyone being denied PC with GE. Since I got GC I’ve cleared PC 100% of the time. Which seems somewhat backwards because the standalone PC until now has only been offered to elite FFers like yourself with long histories of safe flying, whereas GE is available to any schmuck like me who doesn’t have a criminal history and can pay $100. Curious as to if this is the official position and if it’s ever been explored.

  7. Gary’s posts on the TSA are just completely laughable. PLEASE stick to your core competencies. When you stray it typically doesn’t turn out well.

    Andrew’s statement: “The point of effective security isn’t that you catch the bad guys (although of course you want to do that), the point is that they don’t even try.”

    Correct. That shows you how off base Gary is on this issue.

  8. “They’ve wasted billions upon billions of dollars inconveniencing passengers and serving as a drag on the economy”

    There are those of us who think this administration would consider that less of a ‘bug’ than a feature.

    Change the word passengers to patients, and that sounds like a summary of Obamacare. Which has already cost untold Billions, and forced Millions of people out of full time jobs into part time jobs, even though it hasn’t been implemented yet. The Congressional Budget Office recently estimated that if it ever is, 7 Million workers will lost their employer provided health plan. Even major unions now realize what a disaster looms ahead:


    “The leaders of three major U.S. unions, including the highly influential Teamsters, have sent a scathing open letter to Democratic leaders in Congress, warning that unless changes are made, President Obama’s health care reform plan will “destroy the foundation of the 40 hour work week that is the backbone of the American middle class.”

    If that’s not bad enough, the Affordable Care Act, if not modified, will “destroy the very health and wellbeing of our members along with millions of other hardworking Americans,” the letter says.

    The letter, signed by Teamsters President Jimmy Hoffa, UFCW President Joseph Hansen and UNITE-HERE President D. Taylor, comes after companies have cut worker hours in order to avoid reaching the 50 full-time employee Obamacare threshold requiring a business to provide health insurance through government exchanges. Union leaders are reminding Democrats, not Republicans, about why they originally supported a healthcare overhaul and are expressing buyer’s remorse.”

    But sometimes these multi-Billion dollar Government programs do work out well. Like the way Obama’s highly touted Automaker Bailout saved Detroit from bankruptcy.

    Oh, wait…

  9. @mark (and others), TSA is absolute security theatre and I can do plenty of citations to experts on this, there’s very little deterrent value to the TSA. They go after movie script plots, while liquid bombers are ‘scary’ they also aren’t especially realistic and the restrictions on liquids are easy to overcome if you’re trying to blow up a plane (much more so if you’r emerely trying to keep hydraed on a long flight). There also aren’t that many terrorists willing to kill themselves, though there are some. Your criticisms of what you view as my core competencies speak volumes about your own biases (core competencies = things that resonate with your own preconceived notions).

  10. Wow with a post like that, Spiff’s gonna punch you out the next time he sees you.

  11. @Gary – I’ve asked this before but not sure if you’ve ever answered. Where did you get your security/law enforcement training/background? I must have missed that information in your bio. You post regularly about the TSA so you must have some sort of expertise that I am missing (other than simply being a traveler). Please, please enlighten us.

    And, I don’t have any biases. You posted and I responded. You are the blogger, remember? There is not a lot of middle ground with your blog. Your good posts are great. Your bad posts are train wrecks. Your TSA posts fall in the latter group.

  12. Gary, there haven’t been any alien invasions since the TSA began operations. Therefore, the TSA is preventing alien invasions. You should be more thoughtful.

  13. @mark – you don’t have any biases? really? your comments over time reveal strong biases for short posts. In the past you’ve asked for legal credentials, as though those are relevant, and I’m mentioned extensive work with legal scholars and having been cited in law reviews. I’ve also worked alongside a member of the 9/11 commission.

    Now you want law enforcement background, without of course offering up your own bona fides (you’re the one setting the standard of what credentials are necessary to comment on an issue). I think you offer up a fallacy, however. My arguments rise or fall on their own merit, I’d suggest you shouldn’t be persuaded by mere credentials — I offer arguments, rather than imploring you to simply ‘trust me’.

  14. Whoa! The TSA is doing all the wrong things for all the right reasons. Kill the TSA. And please advise when/where the funeral will be. Loathsome and bloated as it is, infected with stage IV malignant Mission Creep, the beast still warrants a proper Christian burial, imho.

    BTW, Gary, great meeting you in PDX at WDS2013.

  15. @Gary – Maybe I am gullible, but I will leave my safety in the hands of people whose job it is to study terrorism/safety, etc. versus a travel/points/credit card blogger who occasionally writes about TSA gripes.

    That is why I asked about your credentials. Maybe you do have some sort of terrorism/safety background that doesn’t shine through your writing about meals you ate in 1994 or how to add a free leg on an AA award ticket.

    But, citing random articles in the press just doesn’t cut it for me. TSA professionals spend their days studying and analyzing this stuff. I’ll trust them, thank you.

  16. “TSA professionals spend their days studying and analyzing this stuff.”


    Funny stuff, Mark. Do the EPA next!

  17. I read blog after blog complaining and bitching about the TSA. there is a steady stream of this – some of which comes from people who never fly or the” I will never fly again crowd.”As someone who will log 130,000 or more miles this year – there is always the good , the bad and the ugly. But I would say the same for any industry. The TSA in my opinion is a convenient public target for a lot of discontented people who are angry about a lot of government functions – which is why healthcare for Americans is being discussed on this blog.
    Maybe instead of bitching so much someone could offer up what would be that “perfect” security system that prevents all things bad and pleases everyone. Do I like every aspect of the TSA system – no but it is the price of getting around this country pretty quickly. Don’t like it just drive. And if TSA causes so much angst then get together with your fellow anti-TSA friends and lobby Congress for changes.

  18. “Don’t like it just drive”

    Yeah, if you don’t like a idiotic, useless, government
    bureaucracy that wastes Billions of your tax dollars, humiliates cancer victims, forces children to undo groping that if done by a school teacher would land that teacher in jail with a sex offender designation for like, causes air travelers to waste a half hour every flight, forces you to pay $5 for a bottle of water inside the airport that would cost $1 outside…

    If you don’t like all of that, just give up your right to fly, and only go to places close enough to drive. Who do you think you are, a free citizen of a free country or something?

    I don’t think it off topic to mention the Obamacare debacle. The TSA, Obamacare, and the total destruction of the city of Detroit, which was the wealthiest city in the country in 1960 and yesterday declared bankruptcy, despite Obama having recently spent Billions of tax dollars to “save” it, are symptoms of the same heavy handed, over-regulated, sclerotic government knows best bureaucracy.

    Just don’t fly? I’m old enough to remember when “it’s a free country” was a common expression, not a cynical joke.

  19. @Sue wrote “I read blog after blog complaining and bitching about the TSA. there is a steady stream of this”

    Not everyone who disagrees with you is evil or stupid. If you keep seeing it, consider taking the arguments seriously instead of just dismissing them, you may discover there’s something to it.

    “The TSA in my opinion is a convenient public target for a lot of discontented people who are angry about a lot of government functions – which is why healthcare for Americans is being discussed on this blog.”

    My argument here is about TSA, why attempt to distract by talking about other public policies instead of refuting the arguments?

    “Maybe instead of bitching so much someone could offer up what would be that “perfect” security system that prevents all things bad and pleases everyone.”

    The point is there’s no perfect system of security, wishing for perfect security and expecting TSA to deliver it just gives us security theatre/wasteful spending and inconveniences in exchange for pretend security.

    Metal detectors, pre-9/11 security. Add reinforced cockpit doors. Add passengers unwilling to remain docile in the cabin. Consider random inspections (not TSA ‘behavioral deteciton’ by poorly trained staff).

    Recognize that we cannot be 100% safe, and that we don’t want to go through the sorts of procedures necessary to even try. And that there aren’t as many people looking to kill themselves to make a point as we like to think there are (though of course there are some).

  20. Gary says: “there aren’t as many people looking to kill themselves to make a point as we like to think there are (though of course there are some).”

    Debatable but let’s assume you are right…there are some but maybe not many. What do you propose to address the people that do want to, as you say, “make a point”? Again, instead of just citing article after article of a few bad seeds….specifically, what do you propose? Keen to hear your proposals.

  21. I was “not selected” (i.e., randomly denied) for Pre-check on a flight today and I have Global Entry–showed the card and everything. The TSA agent said it was 80/20, and another agent commented that they didn’t want people to count on it. Thankfully, the line wasn’t too long. This was the first I had heard about it not being guaranteed.

  22. @Zee – Yes, it is not guaranteed. TSA want people to be randomly screened even if they have pre-Check.

    As Gary correctly pointed out a while ago, this negatively impacts the value of pre-Check. If you aren’t sure you’ll have a quick security experience, you really have to assume the worst to be safe. In these cases, I think TSA should allow folks to use the elite line since pre-Check people may not have allowed enough time to go through a traditional security experience.

  23. @gene

    And your post just shows that some sheeple condone thievery, if not actually necessarily also take part in it.

    It is none of your business what somebody else’s object was, if you are unable to sympathise with the fact that they were stolen and thrown into a pile of impounded objects — the likes of which many of us have seen and which remind an observant onlooker of the pile of glasses at Auschwitz.

    Of course, you do not have to have empathy. Many do not. Because of your ilk people hate Americans more and more all over the world.

    But your envy of the fact that the object in question was something beyond a pathetic average everyday life expectations is a kind of despicable, dontcha think?

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