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Why Flying Won’t Get Any Better
And What You Can Do About It

I am old enough to remember when flying was at least reasonably convenient, and even something to look forward to. Although the glamour and adventure of early passenger aviation had long given way to jet-age routine, airlines still considered themselves a “customer service” business and generally valued passengers. Those days are gone forever. The airlines and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) seem intent on reminding us that the word travel derives from the Latin trepaliare. That means “ordeal” or “torment,” especially torture with a trepalium. In medieval times that was a three-prong pitchfork, but today it’s a row of economy-class seats.

For the reasons I’ll discuss, air travel will remain a miserable experience for the foreseeable future. There is nothing any of us can do to change that. The TSA’s “airport security” will remain a costly charade that provides little actual security, for entirely political reasons. And airlines will continue their race to the bottom of customer service, for entirely economic reasons.

Complaining about either one will only increase the frustration, since nobody who might improve things is listening. The only thing any of us can do is to think carefully about whether flying is truly necessary. And when it is truly necessary, try not to get upset.

Impervious to Criticism

Complaints and criticism about the TSA are so ubiquitous that I need not elaborate on them. Especially since the agency’s leaders ignore all of it. I even suspect they proudly regard the disdain much of the traveling public has for the TSA as conclusive validation of their effectiveness. If they cause ordinary travelers so much exasperation, can there be any doubt that they make things even more difficult for terrorists?

What I find simultaneously impressive and frightening is how the TSA has made itself completely impervious to criticism, whether from the press, the public, or other parts of the federal government. Ever since the TSA was born in the chaos after 9/11, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has conducted periodic audits and undercover tests of airport screening. These tests have consistently shown both a lack of effectiveness and a lack of improvement. (I’ll discuss the most recent GAO audit later.) But their only practical effect is political theatre in Congress that parallels the security theatre at airports.

A committee, usually led by the member who requested the audit, summons the TSA administrator to a hearing. Everyone then takes their turn berating him for the cameras. The TSA administrator feigns contrition and promises improvement. Then he uncrosses his fingers, waits a few days for the hearing to be forgotten, and tells his staff to keep up the good work. That’s the last we hear of it, until the next audit compels a repeat performance. The TSA can get away with that because nobody will hold them accountable for anything, for the reasons I’ll discuss.

Change We Can Believe In?

I had hoped that the Obama administration would thoroughly evaluate the TSA and its screening practices for effectiveness and cost-effectiveness. I had particularly hoped they would hold the agency accountable for “security we can believe in.” But there has been no apparent effort in that direction.

There’s no denying that the administration has higher priorities, including an economic crisis and two wars. It also took three attempts to appoint and confirm a new TSA administrator, which can only suggest that John Pistole will be resolutely committed to maintaining and expanding the status quo. And Mr. Pistole’s background— 26 years with the FBI, including six years as Deputy Director— extinguishes any hope of the TSA becoming more respectful of passengers’ civil liberties and privacy under his leadership. The FBI has a long history of contempt for the Bill of Rights, too often ignoring or circumventing it whenever it gets in their way.

Regrettably, this is merely one example of how Mr. Obama himself has sadly disappointed voters who had naively bought into his message of “change we can believe in.” His inaugural address raised hopes by proclaiming that “we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.” The TSA is possibly the most visible representation of that false choice. But the lack of any action toward improving the TSA’s accountability and credibility shows that the lofty rhetoric was just the usual politician’s sham(e). (Update, March 2014: I wrote this before the revelations about NSA surveillance and the secret court that authorizes it. The hypocrisy it revealed about Mr. Obama’s claimed concern for civil liberties surely explains why TSA intrusiveness has only increased under his administration.)

We Love You Just the Way You Are

I have reluctantly concluded that the TSA will almost certainly remain as it is. Regardless of whether it provides any actual security, it’s just too useful.

Building Monuments

The most distressing thing about the TSA’s approach of equating security with intrusive hassle is that it’s probably counterproductive. Terrorism is an effective tactic because it terrorizes people. Or it at least makes them waste a lot of time and money on ineffective “security.” The ability to sow fear and panic, and especially to provoke irrational and costly reaction, is what allows a small group of thugs to inflict significant damage on their supposedly more powerful enemies, at a very low cost.

Given the inherent difficulty of protecting the public against terrorists, minimizing their power to terrorize or disrupt would seem the only effective way to counter them. Bruce Schneier, the cryptographer and “security guru” who coined the term security theatre, has concisely summarized this approach as “Refuse to be Terrorized.”

But we do just the opposite. We react to terrorist attacks in ways that amplify their impact. We allow even failed attempts at mass destruction to succeed in creating permanent mass disruption. We build monuments to terrorists.

I know that’s not how we’re supposed to view all those dedicated agencies, officials, and officers who heroically wage the daily skirmishes in the Global War on Terror to keep our Homeland secure. But it’s what seems to be happening.

The Successful Failed Bombing Plot

In August 2006, police in London and Pakistan arrested a group of Muslims who they claimed were plotting to blow up airplanes with liquid explosives. Seven of the plotters were eventually convicted of conspiracy. Of course, it was old-fashioned intelligence and detective work that foiled the plot before it got anywhere near an airport. Airport screening would have done nothing to prevent tragedy.

The TSA reacted with a total ban on liquids, which made sense as a temporary measure until the police could finish their work. A month later they triumphantly announced that their “explosives experts” had done “extensive testing” to develop new rules and restrictions allowing passengers to safely carry on liquids, aerosols, and gels. Those restrictions remain in effect, even though the plotters are safely in prison.

The arbitrary restrictions on liquids are probably the most confusing, frustrating, and detested part of TSA screening, especially when “interpreted” and enforced with the maddening inconsistency that has become synonymous with “TSA.” The agency continues to insist that the restrictions are necessary and effective, based on their own “horrifying” studies that are, of course, classified. But at every checkpoint the screeners make no secret of gleefully tossing confiscated bottles into ordinary trash barrels emptied by ordinary janitors, with no Hazardous Material gear in sight. How can anyone who sees that still believe the TSA’s claims?

We can all be appropriately grateful that the plot failed, and that the convicted plotters are rotting away in a British prison. But thanks to the TSA, their endless empty days will be brightened by the spectacular success they’ve achieved from inflicting a permanent burden on everyone who travels by air.

You might respond with the TSA’s argument that, however inconvenient and absurd the rigmarole of 100ml bottles in quart-sized baggies may seem, it’s greatly preferable to blown-up airplanes. I would agree. Except there’s no reason to believe that all those daily hassles to millions of people do anything to prevent blown-up airplanes!

That’s because the restrictions are a specific reaction to a specific past tactic. They provide no protection from future plotters, who will surely use different tactics. That’s the built-in flaw in the TSA’s reactive approach, which attempts to retroactively deprive terrorists of box cutters, shoes, liquids, or whatever they used (or tried to use) in the past. It seems more about posterior-covering than security.

This reactive approach probably undermines whatever security benefits screening could provide. Screeners preoccupied with confiscating harmless items on a continually-expanding list might not notice the signs of new tactics that aren’t (yet) on the checklist.

The Emperor’s New Strip Search

Richard Reid failed to detonate his shoe bomb, and will spend the rest of his life in solitary confinement at the Supermax prison in Colorado. The TSA nonetheless turned his failure into an everlasting success by making passengers stand shoeless on filthy airport floors. More recently, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab failed to detonate his underwear on Christmas Day in 2009. He faces a future similar to Mr. Reid’s. But the TSA is busily (and perhaps gratefully) working to install permanent monuments to him at every major airport.

Before Mr. Abdulmutallab came along, the TSA was having trouble promoting “Whole Body Imaging” scanners that look under passengers’ clothing. Assurances that secret procedures would somehow protect privacy weren’t enough to overcome Puritan squeamishness about a “virtual strip search,” fears of radiation exposure, as well as the general distrust of the TSA. The House of Representatives even passed an amendment restricting the use of these scanners to secondary screening, where there is at least some cause for such an intrusive search.

Abdulmutallab’s failure was a gift to the TSA, providing a bulldozer to clear away all the objections. Particularly those of the GAO, which questioned the TSA’s use of watchlists in the Abdulmutallab case, questioned the TSA’s rush to deploy scanners that had never been tested for effectiveness, and expressed doubts that the scanners could have found Umar’s bomb (PDF). The GAO also called for a cost-benefit analysis before spending $2.4 billion to install and staff them.

But when news of the plot broke, President Obama urgently needed to Do Something. So he called on the TSA to “heighten security” by deploying the scanners at all major airports. We will never know if anyone in the elephantine Homeland Security bureaucracy was ever held accountable for the reported cascade of failures that allowed Mr. Abdulmutallab and his explosive underwear on the plane. But we know who will be punished for those failures: Everyone who chooses to fly.

The TSA also took advantage of this golden opportunity by renaming the scanners to conceal their true nature. Someone who might feel queasy about “Whole Body Imaging” should eagerly accept “Advanced Imaging Technology,” if they don’t fully realize what it is.

Mr. Abdulmutallab failed to blow up an airplane. But his contribution to making everyone who wants to fly undergo a strip search is a success he can be proud of!

Some things to think about:

Your Choice: Zapped or Groped?

Soon after the TSA began deploying the Advanced Imaging Technology scanners, they announced that passengers with concerns about radiation or privacy could “opt out,” and instead receive an “enhanced pat down.” But they refused to elaborate on what this actually meant.

Reports then began circulating about screeners touching genitals, breasts, and other intimate areas with the front of their hands, through clothing. Sometimes this “groping” was painfully rough, and accompanied with admonitions to “go through the scanner next time,” implying that the screeners were making the pat down painful and humiliating in retaliation for “opting out.” Even when the pat down itself wasn’t uncomfortable, it could be accompanied with humiliating shouts of “REFUSAL! I HAVE A REFUSAL HERE! I NEED A FEMALE OFFICER!” that made passengers who “opted out” feel like they had committed some criminal offense.

The TSA’s propaganda bloggers responded to these reports with their usual approach of denying and dismissing them. They stated that the “enhanced pat down” is a necessary response to current threats and is solely for security purposes; that the screeners are highly professional officers thoroughly trained to perform the pat downs with the utmost of courtesy and respect; and that TSA operating procedures strictly prohibit any form of retaliation. Therefore, any claims of abusive or retaliatory behavior from screeners could not possibly be true.

The TSA’s official denial did little to mollify critics. And as the 2010 holiday season approached, some people on Facebook called for mass protest. They declared a “National Opt-Out Day”— when everyone should refuse the scanner and request a pat down— on the day before Thanksgiving, the busiest travel day of the year. The TSA considered this a serious enough threat to require the personal intervention of Administrator John Pistole.

Mr. Pistole could have used this opportunity to constructively address his agency’s long-standing public relations and credibility problems that led to this threat of disruptive protest. But in typical TSA (and FBI?) fashion, he was only interested in reacting to the threat and asserting his authority. In television and radio interviews he reiterated his message: The TSA alone determines what security measures will be deployed at airports. The TSA will implement those measures without regard to what the public thinks of them. Thus, the only effect a protest could ever have would be major delays that ruin the holiday for innocent travelers, the overwhelming majority of whom approve of the scanners and support the TSA.

Thanksgiving travel went smoothly, and the TSA’s propaganda bloggers crowed about how the “national opt-out day” turned into “TSA appreciation day.” They surely would like us to believe this was entirely due their administrator’s Pistole-whipping, which not only crushed the rebellion but convinced those who challenge the TSA that “resistance is futile.” But it’s been alleged that the TSA secretly suspended the scanning and pat downs for the holiday season. The TSA has made sure we can never know the truth about this. And it’s very likely that the many people who signed the Facebook protest were merely expressing their anger at the TSA, and were never serious about actually causing disruption.

So what does this mean? First, whether or not those Facebook protesters actually intended to disrupt holiday travel, they did have an effect. They made the very busy TSA Administrator take time away from his very important work to confront the threat. But if he convinced anyone of anything, it’s that the arrogant contempt for the public too often seen at airport checkpoints pervades his agency, from the top down.

Regarding the reported “groping,” I believe this merely reflects the TSA’s hallmark inconsistency. The official policy from Headquarters most likely does require courtesy and respect. But as with everything the TSA does, the implementation of the pat downs— and the training, competence, courtesy, and “professionalism” of the screeners conducting them— will always vary greatly between airports, checkpoints, and individual screeners.

The issue of retaliation is more complicated. Whatever the official policy, screeners and their bosses have strong incentives to actively discourage passengers from “opting out.” The pat down requires screeners to do extra work, which they surely find unpleasant. And most importantly, patting down passengers is much slower than scanning them. Screeners might not be accountable for courtesy, respect, or “professionalism,” but they are very much accountable for “throughput” metrics.

The secrecy of the procedures and standards for pat downs ensures that a passenger can never know if a screener exceeds the bounds of “necessary security” and ventures into “retaliation,” “behavior modification,” or outright abuse. That makes it all but impossible to even identify violations or abuses. And screeners know that if a passenger complains, TSA leadership will always stand behind them. So in practice, any official policies or rules meant to protect passengers from retaliation or bullying are meaningless. As long as the TSA insists on secrecy and shields employees from accountability, screeners enjoy a license to retaliate against “refusals” whenever (and however) they feel like it.

As for the scanners themselves, my doctor has advised me to “opt out.” He explained that exposure to radiation is cumulative, and I already have an increased risk of skin cancer. So I should particularly avoid exposure to unknown levels of radiation specifically directed at the skin. I would definitely put more credence in the reasoned advice of a medical specialist than in the TSA’s “trust us.” That means if I do choose to fly, I can expect a pat down at the airport that may include retaliatory “enhancements.”

Worrisome Side Effects

The use of “intimate” pat downs as a standard airport security measure raises a very troubling possibility that, so far, hasn’t had much discussion. In effect, anyone who chooses to fly now agrees to the docile and cooperative acceptance of a screener feeling their genitals and breasts. Even those who unhesitatingly assume the “mugging” position in the scanner are subject to a pat down if the machine produces a false-positive “alarm.” And any passenger may receive one if a screener has some other reason to inflict it, possibly including an assigned quota of “random” pat downs.

But there surely are individuals, including victims of rape or child abuse, who will have an unfortunate reaction to “intimate contact” from a screener. That may mean anyone whose history or psychological condition renders them unable to remain docile and cooperative during a pat down— which might not be properly and “respectfully” administered— should not fly. Given the TSA’s consistent lack of concern about any adverse consequences of their screening procedures, that’s probably what the TSA will offer as a solution should such an “incident” occur.

A SPOT Check

The TSA supplements reactive screening with a “behavior detection” program called SPOT. This involves special “behavior detection officers” trained to identify signs of stress that supposedly identify individuals at “high risk” for nefarious intent. Although the TSA claims these officers can reliably identify terrorists, even in a large crowd of stressed, anxious passengers at a checkpoint, they consistently dodge questions about whether SPOT has actually caught any terrorists. But they very proudly tout its “successes” at finding passengers carrying drugs, cash, and even fake military jackets, none of which have anything to do with the TSA’s supposed “mission” of targeting terrorism and threats to aviation.

The GAO audited the SPOT program in 2010. Their report (PDF) offers not merely the results of this audit, but an illuminating peek behind the TSA’s shroud of secrecy.

The GAO concluded that “TSA deployed SPOT nationwide without first validating the scientific basis for identifying suspicious passengers in an airport environment.” They noted that no scientific consensus currently exists about whether behavior detection is even useful for counterterrorism. But that apparently doesn’t matter to the TSA, since the agency lacks even a plan for developing measurements to validate SPOT’s effectiveness. And further, the TSA has failed to coordinate the officers with information and surveillance systems that might help them “connect the dots.”

To assess the program’s effectiveness at detecting terrorists, the auditors reviewed the travel history of sixteen individuals allegedly involved in six terrorist plots. They found that “these individuals moved through [eight] SPOT airports on at least 23 different occasions” without the officers taking any notice.

As for those vaunted “successes,” between 2004 and 2008 the officers “SPOTted” and questioned about 152,000 passengers. Of those, some 14,000 were referred to police, resulting in 1,083 arrests. The charges involved immigration status, outstanding warrants, fraudulent documents, and drugs. According to the GAO, “TSA officials did not identify any direct links to terrorism or any threat to the aviation system in any of these cases.”

The TSA spent $212 million on SPOT in fiscal 2010, and requested $232 million for fiscal 2011. For that money we’re getting a program lacking any valid scientific basis, which achieves a 0.7% detection rate for possible criminal activities unrelated to terrorism or threats to aviation. This is the first cost-benefit analysis I’ve seen of any part of the TSA. As the GAO diplomatically noted, “[t]he nation’s constrained fiscal environment makes it imperative that careful choices be made regarding which investments to pursue and which to discontinue.”

The report also includes the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) response to the audit. This is probably the most revealing part of the report, as it summarizes everything that’s wrong with both the DHS and the TSA. The response mostly attempts to defend SPOT and to justify the TSA’s performance. The DHS specifically rejected the GAO’s first recommendation, for a panel of independent scientists to verify the effectiveness of behavior detection. Instead, their own “Science and Technology Directorate” will do whatever they decide is appropriate. The DHS nominally “concurs” with the GAO’s other recommendations, but the evasive weasel-wording clearly says they have no intention of doing anything.

The response offers nothing to give any confidence that the $1.2 billion they plan to spend on SPOT over the next five years will buy anything useful. And it sends a clear message that the DHS categorically refuses any outside interference in their operations, and adamantly rejects any independent oversight or accountability.

Like most GAO audits of the TSA, this was a one-time event at the request of a member of Congress. Since there’s no follow-up, and no authority to hold anyone accountable for implementing the GAO’s recommendations, the TSA can get away with responding to the audit as they respond to any criticism: Ignore it, unless it’s embarrassing enough to require spin doctoring.

Update (June 2013): The DHS Inspector General audited the SPOT program in 2013. (Redacted PDF) This audit was at the request of the ranking Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee, in response to allegations that behavior detection officers had used illegal racial profiling to generate an increased quota of “referrals” to law enforcement. TSA officials allegedly wanted more arrest statistics to justify expansion of the program.

The Inspector General found that the TSA still has no mechanism or plan for assessing the program’s effectiveness, and no financial plan for administering the program (which has already cost $878 million). The auditors also found that the TSA does not adequately train the 2,800 behavior detection officers to do their jobs consistently or completely.

A further review of the reports documenting referrals to law enforcement found a significant number of errors, caused or exacerbated by an inadequate management review process. That deficiency casts doubt on the statistics the TSA uses to justify the program. The Inspector General concluded that the “TSA cannot ensure that passengers at United States airports are screened objectively, show that the program is cost-effective, or reasonably justify the program’s expansion.”

Update (March 2014): The GAO reviewed the SPOT program again in November 2013 (PDF). They again found a lack of scientific evidence for the effectiveness of behavior detection, and found significant flaws in the TSA’s attempts to validate the SPOT program. Once more, the GAO concluded that “after 10 years of implementing and testing the SPOT program, TSA cannot demonstrate that the agency’s behavior detection activities can reliably and effectively identify high-risk passengers who may pose a threat to the U.S. aviation system.” But this time they were more direct in their recommendations that both DHS and Congress cut the funding for behavior detection.

TSA Administrator John Pistole’s response predictably reiterated his agency’s contempt for reviews and recommendations from anyone other than the DHS’ own Science and Technology Directorate. He also offered what we might take as the definitive reason why the TSA sees no need for scientific validation of behavior detection: “As a law enforcement professional with 30 years of experience, I can personally attest to the effectiveness of behavior detection principles.” It thus appears that the billion-dollar SPOT program is a “faith-based initiative.”

This article in the New York Times concisely summarizes current scientific understanding of behavior detection. It provides reasons to doubt the validity of the faith that Administrator Pistole and the TSA seem to have in it.

And the TSA continues to insist that we trust them.

One Nation, Under Fear

I don’t believe that anyone in our government is intentionally helping terrorists. However, when a terrorist incident occurs, we expect our Leaders to Do Something. And Doing Something quickly and visibly matters much more than whether that Something does any good. “Refuse to be terrorized” is thus not a politically viable option. This all encourages action that paradoxically makes terrorism more effective.

But there could be more to it than that. Politicians seem to find a terrified public very useful. The Bush administration masterfully exploited the Fear after 9/11 to achieve their ideological ambitions of “liberating” Iraq and greatly strengthening the power of the Executive Branch. They even provided a color code, so we could always know how terrified to feel! (I can only wonder how the Bush administration would have fared if 9/11 had not happened. Or, for that matter, what Al Gore might have done differently.)

The Bush administration was by no means the first to use Fear to their political advantage. Before the Global War on Terror and Islamic terrorists there was the Cold War and communists. Joseph McCarthy and Richard Nixon were only the most notorious of the politicians who exploited that opportunity, to the detriment of the nation. And after World War I, the threat of left-wing anarchists and labor organizers justified systematic abuses of civil liberties.

The Cold War climate of Fear engendered the Vietnam Conflict and the contemporaneous War on Drugs. These both realized Orwell’s concept of a perpetual “war” whose vague objectives shift constantly to meet political needs, and in which “victory” is neither definable nor desirable. The Vietnam Conflict failed to stop the dominoes from falling to the communists, but too many broken veterans continue to pay the price for the dubious achievement of “peace with honor.” And in four decades, the War on Drugs has failed to either stop drug abuse or to make the streets safe for our children. But it has given the United States the world’s highest incarceration rate, as the Federal Bureau of Prisons proudly touts in its exhibit at Alcatraz.

Despite the low return on high costs, the fear of being branded “soft on communism,” “soft on drugs,” or “soft on crime”— mirroring the fears of many voters— led politicians to continually escalate these “wars” for years, until they finally realized they could no longer afford the cost. The Global War on Terror seems nothing more than the latest variation on this theme.

We may sing about the “land of the free and the home of the brave.” But the United States actually has been “One Nation, Under Fear” for at least a century. Rather than “refuse to be terrorized,” we prefer to and let our Leaders declare “war,” and then exploit the self-reinforcing Fear. Perhaps the purpose of the TSA’s security theatre may no longer be to reassure us, but to remind us of our continuing obligation to Be Afraid.

The defining image of 21st century America— the Age of Terror— may well be a queue of ovine citizens standing in stockinged feet, patiently waiting at an airport checkpoint. Regrettably, that checkpoint is a monument to the power a few fanatical thugs armed with box cutters can wield over a society dominated by Fear.

Final Words on Security

Let me clearly state that I do not deny or minimize the very real and very significant threat of terrorism, Nor do I advocate simply eliminating airport security measures and opening up planes to terrorists. Indeed, if I had reason to believe that the TSA actually protected us against fanatical mass murderers, I would eagerly and gratefully submit to whatever they decided was necessary.

I object to the TSA because all the evidence I’ve seen, particularly the audit reports from the GAO and the DHS Inspector General, consistently indicates that the TSA provides no actual security, but squanders significant and continually increasing amounts of our time, money, privacy, and cherished civil liberties. That’s an opinion expressed by a growing number of experts on security and terrorism, notably including a former FBI counter-terrorism specialist who calls the TSA “one of the worst-run, ineffective and most unnecessarily intrusive agencies in the United States government.” And worse, the TSA conditions Fearful Americans to willingly and unquestioningly surrender ever more of their rights and privacy at the arbitrary command of Authorities in uniform.

The TSA’s favorite response to such concerns is a call to “Remember 9/11.” Presumably, recalling the shock and terror we felt on that day will instantly obviate all questions of liberty, privacy, effectiveness, and cost, and have us tearfully begging the TSA to “Protect Us.” Indeed, we should “never forget 9/11.” But neither should we let our Leaders and their secretive unaccountable agencies abuse it to justify the “choice between our safety and our ideals” that our President has explicitly rejected as false.

Even Bruce Schneier admits that we’re stuck with the useless and burdensome “enhancements” the TSA has made to the screening system that failed on 9/11, and that continues to fail regularly. We can’t expect any elected or appointed official to commit political hara-kiri by removing them. But we can demand that Mr. Obama keep his word about wanting increased openness and transparency in government by bringing some of it to the TSA.

The TSA insists that secrecy, along with authority to do whatever they want without constraints and oversight, is crucial to their mission. I believe that real security requires just the opposite. Whatever actual security airport screening can provide will surely be most effective if the public has confidence in its effectiveness, and regards the TSA as a helpful ally in keeping aviation safe. Transparency and accountability are the key to earning the respect, confidence, and cooperation of the public that the TSA now lacks.

Getting There is No Fun At All

Our (shoeless) walk-on role in the TSA’s security theatre production is merely the prelude to an ordeal that only seems to be getting worse. But this time we can’t blame terrorists, politicians, or bureaucrats. The airlines are simply giving us what we consistently and unequivocally tell them we want.

In the Dark Age of Government Regulation, airlines had to compete on customer service and various frills— anyone for stewardesses in mini-skirts?— to entice passengers to choose them instead of a competitor that charged the same fare. With the dawn of the Golden Age of Deregulation in 1978, airline executives quickly learned that we no longer care about service or frills. We care only about finding the cheapest fare; and we’ll choose the flight and airline that saves $5.

Airline executives responded by competing on price. But the only way to simultaneously satisfy passengers’ desire for the lowest fare and shareholders’ desire for return on their investment was to cut costs. They devised “dynamic yield management,” software that continually adjusts fares to track demand and maximize revenue, that makes shopping for a flight a crapshoot in a crooked casino. They jammed in more downsized seats, turning the “main cabin” into a knee-crushing, back-wrenching veal pen. They replaced human employees with computers, leaving passengers on their own when something goes wrong. They can (periodically) achieve profitability only by squeezing their employees and customers.

Airlines have transformed themselves from a “customer service” industry into a freight industry, a transformation recently accelerated by economic conditions. Again, because we have consistently told the airlines that we want to be self-loading cargo shipped for the lowest price, that’s exactly what they provide.

Some difficulties may be due to passengers not understanding this transformation, and expecting the same “customer service” they received decades ago. It doesn’t help that some airlines won’t admit that we can expect the same miserable experience no matter which air-freight company we choose. So their advertising continues to pretend they still offer “service” that’s somehow better than their competitors.

When speculators drove the price of oil into the stratosphere in 2008, desperate airlines decided to add a “fuel surcharge” rather than raising fares. When the cost of oil came down, they kept the surcharge. That inspired American Airlines to add a fee for checked bags. There was some complaining, but when it died down other airlines followed American’s lead. They also extended their dynamic yield management process to meet overall customer demand. If fewer people fly, airlines merely shrink their routes, aircraft, and work force to match the reduced demand.

The lucrative fees for checked bags then evolved into full-scale “unbundling,” with fees for things that had previously been included in the fare, limited only by the ability of creative executives to find things to “monetize.” What started with checked bags and food quickly expanded to non-middle seats, blankets and pillows, and the chance to board before all the overhead bins fill up. One airline is pioneering a fee for carry-on bags, cleverly closing a loophole that allowed some savvy travelers to evade the checked-bag fee by not checking a bag.

Airline executives are ecstatic about their wonderful new world of limitless fees. They can lure customers with the deceptively low fares that show up on flight search engines. Then they pad the bill with an array of fees that become clearly visible only after those customers have made a reservation and reached the final payment page. And they insist that this bait-and-switch “unbundling” is good for us because it “gives us more choice.”

Maybe Some Hope?

The Obama administration has taken some hopeful action in awakening regulatory agencies that had lain mostly dormant during the laissez-faire Bush years. The Transportation Department is working on new rules that restrict the bait-and-switch game, and give passengers some rights. It’s difficult to predict how the final rules will end up, and what actual benefit they will provide passengers. Airline influence in the political rulemaking process could water down the rules to uselessness.

Airlines are also expert at evading costly responsibilities to passengers under existing regulations, and even under their own “contract of carriage.” Airlines prefer to keep passengers in the dark about the reasons for delayed or canceled flights. But they’re always related to “weather” or some circumstances beyond the airline’s control. That lets them avoid any obligation to compensate passengers, even if a flight is canceled because it’s not full enough.

Airlines have cut their costs by shifting risks to passengers. A passenger has to pay a punitive fee to make any changes to a ticket after purchase; but airlines can cancel flights and change schedules at any time, with no obligation to passengers beyond a refund if the change makes a trip impractical. And efficient management of routes to ensure that planes fly full means they have no spare capacity to accommodate passengers stranded by canceled flights or delays that cause missed connections. Those passengers are on their own to wait for the next flight with an available seat, which might not be until the next day or later.

A few airlines, notably Southwest and JetBlue, have succeeded with a different approach. They’re far from perfect, but they’ve found efficiencies in management and standardization that let them treat both their employees and their customers reasonably well. They manage to make a profit without bait-and-switch opaque pricing and proliferating fees. Admittedly, part of their success is due to lowering passenger expectations. They don’t claim to be anything more than “Greyhound with wings,” so they can usually deliver what they promise. If your travels take you to places on their relatively limited routes, getting there could be less unpleasant if you choose one of them.

So What Can We Do About It?

Not much. We can do nothing to change either the TSA or the airlines. The only thing we have any control over is ourselves.

Some people have vowed to take Nancy Reagan’s advice and “Just Say No” to flying. Unfortunately, that simplistic solution is no more effective than it originally was for the War on Drugs. Most people who pledge to “Just Say No” will eventually be back at the airport, standing shoeless while waiting for their whole-body scan. They have no choice.

If your job requires travel, you’ll have to fly. If you have far-flung family, you probably won’t have time to drive across the country, ride multiple Amtrak trains, or sail on a freighter ship to visit them. The lack of alternatives to flying surely contributes to the contempt the airlines and the TSA show their “customers.”

But it’s easy to forget that we often do have a choice. Video teleconferencing can’t always replace business travel; but at least sometimes it might be an appropriate way to save a lot of time, stress, and money. For vacation travel, the long-time availability of convenient and relatively pleasant air travel to take us just about anywhere in the world has blinded most of us to the possibilities of places close to home. Now that flying is neither convenient nor pleasant, it’s time to open your eyes to destinations accessible by car, train, bus, bicycle, or foot. And then think very carefully about whether flying is worth it.

If you do choose to fly, lowering your expectations might make it more tolerable. Recognize that airlines see you as nothing more than a piece of freight, so don’t expect anything resembling “customer service.” Recognize that airline executives seek to continually pick your pocket with fees, so budget accordingly and don’t be deceived by advertised bargains. Recognize that airline executives are squeezing their employees even more than their middle-seat passengers, so be prepared for surly, indifferent, or even nonexistent “customer service.”

Expect TSA screening to be maddeningly inconsistent and unfathomable, and “go with the flow.” You have no control over what the TSA does, but you do have control over how you react to it. Getting upset will only make it worse. Allow ample time for “unpredictability.” It’s better to spend an extra hour at the gate than to panic over missing a flight because the TSA queue stretches out the door. (If you’re traveling 800 kilometers or less, a train, bus, or car may take less total time than flying.)

Above all, try your best not to let anything about flying upset you, since that only makes it worse. That may be easier said than done; it definitely is for me! But approaching everyone with a cheery smile can work wonders, if you’re able to do it convincingly. That’s probably the best response to petty tyrants in uniforms. You’ll at least deny them the pleasure of seeing you get upset.

And once you’ve wedged yourself into your middle seat, the best thing to do is go to sleep. A friend of mine who travels a lot is actually able to do that, and he swears by it. Unfortunately, I don’t think I’ve ever slept 10 consecutive minutes on any flight.

Rather than living with the limitations of avoiding flying entirely, consider taking less frequent but more comfortable flights. The cost of something better than the cheapest available seat could be money well spent. You can afford that, if you save up for it the old-fashioned way. Enjoy inexpensive trips close to home for most of your vacations; then put the money you saved toward first class, business class, or premium economy tickets for occasional long-distance trips. That won’t help you with the TSA, but once you get on the plane you’ll be a human instead of a sardine.

And finally, do let your members of Congress know your concerns about the TSA. For the reasons I discussed earlier, that won’t yield any immediate results. But it’s possible that if enough people consistently demand effective and cost-effective security rather than costly, intrusive, and arrogant security theatre, Congress might conclude that the political benefit of finally taking real action would exceed the risk of campaign smears. It’s a long shot, but it’s the only legitimate recourse we have.

Why I Wrote This

I am one of those fortunate people who do not need to fly. My job doesn’t require travel, and my family all live within my area code. After reading about the chaotic airport security transition following 9/11, I decided to take a vacation from flying until the panic settled down. I enjoyed discovering places in and around where I live in Southern California that I had overlooked when flying was relatively easy and enjoyable. And I wrote the previous version of this article, detailing the reasons to avoid flying.

After five years, I was getting tired of my self-imposed restriction to excursions on some of the nation’s most congested highways. My first thought was to try Amtrak. Meeting interesting people while watching the scenery slowly glide by seemed very appealing. I had wanted to visit Sedona, and I knew the Southwest Chief stopped in Flagstaff.

Then I looked at the timetable and discovered that this leg of the Southwest Chief’s route was a “redeye” in both directions. It arrived in Flagstaff at 4 in the morning. So much for socializing and enjoying the scenery. When I investigated other Amtrak routes, and also found out what was involved in getting to and from Los Angeles Union Station, I concluded that Amtrak was not practical. Having made the trip on I-40 to Flagstaff before, I wasn’t eager to drive. So it seemed time to try flying. I bought a ticket on Southwest, and was pleasantly surprised at both the flight and the TSA screening. I decided I could resume flying. Which I did, until a “flight from Hell” and two needlessly unpleasant experiences with the TSA extinguished any further interest.

My motto now is “If I can’t get there in my car, I don’t go.” I wish I had alternatives to driving, beyond “staycations” in Los Angeles using mass transit. (Yes, that actually is possible, and can be very enjoyable. But it’s not practical for most vacationers, who have limited time to visit many attractions scattered over a large area.) But neither user-hostile Amtrak nor dodgy Greyhound qualify. Yes, I do worry about driving being far more dangerous than flying; but that isn’t sufficient reason to fly.

(Economists at Cornell have estimated that at least 1,200 highway deaths through 2004 were “attributable to the effect of 9/11.” An updated version of that paper published in 2009, unfortunately behind a pay wall, increased that number to 2,300. Although those figures are little more than guesses, the number of deaths resulting from people choosing to avoid TSA hassles by driving must certainly be greater than number of lives TSA screening has saved— zero. On the other hand, airlines now outsource as many as 25% of domestic flights to “regional carriers,” which cut costs by using small planes and cheap, less-experienced pilots. That may narrow the safety gap between flying and driving.)

I had been periodically updating my old article with the results of GAO audits, and with other accounts of TSA ineptitude and deteriorating airline service. When I read the very damning GAO report on SPOT, it was time for another update. But I realized that, like the TSA, the article was becoming a ponderous collection of outdated patches. It had also expressed the hope that a change of administration would bring some sanity to the TSA. Unfortunately, that too is outdated. So I decided to replace it with some recent thoughts and insight about air travel, almost none of which are original to me.

I want to encourage you to think about the TSA and airlines in ways you might not have considered. I’m not denying the cynicism and outrage, which I believe is justified and appropriate. Although it seems we’re entirely powerless to do anything about it, perhaps some awareness and thought might be the first step toward “change we can believe in.”

I try to focus on the many interesting places I can visit without flying, rather than what I’m missing by not flying. But I do retain the (probably irrational) hope that disgust with the status quo will force some improvements to both the TSA and the airlines within my lifetime. I can’t drive to any of the places on my “bucket list.”


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