Category Archives: air travel

TSA Lines: Is Feature Not Bug

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Republicans in Congress cut an agency’s budget, then point to the resulting chaos they’ve created and cry, “See! Government doesn’t work! We must privatize!”

Lather, rinse, repeat. Amiright?

The T.S.A.’s work force and budgets have in fact been shrinking. The agency’s rolls have declined to about 44,900 screeners today from 47,000 in 2013, even as passenger travel has increased by 15 percent. But it is also true that it has been plagued by mismanagement and other problems of its own making. An unloved stepchild of the Department of Homeland Security, the T.S.A. has suffered through continual turnover in leadership, repeated misconduct by senior managers, low staff morale and high rates of attrition among screeners.


Not all the T.S.A.’s troubles can be blamed on missteps by the agency. The dysfunction has been compounded by an earlier 2013 bipartisan budget deal negotiated between Senator Patty Murray, Democrat of Washington, and Representative Paul D. Ryan, the current House speaker, to avert a government shutdown.

The deal set the security fee assessed on each segment of a plane trip to $5.60, but called for 60 cents of that fee to be diverted from the T.S.A. to pay down the national debt. This year, $1.25 billion in fees is going into the Treasury instead of paying for screeners and new equipment.

Seriously, we’re diverting funds from TSA to pay down the national debt? That just screams Republican fiscal idiocy, doesn’t it? Republicans keep telling us that “debt is like slavery,” after all. Quit whining America and enjoy your three-hour TSA line. It’s just more freedom!

And gee, I can’t imagine why morale is low, what with folks like TN Rep. Marsha Blackburn constantly attacking TSA employees on everything from their uniforms and badges to alleging “pedophiles and child pornographers” are doing pat-downs.

I try to be nice to the TSA when I travel. They have a thankless job. And honestly, the last few times we’ve traveled, TSA has not been the problem. Our last three trips were to Seattle, New York City and San Francisco — all major international airports — and we changed in O’Hare, D.C., and Dallas. Again: TSA was not the problem. The problem was our airline. The last two times we traveled, there was a “mechanical malfunction” preventing our plane from even getting to the airport. The result was hours and hours and hours of waiting, eventual rebooking of flights, lots of angst and frustration, and a big chunk of our vacation time gone like a fart in the breeze.

TSA was not to blame. American Airlines was to blame. We were kept uninformed about the nature of the delays, instead given new departure updates every hour — only to see that departure time whoosh by just as it approached. Again. And again. Finally we were told our plane is still in Raleigh or wherever because of a mechanical failure (something they’d known from the get-go but hadn’t told us). And even though you’re at a fucking airport filled with planes, they can’t just pull a new one over to the gate. No, that would be too easy. They have to bring one in from somewhere else and that will happen in about three and a half hours and, oh, you’ve already been here for three hours? Sorry and thanks for flying American Airlines.

Seriously, fuck you people. The last time that happened (last month, actually, so yes, the anger is still very fresh) we were at LaGuardia airport, which is like a third world airport. There are literally no services in the American Airlines terminal once you get past TSA. You can’t score a beer or glass of wine, you can’t grab a sandwich. There’s an Au Bon Pain kiosk with cellophane-wrapped sandwiches and soft drinks and people that is it. You know, if you’re going to trap people in a gray linoleum hell for an entire day, at least give us some dang alcohol to soften the blow.

We were actually stuck there for five hours, when we could have been enjoying all that New York City has to offer, if only American Airlines had informed us that our flight was basically cancelled. But noooo. I eventually lost my cool, rebooked us on another flight that went through Washington D.C., whereupon we were ushered onto buses that took us to a different terminal. And helloooo paradise! This terminal was new, had bars, restaurants, air conditioning, there was even blue carpeting, people! I felt like a lost soul who had wandered into an oasis. I had no idea this wonderful place existed at LaGuardia airport. All my life, LaGuardia has been sterile gray linoleum, bags of Doritos, and not enough chairs.

Incidentally, a woman on our flight told us that the exact same “mechanical failure” thing had happened on her last four flights. Either the American Airlines fleet is in serious disrepair, or they’re just trotting out that excuse because they know passengers will accept a delay over a mechanical failure more easily than some other excuse.

Anyway, I’m done with air travel for now. The airlines need to get their shit together. We pay waaaay too much money for airline tickets to be dicked around because you can’t get the actual plane to the airport. I mean, I did my part: I showed up on time. I left enough time for security. I held up my end of the bargain. American Airlines, not so much.

Our next vacation is in August. We’re driving.


Filed under air travel, American Airlines, travel, TSA

>TSA Security Perverts

>A pilot refused a full body scan at the Memphis airport and now may lose his job:

A pilot for ExpressJet Airlines refused to submit to a full-body scan in Memphis on Saturday, saying the technology amounts to “virtual strip searching.” Detained by airport security, he now may lose his job. Here’s his heroic first-hand account.

I have to say: good for him. I’ve written plenty about this ridiculous security theater, that it’s designed to give the appearance of making us safer while doing absolutely nothing at all.

No fucking way I am submitting to one of these things. Ever. Not that I need to worry about it, being white, female, nearing 50, and well past my hotness expiration.

When Mr. Beale and I traveled to Canada this summer I got to see one of these thingamajigs in action. A young couple in front of us at SEA-TAC were pulled out of the TSA line and put into these cylinder-thingies that I realized were full body scanners. She: young, blonde, cute, in a spaghetti-strap top and mini skirt. He: young, blonde, cute in those super-tight jeans you kids wear these days and a T-shirt. They looked like rock stars or models.

And I thought: of course. Of course the people pulled out of the security line for a full-body scan are the people you just wish would pose nude for Playboy. But they don’t have to — you can have your own private viewing, whenever you want, if you’re in the TSA!

I don’t know Michael Roberts, ExpressJet pilot. Hey, he may be a fat schlub like me. But I’m guessing there’s more to this story. I’m guessing he was targeted for some reason.

Maybe being the spokesperson for a group railing against “TSA tyranny” has something to do with it.

Ya think?

I have one message to the — how many of you guys are left now, is it, three? Four? — commercial airliners. The more unpleasant you allow air travel to become, the less likely we are to use your service. I will take my last airplane trip when I get pulled out of the TSA line to put on a peep show for some sick, bored airport employees. Consider this fair warning.


Filed under air travel, Tennessee, TSA

>And They Said It Couldn’t Be Done

>Yet another round of corporate whining, moaning and fear mongering over a very simple consumer protection proves unfounded:

Only three commercial flights among the thousands that operated nationwide in June sat on the ground loaded with passengers for three hours or longer, the Obama administration said Tuesday, touting the impact of a new consumer-protection rule that threatens stiff fines against airlines for excessive tarmac delays.


Nationally, the three United flights stranded on June 18 marked a sharp drop in long tarmac delays from the same month last year, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. In June 2009, 268 flights nationwide were delayed at airports for at least three hours, according to the department’s Air Travel Consumer Report.

The report also found there was no increase in the rate of canceled flights in June compared with the same month last year. Airlines canceled 1.5 percent of their scheduled domestic flights.

Some aviation experts have predicted that, faced with the possibility of multimillion-dollar fines for every seriously delayed plane, airlines would implement wholesale cancellations in poor weather well before the three-hour tarmac limit, inconveniencing the flying public more deeply than by waiting out long flight delays and eventually taking off.

Ah, yes. “Some aviation experts.” Remember them? Like this one?

But wait! If a flight is canceled, then the fine is void. Too bad no one can see the future to know what will happen next. Just kidding. We know exactly what will happen next.

So let’s just go ahead and make this an official announcement: Starting in April, every flight that is delayed more than three hours in the United States of America is canceled. The flight that was delayed for the rainstorm that shows signs of clearing at 2 hours and 55 minutes? Canceled. The flight delayed for a repair that will take 3 hours and 4 minutes? Canceled.

Hmm, amazingly none of that happened! Shocking, I know. Here’s another “expert”:

The potential price for violating the rule means that in the short term, many domestic airlines will likely act “with an abundance of caution,” says Jami Counter, senior director of TripAdvisor Flights, and that planes sitting on the tarmac getting too “close to the three-hour bubble will [return to the gate] and be cancelled,” he says.

But my favorite is the “Out of Control Policy Blog” which always tells us free market fairies will sail in to solve every problem, right after they tell us there really isn’t a problem of course, just some whiny hippies who want to be pampered with glasses of chardonnay and plates of truffle oil-coated tofu. After repeating the same tripe about airlines cancelling each and every flight that even hinted at being three hours on the tarmac, he suggested the same tired “solutions” of “competition” and pointed out how the airlines which treat their passengers like crap suffer “big reputational penalties.” Oh noes, that’s gotta hurt!

This last part was priceless:

In short, the feds should butt out, and let competition, pricing, and airport-airline cooperation continue developing workable solutions.

What these folks don’t seem to understand is that “competition” is meaningless in an era of unrestrained monopolies and corporate consolidation (and no free-marketeer has ever come out in favor of government regulation of monopolies). In the last two years alone we’ve seen Delta and Northwest merge, and Continental and United merge. This has prompted industry observers to speculate that American Airlines, no longer the big player, will have to merge with another carrier (US Airways, which merged with America West in 2005, is often named as a likely partner. I think I need a scorecard!).

All of which means to say, when I fly somewhere, which is a few times a year, 90% of the time I have very little choice over which carrier I use. My decision is largely made for me by my destination because airlines have signed agreements with airports. Beyond that, my decision is made by my schedule and price. Never do I think, “Gee, now which carrier got negative press this year?”

But beyond that, I love these people who keep trying to tell us that free market fairies will protect consumers, even though the entire reason we are having a debate about something is because there is a problem, which means the free market fairies have not protected consumers. You know what protects consumers? The government telling them if they don’t do the right thing they will get slapped with a big, fat fine. Problem solved.


Filed under air travel, corporations, free hand of the market

>Stupid Security Theater


That didn’t take long:

DALLAS – Airline officials say in-flight security rules have been eased after a two-day clampdown.
At the captain’s discretion, passengers can once again have blankets and other items on their laps or move about the cabin during the tail end of flight, two industry officials briefed on the situation said Monday.

It was a stupid rule to begin with.

Airline travel has just gotten substantially suckier thanks to our ridiculous Transportation Security Administration:

“Among other things, during the final hour of flights, customers must remain seated, will not be allowed to access carry-on baggage or have personal belongings or other items on their laps,” the airline said.

Look, in the interest of safer air travel, I will accept pat-downs and more scrutiny of my carry-on bags. But this “remain seated for the last hour of flight with nothing in your lap” bullshit is the last straw.

What does the “last” hour of flight have to do with anything? Just because the foiled Detroit attack took place in the “last” hour of flight, do you think they all have to be that way? Why not the first hour of flight? The second? How arbitrary and ridiculous. Al Qaeda is laughing their asses off at us.

Second of all, anyone who has ever traveled with children knows you simply cannot keep them locked in their seat for a full hour, no trips to the bathroom, no access to personal belongings, no toys, no games, hell not even a blanket. Good luck with that. Oh, and I’m sure the flight crews will have a grand ol’ time wiping urine off the seats.

Am I the only one who thinks it’s ridiculous that our safety screening is based on foiled terrorist plots? Richard Reed failed to light his shoes on fire so now we all take our shoes off at security. Some other terrorists failed to mix liquids into an explosive, so now you can’t take liquids through security. And now we have to stay out of the bathroom and twiddle our thumbs for an hour.

As I wrote last year when an eager TSA employee in Dallas stole took labeled my niece’s Christmas gift contraband:

Thank God the Maxwell Smart of terrorists didn’t have an exploding pen, or we’d all have our writing implements confiscated at security.

It seems to me there’s a better way to do this. Telling me I can’t read a freaking magazine for the last hour of flight or take a pee after you’ve plied me with ginger ale for two hours doesn’t seem to be the right approach. I’d rather we figured out how someone on the terror watch list was able to board an aircraft with a bomb strapped to his balls, when I can’t even get a damn bottle of Dasani past security.

Y’all ever think of that?

No, Janet Napolitano, our system did not work.

How about a little extra pat-down to the guy on our terror watch list who was denied an entry visa to the United Kingdom last spring? I realize hindsight is 20/20 and I don’t know all of the ins and outs of airline security but it seems like treating every single person like a potential terrorist accomplishes nothing, when there are actual, concrete things we should be doing to make air travel safer.

In my post last year I linked to this “Ask The Pilot” column, in which a pilot had this to say about airport security:

What we need is a TSA willing to concede that the real nuts and bolts of keeping terrorists away from planes take place well out of view. We need to immediately rescind most of the rules restricting sharp objects and liquids, with a return to basic screening for firearms and bombs. With respect to the latter, the emphasis should be put squarely on improved anti-explosives screening of all luggage and cargo.

And although the attacks of 2001 took place on U.S. soil, the greater threats are at airports abroad. American carriers now operate throughout Asia, South America, Africa and beyond, where they remain potentially high-profile targets for extremist groups or rogue terrorists. Here we are confiscating scissors from somebody’s grandmother in Indianapolis when most of our security in foreign countries is outsourced to local authorities. How about relocating some of our domestic manpower overseas to help prevent a bombing or shoot-down?

All of those things would be nice. How about those new liquid-explosive screening devices soon to be available in the EU? Can we get some of those in the U.S., please?

I’m tired of these ridiculous security rules designed to give the appearance that we are doing something when in fact we are doing nothing at all. If we’re going to have terror watch lists, for crying out loud, use them.


Filed under air travel, terrorism, TSA

Doing The Safety Dance

Yesterday, Pam Spaulding over at Pandagon wondered if there are any 2008 travel war stories out there.

I’m sure she’ll get an earful from folks returning from Thanksgiving. I already blogged about the sucky treatment we got from American Airlines on our recent vacation to Costa Rica. The airline changed our flight out of Miami without notifying us, forcing us to miss a connector in country. So instead of taking a 20 minute flight from San Jose to Quepos, we had to hire a driver to take us over land, which with Costa Rica’s notoriously bad roads meant a four-hour-plus ordeal. American said because we didn’t book the San Jose-Quepos flight through them, they had fulfilled their obligation to us. Well guess what, assholes: you don’t fly to Quepos! Only two airlines do that, both Costa Rican.

I still get mad thinking about it.

But the worst part about traveling has to be the ridiculous exercise known as the Transportation Security Administration’s Security Check. Yes, I remember 9/11 and no, those ubiquitous “Threat Level: ORANGE” signs don’t make me tolerate it any better.

And it’s so much worse at American airports than those in Europe. Look, nobody makes you take your shoes off.


Thank God the Maxwell Smart of terrorists didn’t have an exploding pen, or we’d all have our writing implements confiscated at security. How stupid.

Returning from Costa Rica last week, we went through customs at Dallas-Ft. Worth. We had two carry-on bags full of souvenirs, hand-crafted items like clay masks and wooden bowls. When we’d purchased the items, the store clerk had carefully wrapped every item in paper to prevent breakage, and we’d just thrown the whole mess into a backpack. But we’d forgotten about two items: a small bottle of Lizano salsa, a wonderful spicy-sweet concoction that is a staple condiment of virtually every Costa Rican meal, and a Volcano snow globe we’d bought for my six-year-old niece.

After making it through customs, we’d sent our checked bags back on through, and then had to go through the whole TSA security check again to get to our gate. And that’s where we got into trouble.

I got stuck with a sour-faced TSA woman who had to unwrap every single item in the carry-on. When she got to the Lizano sauce she put it aside and snarled, “that’s not going anywhere.”

Then she unwrapped my niece’s volcano snow globe. She picked it up, admired it, turned it upside down.

“Cute,” she said.

She watched the little red sparklies meant to be lava float around inside the globe, then looked at me and said:

“This has water in it. It’s not going anywhere.”

I swear to God if she could have slipped it in her pocket she would have.

Our only choice was to “throw them away” or go back to ticket counter, check another piece of luggage, and go through the whole TSA nonsense again. For a bottle of Costa Rican salsa and a cheap plastic snow globe which cost $4, it wasn’t worth it.

If I’d had my wits about me, I would have reminded her that the liquid in this snow globe was less than 4 oz. I thought of it too late, trying to make sure that our two laptop computers made it back into our possession. I did wonder why she allowed my toiletries to go through–shampoo, lotions, etc.–but had a problem with my souvenirs. She didn’t even check that bag.

I am absolutely convinced that a child of a TSA worker in Texas is getting a volcano snow globe in his or her Christmas stocking this year.

Let’s face it, the whole point of the TSA safety dance is to inconvenience people as much as possible, thereby giving the appearance that something is being done to Keep Us Safe. I’m not buying it, though, and I suspect no one else is, either.

In Salon’s “Ask The Pilot” column a real, live airline pilot pleads with President-elect Obama:

Please, Mr. President, for the love of country, do something, anything, about the Transportation Security Administration.

The fundamental problem, discussed in this column many times, is the agency’s relentless fixation with the in-flight takeover scheme last perpetrated on Sept. 11, 2001; that is, the fallacy that physical weapons, rather than the element of surprise, were ultimately responsible for the hijackers’ successes on that day. In truth, the hijackers’ possession of box cutters was irrelevant — a deadly weapon can be fashioned from virtually anything, including many objects and materials found on planes — and for any number of reasons, none of which have anything to do with the confiscation of pointy objects at the concourse checkpoint, the 9/11 blueprint is all but off the table to a would-be saboteur.

Let’s face reality, folks. The ban on liquids and sharp objects is ridiculous at best, and potentially dangerous. People should be allowed to bring their own food and water on aircraft, especially as airlines are cutting back on such services and charging for such things.

The airlines and TSA are really sucking all of the fun out of travel. I’m still pissed that a TSA agent took my niece’s volcano snow globe, for no earthly reason.

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Filed under air travel, American Airlines, TSA

>Airline Travel Just Got Suckier

>Hey, American Airlines! Fuck you!

American Airlines to charge for checked baggage

Starting June 15 most American passengers must pay $15 for checking a single bag. That comes on top of the airline’s decision two weeks ago to charge $25 for a second bag.

Question: if you’re going to charge us to check our bags, do we get our money back when you lose them? Just wondering.

You know, it’s not like we have an option about traveling without luggage. Of course there are the exceptions, for instance American’s frequent-flyer club members, active duty military, and for items like child car seats. In fact, the whole thing is rather confusing (you can view the policy here.)

For everyone else, don’t think you can skirt this fee by carrying your baggage on board: the airlines already limit how much carry-on you can have, plus there’s that ridiculous dog-and-pony show the TSA makes us go through which technically bans liquids like shampoo and most cosmetics.

All of these extra fees for this or that just pisses people off. Look, it’s simple: just raise the cost of a plane ticket. I know you really, really want to put those full page ads in the newspaper advertising 15 glorious destinations for under $250 but when you leave off all the extra fees and surcharges and taxes, you’re just lying to your customers.

Air travel is bad enough these days, with the flight delays and security nonsense. Don’t treat us like we’re stupid.

On top of which, let me add, who’s the stupid one here? You people didn’t know that fuel was going to get more expensive? No one knew the world is running out of oil? The industry never saw this coming? You just started looking for alternative fuels three years ago?

Looks like someone is feeling the effects of their own bad business decisions.

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Filed under air travel, American Airlines