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This is a downer of a Friday story, but it's already getting some traction on travel sites. Plus it's going to be airport security news for the next few weeks. Plus it's probably going to affect your actual, physical airport experience. So you might as well get it on your radar now.
The short version - and you can read longer takes with details and videos here and here - is that the spring issue of Al Qaeda's lead magazine Inspire had a picture of the SFO AirTrain, which they captioned "Stand up, pack your tools of destruction, assemble your bomb, ready the detonation." You can understand why some people are talking about this.
The justification was that increasing how much people paid for airline tickets would increase the number of people who purchased airline tickets. The reasoning went as follows: right now, people don't purchase airline tickets because it takes too long to get through airports; new taxes could pay for more airport workers, which would decrease the amount of time it takes to get through airports; therefore, more taxes would make more people would purchase airline tickets.
We were not kind. In between words and phrases like "giggle-worthy logic" and "stupid," we pointed out that TSA had once floated the exact same theory, except they were going to raise the fees outside the normal budget process. It was shot down despite being trotted out in 2010 and 2011 and then again later in 2011, because it was moronic.
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Not to beat a particularly stupid dead horse, but just one more thing about that silly hearing that Congress held last week with TSA officials. We've repeatedly covered how the overarching debate over airport security is broken: politicians attack TSA for cutting corners, but those same politicians aren't willing to either change the rules (so there are no corners to cut) or increase the agency's funding (so it wouldn't need to cut corners).
We've already posted on one aggravating part of the hearing, which had Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA) declaring that TSA agents don't say "please" and "thank you" enough, and so he's going to write legislation sending them to politeness school. He saw security officers telling travelers to do awkward things like take off clothing, and stand in line, and assume various positions, and he thought it would be better if they were nicer about it. But the problem isn't whether agents are polite when they implement poorly conceptualized and even more poorly executed security policies. It's that the security policies are poorly conceptualized and executed.
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The Jaunted policy on travel politics is very straightforward: there is nothing so broken about the experience of getting from one airport to another - whether it be picking a seat or paying for baggage or going through security or even taking off - that Congress can't make it worse.
TSA, for example, is a disaster in hundreds of ways significant and incidental. But give an elected official a chance to address even the smallest of the agency's problems, and they're bound without fail to come up with legislation that falls somewhere in between useless meddling and genuine damage. We actually had to check today's story multiple times before we could convince ourselves it wasn't a parody.
Washington, D.C. is rife with scandals over how various branches of the government have been violating people's privacy and security. Whether it's the IRS targeting conservative groups or the Department of Justice monitoring journalists, it appears that federal agencies have been given vast powers to collect information and they're not very good at holding on to that information.
So naturally, Congress has chosen this week to add a provision to the new immigration bill that requires all non-U.S. citizens to be fingerprinted when flying out of the U.S.'s 30 busiest airports.
Because if there's anything that American politicians are good at generating, it's irony.
You kids might not remember this, but a few years ago Congress wanted to tax foreign tourists in order to increase foreign tourism. The deeply moronic public theory was to take money from tourists, then use that money to promote tourism, then wait around for all the tourists to start flooding in. In actuality it was a way to drive travelers to Las Vegas restaurants and hotels and away from other parts of the country, all done at the expense of tourists who just wanted to come to the United States. Congress ended up passing that legislation and the President ended up signing it, by the way.
Fast forward to the 2014 budget submitted by President Obama to Congress. It looks to make air travel better by taxing air travel more. The giggle-worthy logic begins with the idea that getting through an airport takes a really long time right now because there aren't enough workers and infrastructure, and that's depressing travel. But if you tax travelers, the reasoning goes, you'll be able to put that money into airports. Airports will become better, more people will want to use them, and magic happens.
If you're a US citizen and you'll be traveling overseas during the US 2012 election, have you yet registered to vote by absentee ballot?
The big election date is Tuesday, November 6th, and you'd better get cracking if you don't want to lose the chance to tick the box you like best.
Even if your home isn't in a battleground state, House and Senate seats are up for grabs, so every vote counts. Fortunately, it only takes five minutes to fill out the forms online and mail them off!
Almost as long as there's been a Jaunted, Nevada Senator and current Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has been pissing off Jaunted bloggers. In 2008 we took sardonic note of his idiotic statement blaming tourists for the annual DC summer stench. In 2009 we called him a "travel busybody" for killing a bill that would have limited how much Vegas hotels could benefit from stimulus funding. Later that year we rolled our eyes at his push to fine foreign tourists and use that money to promote "Vegas-style tourism." In 2010 we predicted that he'd keep doing that nonsense for a while.
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Yeah listen. We're running out of new ways to explain how in practice there's no such thing as truly "random" screening, the kind that avoids any kind of profiling. Either you get top-down profiling, where some official creates a profile and tells agents to look for it, or you get bottom-up profiling, where you devolve authority to agents on the ground and they use their own judgment.
Top-down profiling is problematic because we live in a decent society and we don't want government officials telling airport security agents to search for travelers who fit a look. But the bottom-up approach is problematic because it lets sexist and racist douchebags harass women and African-Americans with impunity, because they say the travelers were acting weird.
We hit this theme pretty hard last year, writing again and again that giving more responsibility to agents on the ground risks rampant sexual harassment and racial harassment. Then TSA launched their behavior-based system, which gave agents on the ground more responsibility.
How do you think that went?
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It's always heartwarming when American politicians, Republicans and Democrats, Members of Congress and the White House, the House of Representatives and the Senate, unite around an issue. It doesn't happen often, and almost never during an election year, but when it does it becomes almost a testament to the spirit of American democracy.
Like this week, when, with the support of the White House and the US Transportation Secretary, the Senate followed the House in passing legislation that outlaws American companies from obeying the European Union's new environmental regulations on airlines, thereby blocking efforts to halt global warming and risking a trade war.
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We're almost beginning to feel sorry for the TSA officials. They spend much of their time dealing with what appear to be the world's dumbest passengers, and then at the end of it all they get yelled at by angry politicians. This week is proving to be particularly bad.
Top agency officials spent most of today facing withering criticism from Senators, up to and including the accusation that they show "arrogant disregard for real Americans who have to put up with this baloney." We're not really sure what that means, and we tend to cringe when politicians start posturing on behalf of "real Americans," but certainly TSA workers have been a little grabby lately with diabetics' insulin and cancer survivors' body parts and other people's stuff in general.
These Senate hearings are almost kind of Congress's way of piling on, given that House members were outright calling for investigations of TSA over the summer.
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You might remember last spring, when we threw something very close to a temper tantrum over TSA's request to increase the security fees that passengers pay with every ticket. We suggested that maybe the agency should stop wasting the money they already hadthe hike was floated right after TSA started rolling out gingerbread man scanners as replacements for their predictably rejected billion-dollar full-body scannersbefore they started coming after more of our money.
The idea that TSA is hopelessly wasteful was echoed this morning in a POLITICO story about the agency's budget, which included bits like "tendency to grab on to a new system before it's really validated" (no kidding) and "cycle of faulty equipment and failed programs" (everybody remember puffer machines?)
And yet that's not the most infuriating part of the story. It turns out that not only is an eventual $15 security fee increase back on the table, butweirdly, unbelievablyit's not even all going to be spent on airport security. Which is kind of weird, because with "security" right there in the name, you'd kind of think that's what it would be for.