TSA is as unpopular as the IRS -- UPDATED

The TSA is now tied with the IRS for least popular government agency in America, according to an AP poll. They're even less popular than FEMA -- the bunglers who brought you the Hurricane Katrina disaster.

In 2007, I spent many, many hours in TSA lines. I went through dozens of secondary screenings. I had toiletries stolen from me. I had a TSA agent break a one-day-old, $400 camera at a checkpoint in September (and then had the TSA's insurer deny my claim on it). The TSA also broke a watch of mine -- dropped it during a swabbing (Update: It turns out the camera was broken by a private security staffer from CAS, the contractor at the SFO checkpoints). The litany of TSA complaints laid out in the AP poll read like my travel diary since 2001.

How does any of this make us safer? Take away our liquids, leave us with our laptop batteries. Screen us before we get to the terminal -- but leave hundreds of people bunched up in the security queue, in a handy, bomb-friendly knot. Short of knocking us out and tying us up, they're not going to render us harmless.

And, as one man wrote to the TSA: "Have terrorists succeeded in making us that scared of each other?"

Take, for example, a mother and daughter traveling out of the Dallas/Fort Worth airport on Sept. 4. In an e-mailed complaint to TSA, the mother said the TSA screener was rude and inconsiderate. While she was in secondary screening, the mother was made to face away from her daughter. "Someone could have taken my daughter," the woman wrote. "I understand you have to have security, but your people don't need to be rude!!!"

On Sept. 3, a man leaving Orlando, filed a lengthy complaint because he said a screener touched him "like no man ever has – not even my doctor." "This type of bodily inspection, privately or publicly, is undignified," he wrote. "Have terrorists succeeded in making us that scared of each other?"

Nearly 9,000 such complaints flowed into TSA between January and October of this year, and the agency made a selection of them available at the request of The Associated Press.

Screeners are "just rigid, intransigent, inflexible, unpleasant, and they always have the fact that they've got the security of the nation that they're falling back on," said David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association. Stempler said he has no way of telling whether TSA has addressed any of the hundreds of complaints it receives each month.

Link (via Consumerist)


  1. Make no mistake of it, this action is not *among* the public: we’re not scared of each other, and it’s an error to state it that way. The government is scared of us, and is in the process of making sure we’re scared of them–more scared of them than they are of us, too. Where this is headed should be clear as a bell.

  2. The blatant stupidity of the TSA regulations simply boggles the mind. I can walk onto an airplane (assuming I don’t get the random security pull (which is shown on your boarding pass as SSSS) with enough explosives to down a plane, no problems. If I get tagged for random screening, I could easily have an accomplice do it.

    The TSA’s arbitrary regulations don’t impede terrorist plots, they just annoy travelers. There has not been a single case of the TSA foiling a terrorist plot, only advanced knowledge has done that.

    And come on, we’ve been at Security Orange for well over a year now.

    All of this easily bypassed security theater is pointless. You don’t need a legitimate boarding pass to get through security, you can sneak anything not metal past security on your person…

    How are they protecting us again? I’m waiting for terrorists to carry leaky bottles of binary agents that, when mixed in the trash cans that the TSA throws all of their “dangerous” liquids in, forms a nerve toxin that wipes out everyone in the backed up security line.

    If those victims are at LAX? Then the terrorists have done them a favor anyhow.

  3. As a professional musician I frequently fly with a lot of gear. A guitar or two, effects, cables, etc. Virtually every time that I fly through LAX or OAK, the TSA screeners steal something out of my checked luggage. It might be a guitar tuner, a fuzz pedal, a cable, or a couple of sets of guitar strings… This happens every time; without fail. I’ve complained and I am sure it has no effect. I probably make 20 or 25 flights a year where something is stolen from by checked luggage by TSA. Probably $600 worth of stuff per year missing from my luggage. It seems to be standard operation al procedure in those airports. My other musician pals report the same experience to me.

  4. Yep. They steal from luggage. They got a high tech LED flashlight out of mine a few years ago when I flew between Denver and SFO.

    Someone should work up a sting operation with stuff that phones home when it’s used and captures fingerprints of the people using it. Anyone make a little USB memory device that takes fingerprint security that could capture the print of whever uses it and log it to a website when it’s next used?

    OR something like that?

    I bet it’d be popular with musicians. And flashlight owners. And computer owners.

    Heck, just a gadget that photographs whoever opens the suitcase would be handy, or takes a sequence of images while it’s opened up, eh?

  5. If everyone spent a week simply NOT FLYING ANYWHERE (if this were possible) then I have a feeling the TSA would not be allowed anywhere near an airport ever again.

  6. This article doesn’t surprise me in the least.

    Let’s not forget the number of times I’ve sat down on a plane (even since 9/11) and realized I got a pocketknife, lighter, book of matches or pair of scissors through security purely on accident.

    Not my filtered water, though. They can smell that a mile away.

  7. I’ve been through US airports three times last year (entering in San Francisco, flying to Seattle, and then flying out to London), and I haven’t had anything stolen or broken. When I entered the US, I was half-expecting to be given the third degree and/or threatened with deportation to Gitmo by some humorless asshole in mirrorshades, but the experience was anticlimactically much like entering the UK or Australia; the immigration agent was professional and polite and the process took a minute or so.

    I’m now wondering just how extraordinarily lucky I must have been.

  8. I passed through San Ysidro with my family on a day trip to Mexico about 3 months ago. We’re Anglo, I was driving a new car with California plates and we had government-issued ID for everyone in the car.

    After the obligatory “what are you bringing in, what were you doing in Mexico” question the officer asked for our passports.

    Now, the law changes on Jan 1 so that everyone coming across is required to have a passport, but the law wasn’t in effect. I stated, quite politely, that we didn’t need passports to come into the US.

    Big mistake.

    The officer then became extremely rude, asking all kinds of questions, having me open all my doors, rifling through our possessions, etc. We didn’t have to go through secondary inspection but we were threatened with it if we gave him “any reason to look harder at us”. In short, he was an unprofessional, badge-heavy jerk, and he used the law (or rather, a law not yet in force) to intimidate us. Undoubtedly this hindered him from his (ostensible) purpose of detecting illegal immigrants and terrorists.

    The irrational and unnecessary TSA and Customs regulations are in place to control and intimidate the population – they are not to catch bad guys.

  9. I fly about 30 flights a year. Here is my read on TSA: it is all psy ops. The people that work there are nothing more than tools of a greater machine. They are, in my opinion, unaware of their roles in the machine.

    The whole experience is meant to be unnerving. It is chaotic. It is never the same. The rules change. Think about this: why don’t they have tables that are the same height as the screening machine? Because that would be simple. The process is meant to look difficult. The screeners yell at you like carnival barkers…and for what? It accomplishes….what? The feeling of chaos and that you are “outside” the system of normal rules and laws. You are meant to feel powerless.

    I carry a hand held agrometer (infrared temperature reader) in my carry on. Once, only once, in over 100 trips, did a screener “see” it and pull me into a secondary review. As they opened my bag, the screener grabbed it and held it up and said “WHAT is THIS?” I answered “an agrometer.” He stared at me for a couple of beats. I said “it reads temperatures.” He then put it and a 9 volt battery in the bomb scan machine. Another supervisor came over and talked to me. I explained to them how it worked and what I used it for. Luckily, I was only delayed for about 45 minutes.

    The TSA is theatre. It is too bad that I have front row seats just about every other week.

  10. Security theater indeed.

    Glass knives. Ceramic knives. Undetectable.

    It’s not even hard to think of how to get things through. Not hard at all.

    It’s all just stupid anyway. There are PLENTY of other things to blow up, systems that are easy and trivial to put into disarray, ways to cost the economy millions of dollars.

    One really good computer virus and it’s all over but the crying.

  11. Going from New Orleans (tying in with FEMA) to Miami, they made me take off my flip flop sandals.
    Of course I thought this was ridiculous and quipped “you call these shoes?”
    So no belt, no shoes, no keys, you might as well go through naked.

    And they were frisking an old guy in a wheelchair with a WWII hat on.
    I told the kid doing the frisking that he should be embarassed.
    There’s procedures, and then there’s common sense.

  12. If a TSA agent is getting upset because they don’t know what your gadget is, calling it an agrometer is not helpful when you know they won’t know what that is– call it a thermometer! When I hear people complain about TSA confrontations, their descriptions of their own behavior make me think “no wonder.”

    It’s easy to get through TSA checkpoints without hassles if you show respect for how much TSA people must hate their jobs– many people treat then badly because SOME TSA employees are complete assholes. It’s no reason to treat them all like that. Give them a smile, say hello. If there’s a lull and you’re just standing there waiting next to a stressed, darty-eyed TSA person, make a short, friendly, non-confrontational remark.

    Fishing for a polite response is effective for figuring out if you’re dealing with a complete jerk of a TSA agent, and you should take a jerk’s cues and change your behavior and show a little more respect. Courtesy can disarm hostility in formal settings, especially when you’re surrounded by other passengers and TSA agents.

    But this is just about the security checkpoints– TSA needs to get popped HARD for stealing stuff from checked bags.

  13. I just told him the truth. I was not a dick to him, really. He asked and I answered. My point is this: it is not about what they are doing but much more about how you feel going through the whole experience.

    The only times that I have seen TSA abused, the situation flips immediately. The frantic mother. The business man who is late for a flight home. Anybody who steps one inch over the line is searched–both luggage and their person. The power only runs one way and never in favor of the flyer. I can think of no stories where the flyer is vindicated–because they are right. What we do see though, is punative, subjective application of a set of “rules”.

    Think on this: Are people safer when they THINK that there is real security or do they take better care when they KNOW that there is little security? I believe that they act differently when they know the truth.

  14. We flew to Cancun (to vacation in Tulum) in 2004 and 2006. On the way back the first time we had left-over vacation money and upgraded to first class with cash at the ticket counter. Big mistake. My wife got the SSSS, and we nearly missed the flight back because of it. And sure enough, for the 2006 trip she had the SSSS both ways. So never upgrade your flight ticket with cash!

    Another interesting thing is that when we arrived in Cancun on the second trip, our bathroom bag with all the liquids in it had extra stuff in it – someone else’s perfume and suntan lotion and soap container. So while it’s possible that people get stuff stolen by TSA, it’s also possible that they are sloppy when they are pawing through your stuff and end up putting it back in the wrong bag.

    I had a carry on bag with all our electronics in it and the angry TSA guy handed it off to a nice looking TSA girl, barking the order at her that she needs to look at every little thing in it. So I decided to enjoy the experience, smiled at the girl, explained what each thing was as she took it out of the bag and how she should handle it, asked a bunch of questions about the swabbing process as she ran those little cotton thingies over the edges of stuff and fed them into a machine that checked them for explosives residue. It took a few minutes but I didn’t care, I was three hours ahead of schedule on purpose. I’m never in a hurry.

    That happened just a few minutes after probably the only time in recent memory I felt like taking a swing at someone, this tall, lanky tanned asshole with a Hawaiian shirt in front of me in the security line who remarked, rather loudly I thought, that we ought to go nuke all those damned arabs so we don’t have to stand in security lines anymore. Where do you even start with someone like that? He looked at me for acceptance of his joke and I frowned at him silently until he looked away again.

  15. I traveled to Israel recently for work. If there’s anyone on this planet that knows how to deal with airline terrorism, it’s probably the Israelis. All their neighbors want to kill them and they’ve been in the at war for the past 50 years. And I would rather go through Israeli airport security 10 times than go through US airport security once.

    On my way out of the country, there were a couple of little old American ladies in front of me in the (relatively short) security line. The security agent asked them a few questions, and looked over their papers. One of the women then realized she was carrying a bottle of water, and sheepishly apologized to the security agent: “I’m so sorry, I forgot about my water. I’ll throw it away.” The agent laughed and replied, “No, don’t worry about it. We don’t do things like that here.” The unspoken message was, “Here in the real war on terror, we know that a bottle of water isn’t going to kill anyone.”

  16. The TSA spends an enormous amount of time and money justifying their jobs. Each and every one of the $10.00/hour stumble bums at the checkpoints wants nothing more that to tell his/her boss how they thwarted the terrorists yet again, confiscated someone’s water, threw out someone’s mouthwash, whatever the case may be. And the whole point is to make you feel small and insignificant in the face of the greater terrorist threat.

    And the greater terrorist threat is just a bogus lie perpetrated on us by Bush and Cheney. They are liars, cheats and thieves who are profiting (profiteering) from the fear and paranoia that they themselves have drilled into you.

    And the sad part is, if the vote hadn’t have been as close as it was he wouldn’t have been able to steal the election in the first place.

  17. Here’s the strange thing: sometimes the TSA gives instead of takes.

    On a recent trip, a friend of mine opened his suitcase and saw the familiar “your bag has been searched” note from the TSA… along with a battery recharger and a handful of AA batteries that didn’t belong to him.

    I suspect that the TSA empties out electronic equipment from everyone’s luggage onto a common table, scans it (or does whatever), and then guesses where it came from… badly.

  18. The TSA spends an enormous amount of time and money justifying their jobs. Each and every one of the $10.00/hour stumble bums at the checkpoints wants nothing more that to tell his/her boss how they thwarted the terrorists yet again, confiscated someone’s water, threw out someone’s mouthwash, whatever the case may be.

    I wholeheartedly disagree with the assumption that most the TSA agents at checkpoints love their jobs because they’re ‘fighting a war on terror’. I’m willing to bet that 99% of the applicants are there for a well paying job that doesn’t require a college degree and think it’s ridiculous to check water bottles as much as we do. In Chicago they pay $13.50 an hour. That’s a lot. I applied because it was a lot. I dropped out because the process with ass-backwards, invasive and as someone with a college degree I figured I didn’t have to have a job I felt like shit about every day. For not going through the last phase of the process I imagine I’m on some govt shit list or am flagged when I fly. It’s not the agents you should hate..TSA is a mess as an organization..the reasons given for its existence are from another mess created by the folks all the way at the top & PNAC. TSA is just a scapegoat and not even close to the actual problems.

  19. Traveling through New Zealand airport security, I noticed that they were making us throw out our water and similar nonsense now, too. The security staff seemed to be quite openly embarrassed about it, and actually apologised and said they were being forced to do these stupid things even though everyone knew it was nonsense.

    All part of the international security agreements imposed, of course.

  20. Ditto on travel through Israel.

    In and out in < 30 mins, professional, REAL security. They did not worry about shampoo bottles, water, or any other ridiculousness. The agent looked in my eyes the whole time, and was profiling. it was fine. stop the theater of security Please

  21. Zuzu, did you get up on the grumpy side of the bed today?

    H3K, I hear you. I’ve had jewelry stolen more than once.

    Aliasundercover (6), I take it you only fly for pleasure?

    Woodka, that’s been on my mind. Every year there are more flintknappers out there making knives that will never set off metal detectors.

    Salsaman (14), that’s simply not true. Friendliness, respect, and helpful behavior are no guarantee whatsoever that you won’t be harassed. Don’t tell ZeroByProxy that it’s his or her fault, because it isn’t. It’s the nature of the TSA’s job that passengers will be carrying legitimate items the screeners don’t recognize. If they can’t deal with it, they shouldn’t have that that job.

    Seattleguy, they’re not highly motivated. What they’ve got is an inherently frustrating job plus no accountability. Under those circumstances, some of them are bound to turn into asterisks.

  22. I hate what air travel has become. My stories are like many of yours. Has it made us safer? It’s very hard to say. I found the security dudes in Amsterdam worse than any TSA agent I’ve ever dealt with in any US airport. I think it just depends on the airport and their local culture. Here in Detroit I just got through the line with a bottle of water in my tray, in plain sight. I just kept it out and continued to drink. They’re not really on top of things in Detroit. But at least we have a bomb-sniffer now.

  23. @ZUZU: I’m not sure I get your point. Are you saying that the US government will never be as good as Israel at detecting terrorists until they start supporting air terror themselves?

  24. Teresa is correct when she writes “Friendliness, respect, and helpful behavior are no guarantee whatsoever that you won’t be harassed.”

    In fact, behaving that way is likely to get you singled out for further screening.

    That’s because it is part of the training to regard with suspicion any passenger who is not upset at being searched. In the TSA’s eyes, your friendliness is an attempt to distract them from something.

  25. I’m not sure I get your point. Are you saying that the US government will never be as good as Israel at detecting terrorists until they start supporting air terror themselves?

    Awhile ago if you worked for Rite-Aid the corporate policy required you to be tested with a polygraph because they were so paranoid about theft. Then the CEO himself, who insisted upon these polygraphs for everyone else, was finally caught for stealing from the company. This pathological transference seems to operate in organizations as well as between individuals. (ahem, Larry Craig, and so on.) That was my point.

  26. I always find it amusing that those dangerous confiscated water bottles are all dumped together in one big bin. If I remember correctly, the reason water was banned was because supposedly terrorists could be carrying bomb liquids, mix it together in the airplane bathroom and off to heaven we go. So if any of those ´water` bottles were really bomb liquids, it wouldn’t be very safe to chuck them all together, would it?

    I travel frequently from Spain to the UK and Amsterdam (English boy working in Netherlands, Spanish girl). I like my cosmetics, and often can’t get it all in one liter plastic zip up bags. I found you can smuggle shampoo etc quite easily.
    Utter nonsense. I hear the EU is thinking of upturning this stupidity. PLEASE!
    I will continue to avoid the US.
    Oh, and bamboo blades are quite sharp.

  27. Yeah, the bullshit with liquids is exactly that: bullshit. The Israelis don’t give a flying crap about your bottled water and other liquids, and they know something about this stuff.

    The question we should all be asking: what is the TSA’s success rate for detecting dangerous objects when they get audited? Notice you never see that figure anywhere. It’s because it’s atrociously bad. They really are worthless.

  28. #34, Mullingitover: I agree that the ban on liquids thing is annoying and pointless (boy am I sick of having to perpetually re-buy contact lens solution), but it’s worth remembering that the Israelis have certain expedients in dealing with air terrorism not available to the US, such as shooting hijackers on the spot. El Al employs a variety of security techniques that might be uncomfortable for a US airline, such as armed ticket counters and passenger profiling.

  29. @36 Crash (from the BBC article):

    The difference between the Israeli and the American systems, he explains, is that the Israelis are looking for the terror suspect, while the Americans are looking for weapons.

    That doesn’t sound very accurate to me. No-fly lists, internal passports (“papers, please”), Real ID Act, etc. seem paramount over actually screening luggage (which is what, 10% at best?) for weapons. I’ve said before, Osama bin Laden himself could safely fly on a plane just so long as he’s not carrying a knife, gun, or explosive. Weapons* checks should be the sole purpose of security procedures at airports. Yet, contrary to that BBC article, the myopic and obsessive concern of the TSA / Homeland Security seems to be mass-surveillance of population movements — tracking who you are and where you are at all times. It reads to me like the building of a police state. What does identity have to do with security?

    *Really the only concern are high explosives, which are most likely in the luggage or airmail transported, and can be detected without invasive searches by residue sniffers. If everyone were allowed to carry weapons aboard, the risk of armed hijackings would be greatly diminished. I know it’s cliche, but “when guns are outlawed, only outlaws have guns”.

  30. The problem with the TSA is it’s a McJob. And just like employees in any other McJob, most TSA employees don’t think beyond the rote of their training. It doesn’t help that most are not sophisticated enough to understand what really could and could not be a serious threat.

    A nail clipper is not a threat. this is, and so are these.

    The likelihood of someone carrying off another 9/11 is small. Most Americans faced with something like that now would swarm any would be hijacker/s, weapons or not. Bombs are another story, and that’s what they should be focused on. Get some bomb-sniffers that actually work, and actually use them.

    But really we should be working to eliminate the TSA period. There ought to be a campaign to get Congress to simply eliminate the agency. It’s ineffective, promotes abuse, and an enormous waste of resources that could be better used.

  31. Something just occurred to me here: OK, the TSA is a government body doing something that the government thinks should be done in the absence of anything positive. But the airlines, and I assume the airports, are businesses that require your custom. As well as complaining to the TSA, complain to the airline about the way you are being treated too. The airlines have to be concerned about the overall passenger experience and as we know, businesses are more important than individuals in Bush’s America.

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