Thursday, January 12, 2012

Are outbursts at the airport okay?

A friend posted the following status to her Facebook profile today:
Can't believe that some lady just made a HUGE scene and got super, visibly mad that the TSA made her throw out all her liquids over the allowed size. She even admitted that she knew about the rule, but said they had always "let it go" before.
She later updated to say the woman was still complaining loudly in the boarding area. I responded in a comment to her, but it led to a rash of ideas that I wanted to elaborate on.

I am sympathetic to both sides here. Let's face it: flying sucks. Many people are in a rush. They don't want some moron - or someone with a protest agenda - holding them up. Frequent fliers are oftentimes just commuting. They want to get this mundane part of their day over with. Get to the gate or on the plane and get settled in so something productive can be done. Occasional fliers are often flustered by all of the rules. They are aware that they are the hold-up in the line and don't want to inconvenience others, but are also understandably confused by the process.

It's quite obvious that the TSA, at a minimum, exacerbates and, in some cases, even creates these problems. Before I elaborate, I want to relate a story that occurred to my family (my sisters and parents) and posit that something like this may have occurred to the lady making a scene in front of my friend. It will also tie into some issues that the TSA can take the blame for.

All of my family members have flown before, and since 9/11, but they are all infrequent fliers. Between the four of them, there was probably an average of one round-trip air travel a year. They were traveling to a wedding. As many women know, traveling to a wedding under 3-1-1 rules (the really dumb TSA rules where all liquids must fit in 3-oz bottles stuffed into a single Ziploc bag) pretty much eliminates the possibility of traveling with carry-on luggage only (no checked bags). Even under regular circumstances, it's hard to fit all hair products and makeup that have a liquid or gel consistency into a single bag. But you can forego your favorite lip gloss, use hotel shampoo, skip the perfume, use a travel size hair product that is not your usual brand, etc... on a regular trip. When a woman goes to a wedding (or similar event), she will not want to leave her beauty to chance. So the full-size bottles of hair product and all of the make-up required will have to go in checked luggage.

That's a long lead-in to tell you that my older sister had over a hundred dollars worth of hair and makeup products in a suitcase for this trip. The flight was delayed and they all left from my parents' house - a mere 20 minute drive to the airport - with plenty of time to catch the flight. But, when they arrived, they found themselves standing in a very long check-in line. When they got to the counter, they were told it was too late to check the bags. When they got to security, my sister was forced to throw away most of her products (they took pity on her and let her keep some). My sister is mild-mannered, and my family is not one to make a scene. So, I'm certain that there was no yelling and screaming at the security checkpoint or at the gate. But... if my sister had thrown a fit, would you really blame her (knowing this full story)? (By the way, if you knew even more about my sister's life and what a rotten year she had had and what her financial situation was, you may have even started fighting on her behalf!)

So, what does the TSA do to create or worsen all of the problems at the airport? First, checked luggage is screened, increasing the amount of time that the check-in counter must use as a cut-off for letting luggage through. Nevermind that this is a personal security risk that has led to documented and anectdotal instances of theft. Not all airports are equipped with the most efficient screening equipment and flow processes, so it is likely that in certain airports the cut-off for luggage may be much longer than at other airports.

TSA regulations are, generally speaking, stupid. I already described the 3-1-1 rules, which everyone knows do nothing to prevent liquid explosives from getting on the plane, even assuming perfect compliance and enforcement. The shoes off, jackets off, belts off, laptops out of the bag, empty your pockets, etc... make it so that you are practically getting undressed and unpacking, but the pay-off is unclear. This is confusing for occasional travelers, and stressful for all but the most frequent travelers. If you're traveling with children, you also have to do this for your children and heft strollers and car seats onto the conveyer belt. (Children can supposedly keep their shoes on, now, though this was not the case as recently as last summer.)

TSA regulations are not consistently enforced. Case in point is my sister, who was "allowed" to keep some of her products. The lady that my friend is complaining about also states that, in the past, she has been able to get things through security. This is totally believable. I've gotten chapstick, lip gloss, and mascara through even though it wasn't in a ziplock bag. I bet many people have taken cupcakes on board a plane, but just a few weeks ago, one person (that we know of) had theirs confiscated. Many women travel with breast milk, but some get stopped and harassed.

The TSA is adding stress to an already stressful situation, putting rules in place that slow down everyone - to the irritation of frequent fliers, who wrongfully send their ire to the occasional passengers instead of the bloated agency the put the rules in place.

And let's not forget that all of the TSA searches - of checked and carry-on luggage, as well as making people partially undress - are unconstitutional. My friend is a lawyer, so she may quibble with me on how the law is interpreted in 2012. But, I can read English, and the wording in the Constitution is quite clear on this point - lawyers and judges for the last two centuries be damned:
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized. 
About a year ago, just after my last flight, a friend let me in on a great idea that I wish I had known about before I quit flying. I was an occasional flier of about 3 round-trips a year and I am a pretty empathic person. I am quite aware of how others around me might feel and I often try to limit my behavior so that others are more comfortable. At the airport, this translated into me being someone who tried to know the rules going in, followed the rules, and did so efficiently. I didn't want to be the person holding up the line. By the time I got to the front of the line, my laptop bag was already unzipped and my jacket was off. I would try to remember to wear slip on shoes. And I always, always, always, found airport security to be extremely stressful.

Then my friend told me that he had decided a number of years ago that he was going to intentionally take his time and go slowly through security. Sure, he would wave people through to go around him. But he wasn't going to let the process raise his blood pressure more than necessary. And, he saw it as a form of protest. Everyone wants you to be efficient - the TSA agents as well as the other passengers - but by going slow you are saying, "I won't be put in your mold. I know I must submit to these dumb rules or risk life and liberty, but I don't have to submit so willingly."

I don't know if the lady my friend was complaining about had a really good reason to complain, like my sister, or if maybe she was protesting in her way - "I won't go quietly..." - or perhaps she is just an obnoxious woman who likes attention. But, I'm not so quick to judge anymore, because I know who is always on the wrong side: The TSA. The passengers are always the victim, some more submissive than others, some more irritating than others, and even some more criminal than others. But they are the victims, nonetheless.