Embarrassing TSA miscues wrap air travelers in an insecurity blanket

Fair is fair.

 

I’m going to spend the rest of this column talking about how wasteful and useless federal airport security can be.

But to balance things out a bit, I want to say one good thing about the Transportation Security Administration. They briefly boosted my self-confidence.

 

IN 2005, BEFORE flying out of Atlanta for Portland, Ore., I was going through a shoes-off, pockets-out security checkpoint. A TSA officer noticed, on my key ring, a “Masters 2000” penknife composed of a 2-inch blade and one of those odd pairs of scissors that takes about 10 years to cut something.

If you desired to overpower a flight crew, hold all passengers at bay and hijack a commercial jetliner mid-flight, would this be your weapon of choice? I’d say no.

The TSA said yes. The officer took the knife, and said if I wanted it back I’d have to fill out some paperwork. I did want it back, but I also just wanted to get to Portland.

But later, sitting weaponless in my window seat, I thought: Wow. They took one look at me and thought I actually could pull off a hijacking with a knife that, for combat purposes, might as well have been three toothpicks. For a few seconds there I felt like a real tough guy.

Then I thought: A lot of these TSA officers must be idiots.

Time has not mellowed that initial assessment.

Department of Homeland Security investigators conducted 70 tests at airports nationwide earlier this year, attempting to smuggle contraband past TSA airport screeners. The smugglers succeeded nearly 96 percent of the time. In one case, an investigator went through security with a fake bomb strapped to his back. That set off a magnetometer, and the screener still didn’t find the bomb.

 

MORE RECENTLY, a retired truck driver flew from Atlanta to Chicago on Nov. 5 and didn’t realize until he was unpacking that his loaded semi-automatic pistol was still in his carry-on bag. Again, not a peep out of the screeners.

But if you’re packing a Disney toy, prepare to have the TSA crawl all over you. Last month, 5-year-old Levi Zilka and his parents were flying back to Pennsylvania after visiting Walt Disney World. At the Fort Lauderdale, Fla., airport, security spotted one of the kid’s souvenir toys – a green-and-purple Buzz Lightyear Star Command Flip Grip Claw Grabber Arm.

I know. Scares the heck out of me, too.

An officer thought the plastic doodad looked too much like a gun, so he took it. From a 5-year-old.

Anyone care to explain how taking a harmless toy from a kid makes the world safer?

(I should add the TSA sent someone to Pennsylvania to give Levi his toy back. So? I still want my knife back. Your move, TSA.)

If you thought 5 was the age limit for needless TSA searches, you’d be wrong. In 2013, a 3-year-old with spina bifida was on her way to Disney when officers at the St. Louis airport thought her little pink wheelchair looked suspicious.

 

SO THEY removed little Lucy Forck from her wheelchair – taking her favorite stuffed animal in the process (what is it about the TSA taking toys?) – and performed some sort of “swab” test on the chair.

I could make this column
10 times longer listing the
incompetence that’s been exhibited by the TSA in the 14 years it’s been around. Plenty of examples. You know what you
won’t find plenty of? Incidents in which
the TSA caught a terrorist. The agency has neither caught a single terrorist nor foiled a single terrorist plot. Ever.

I haven’t yet gotten to the point where I’d like the TSA disbanded. But if this is the kind of job performance we’re going to get too often out of baggage screeners, I can think of a few better ways to spend almost $8 billion a year, which is what the TSA costs taxpayers.

For that money, you currently get airport screeners who have to undergo at least 120 hours of classroom training to qualify for their jobs. Compare that to licensed police officers in Georgia, who need 408 hours of training. Or licensed cosmetologists in Georgia, who require – get this – 1,500 hours of training.

 

THE TSA HAS been doing a wretched job of instilling a sense of confidence or even competence in the airline passengers they poke and prod each day.

But I will concede that not all TSA officers are bad. Like Henry Kissinger reportedly said about politicians: Ninety percent of them give the other 10 percent a bad reputation.

 

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