Airline Security and the TSA
Recently I received this e-mail from an anonymous Transportation Security Association employee—those are the guys that screen you at airports—about something I wrote about airline security:
I was going through my email archives and found a link to a story. Apparently you enjoy attacking TSA, and relish in stories where others will do it for you. I work for TSA, and understand that a lot of what they do is little more than “window dressing” (your words). However, very few can argue that they are a lot more effective than the rent-a-cop agencies that were supposed to be securing the airports pre-9/11.
Specifically to the story, it has all the overtones of Urban Legend: overly emotional, details about the event but only giving names of self and “pet,” overly verbose, etc. Bottom line, that the TSA screener and supervisor told our storyteller that the fish was “in no way… allowed to pass through security” is in direct violation of publicly accessible TSA policy. Fish may be unusual, but they’re certainly not forbidden.
I’m disappointed, Bruce. Usually you’re well researched. Your articles and books are very well documented and cross-referenced. However, when it comes to attacking TSA, you seem to take some stories at face value without verifying the facts and TSA policies. I’m also disappointed that you would popularize a story that implicitly tells people to hide their “prohibited items” from security. I have personally witnessed people get arrested for thinking they were clever in hiding something they shouldn’t be carrying anyway.
For those who don’t want to follow the story, it’s about a college student who was told by TSA employees that she could not take her fish on the airplane for security reasons. She then smuggled the fish aboard by hiding it in her carry-on luggage. Final score: fish 1, TSA 0.
To the points in the letter:
You may be right that the story is an urban legend. But it did appear in a respectable newspaper, and I hope the newspaper did at least some fact-checking. I may have been overly optimistic.
You are certainly right that pets are allowed on board airplanes. But just because something is official TSA policy doesn’t mean it’s necessarily followed in the field. There have been many instances of TSA employees inventing rules. It doesn’t surprise me in the least that one of them refused to allow a fish on an airplane.
I am happy to popularize a story that implicitly tells people to hide prohibited items from airline security. I’m even happy to explicitly tell people to hide prohibited items from airline security. A friend of mine recently figured out how to reliably sneak her needlepoint scissors through security—they’re the foldable kind, and she slips them against a loose leaf binder—and I am pleased to publicize that. Hell, I’ve even explained how to fly on someone else’s airline ticket and make your own knife on board an airplane [Beyond Fear, page 85].
I think airline passenger screening is inane. It’s invasive, expensive, time-consuming, and doesn’t make us safer. I think that civil disobedience is a perfectly reasonable reaction.
Honestly, you won’t get arrested if you simply play dumb when caught. Unless, that is, you’re smuggling an actual gun or bomb aboard an aircraft, in which case you probably deserve to get arrested.