Traveling Insecurely   3 comments

Bruce beat me to the post on this one, but since I just finished a weekend of odd travel arrangements I thought I’d put my commentary on record.

Of course the recent crazy event in Canada would lead to this reaction: TSA-like security for bus lines!

As Bruce linked, there are a couple of obvious reasons why this is impractical. A bus is not a plane, and a bus route is nothing like an airplane’s flight plan.

The only problem with the analysis linked above is that it’s starting from a false baseline: TSA-like security already makes no sense for airplane travel. I went through security three times this weekend, and I saw a number of staggering stupidities. I’ll relate a few:

The TSA checkpoint in Albuquerque was comparatively overstaffed (in relation to LAX’s). This meant that the same number of screeners had far less time pressure than their compatriots in Los Angeles. Side effect? While putting on my shoes, I saw a total of four women (one being my wife, which is why I was hanging around the checkpoint long enough to notice) have their bags unpacked, their toiletries unbagged from the gallon-sized clear plastic bag they were packed in, and *repacked in a quart-sized bag*, then marched back through the security queue. Why? Because the toiletries need to be in a quart-sized bag. Now, in one sense I can understand the idea that the TSA is trying to keep the amount of total toiletries down to a “reasonable” amount for the security staff to screen, hence the requirement for the smaller baggie (if one assumes that it is reasonable to block some amount of toiletries to begin with – which is ridiculous, by the way – this otherwise makes sense). But the bag size limit has no other practical reason; one cannot argue that a gallon bag represents in and of itself a bigger security threat than a quart sized bag (you couldn’t even suffocate someone with it easier than a quart bag). So the purpose of the bag size limit (to make the security screening process faster) actually has the reverse effect -> when the airport is busy (like LAX), the screeners really don’t pay any attention to the size of your clear plastic bag, but when the airport is less busy, the screeners *create additional work* for themselves and the passengers by requiring travelers to follow rules that don’t have anything to do with security. This is a classic example of something designed to increase process efficiencies becoming an impediment to itself.

My penknife was confiscated (again, in Albuquerque, sailed through LAX). Now, this is my own stupid fault, as I’m usually pretty thorough when it comes to prepping for security screening, and I just missed slipping this off my keyring and leaving it at home before travelling. However, this is a fingernail grooming knife. The longest blade was less than 2 1/4″. Honestly, if I’m going to try and kill someone on a plane, this would be on the list of improvised weapons somewhere far south of a roll of nickels.

For the record, I don’t blame the TSA employees for any of this (even the one that pocketed my penknife instead of throwing it in the bin). They’re following rules, and they’re for the most part about as courteous as one could ask given that they’re asking you to do patently ridiculous things for idiotic reasons.

All of this process involved in getting on a plane… then when we landed at OAK and jumped on the BART to go to San Francisco, we weren’t screened getting on the shuttlebus, or getting into the BART terminal, or getting on the train. Together, we were carrying two large bags and two small ones. For those of you unfamiliar with BART, it includes a fairly long jaunt under San Francisco Bay. I’m not an explosives expert by any means, but if the tunnel is undergoing an earthquake retrofit to prevent it from flooding, it seems pretty likely that you could pack enough explosives in a couple of decent sized bags to blow the tunnel and flood the line.

So why isn’t BART subjected to the same security screening that airplanes are? Because nobody has tried to bomb it yet? Doesn’t this represent a failure of imagination on behalf of the security folks?

Actually, it doesn’t… although you might not guess that if you see how the Department of Homeland Security distributes grant money. None of this security is effective. It won’t stop a determined attacker, but even if it could it represents a huge waste of money for very little return. Heck, if we ran people through scanners and screenings at bus terminals and BART terminals, they could still pack enough kablooie on a bus to do some severe damage to the Golden Gate Bridge. What’s next? Security screening before you’re allowed to drive your own car?

The TSA’s budget was $0.00 in 2001. $1,345,000,000 in 2003. The TSA requested $4,810,000,000 in 2004. In 2008, they’re spending $6,814,000,000 and they’re requesting $7,100,000,000 for 2009 (last link is a PDF). Without doing complete research on total expenditures and whatever other functions the TSA has grown to provide, it’s still obvious that we’ve spent over $10,000,000,000 since 2001 *just enforcing airline rules*.

Ten. Billion. Dollars.

How many lives could that have saved if we spent the money on medical research? How much safer would we be, as a nation, if we had spent ten billion dollars on upgrading our air traffic control system? Or upgrading the nation’s highways? The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s 2007 budget was $455 million dollars, or about 1/15th of the TSA’s 2008 budget. And yet the FMCSA is responsible for reducing crashes, injuries, and fatalities involving large trucks and buses -which average about 1,300 deaths per year just on the employee side (ie, the drivers of the large trucks and buses), to say nothing of their passengers or other cars that might be involved in the accident(s) – quantifiably a problem bigger than airline terrorism by an order of magnitude.

How does any of this make any sense?

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Posted August 4, 2008 by padraic2112 in politics, security

3 responses to “Traveling Insecurely

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  1. Wow.

  2. “How does any of this make any sense?”

    It doesn’t.

    But since the TSA exists, and is funded, it will likely continue to exist and receive funding. Don’t start cataloging government waste and mismanagement, you will end up writing your conclusions on the wall of your padded cell with your own poo. Just a tip.

  3. I feel so much happier now I udentrsand all this. Thanks!

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