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There is some scary stuff going on in American airports right now. The terrorist attacks in France understandably put airport security officials on edge, and then Al Qaeda published a bomb recipe for the creation of detection-proof explosives.
That one-two had TSA personnel scrambling to boost security. Most visibly, travelers began to see heightened random inspections. But Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson brushed off complaints by tersely stating that "the reasons for these measures should be self-evident."
In a situation like that, you want to allocate resources as efficiently as possible. There are things that look important but are trivial, and things that look trivial but are important. One of the concrete goals is to avoid unnecessary searches.
So everybody was super-thrilled to learn that the FAA was suspending a long-running program under which their safety inspectors were allowed to skip TSA checkpoints. Apparently the system was used by at least one person to bring guns on board airplanes. Oops.
It's that time of the year again, the time when the year just plain ends. Alas, we can't just let 2014 go that easily, especially since travelers spent it both up in the air and up in arms over a crazy range of topics. Now we take a brief look back at the best and worst of 2014 with the Jaunted Travel Awards,or as we fondly refer to themThe Jauntys.
It's not exactly breaking news that the TSA has personnel problems. This is an agency that recruits employees by putting ads on the top of pizza boxes. And while it's true that everybody loves pizza, the tactic casts TSA's overall approach to finding and retaining talent in a less than fantastic -quality l. The situation is not helped by decisions made at the very top of the airport security organization, which include expanding programs that have zero effectiveness.
2014 saw something of a new low, however. First in February and then in July, stories started airing about how TSA agents were refusing to accept Washington DC drivers licenses as valid forms of ID. In at least the latter case, it kind of seemed like the agent didn't know what Washington DC was or, more specifically, that it was in the United States. The incidents were strange for a number of reasons. First, TSA is sometimes very lax about what acceptable IDs, to the point where the issue became a national scandal in the fall. Second of all, Washington DC is the capital of the United States.
Here's a feel-good story to ease you into the holidays.
The Obama administration is preparing to issue a new set of guidelines that will for the first time ban national security agencies from conducting profiling based on race, religion, national origin, or sexual orientation. There are already rules going back to 2003 banning racial profiling by most parts of the federal government, but those rules don't apply to national security agencies and don't encompass religion, national origin, or sexual orientation. These new guidelines are aimed at shoring up those oversights.
All well and good, unless you're the TSA, and part of your job is to apply extra scrutiny to people originating in places like Syria and Yemen just in case they're terrorists. In that case you'd be kind of screwed, unless you could get an exemption from the new restrictions. Want to guess how this story ends?
TSA / Airport Security / Airline Security / Carry-On Baggage / Carry-On Luggage / Holiday Travel / → All Tags
You thought the TSA was going to lighten up for the holidays. You read on Jaunted that the agency was letting passengers bring ice skates and even pies on board planes. Elsewhere you may have heard that top TSA officials were looking to loosen existing restrictions on some liquids for some travelers. Overall it seemed as if limitations on carry-on baggage were moving in the right direction.
How about instead of that, the TSA just goes ahead and bans all carry-on luggage over the holiday season? No exceptions. How would that suit you?
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Photo of a pie which successfully passed TSA inspection
Firecrackers? No. Entire roasted turkeys and baked pies? Yes and yes!
The TSA released their 2014 Holiday Travel Tips just ahead of Thanksgiving, but most of the notes best apply to the upcoming rush around Christmas.
For what seems like forever, we've always been told that wrapped gifts are not allowed in luggage because, inevitably, the TSA will have to open them to check their contents. Of course that made no sense considering the use of baggage scanners, but it seemed just one of many outdated security rules still idly enforced.
Cut to the 2014 tips, and the TSA clarifies this issue:
The TSA is making its annual "please don't make holiday travel more miserable than it already is" push, in which the agency begs travelers not to bring obviously prohibited items into checkpoints for at least the next few months. TSA officials try something like this every year, and it usually more or less completely fails. The problem isn't with the airport security organization, for once. The kind of person who tries to bring chemical-soaked sparklers on board an airplane - real example - just isn't the sort of person who reads TSA-related press releases. Or any press releases, really.
And yet here we are. This year the agency tried to get attention by throwing together a press event at just a single airport, gathering reporters for a show-and-tell at JFK. That's not a terrible idea as far as PR goes, because local reporters always need stories and this way things are easy for them. You give them a press kit, you issue a statement, and everyone is done in time for happy hour. We're not sure it'll actually make a difference, in the sense that we're pretty sure it won't make a difference. But it was a mildly entertaining show, and so you might as well know it happened.
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Last Wednesday TSA agents at Burbank detected a loaded gun in the carry-on of rapper Todd Anthony Shaw, known as Too Short or Too $hort depending on how stuffy you are. This kind of thing happens quite a lot. Almost always, the travelers are immediately cited, and often they're even allowed to proceed to the plane.
In this case Mr. Short walked slowly out of the airport in his socks, recovered his valet-parked car, and returned two days later with his lawyer. At that point he received a misdemeanor citation for possession of a loaded handgun in a public place. This entire incident, with all due respect, is batshit crazy.
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We had a buddy in college who was the epitome of the super-smart stoner. He would study the chemical composition of THC to invent new ways of baking pot, he would construct complex gravity bongs out of random household items, and his entire year revolved around Shark Week. Do you have an image in your mind of the Hollywood movie stoner who comes up with the insight that moves the plot along? That's who this guy was.
One of our buddy's routine tricks when traveling was to use sheets of fabric softener to mask the smell of the copious amounts of weed that he smoked. There are several versions of this trick, but they all involve the same basic move of getting the smoke to go through the sheets (some of the more elaborate mechanisms would require diagrams to explain). After 9/11 he started running into problems because security officers would rightly ask why he was carrying fabric softener sheets in his luggage. That's not a product that people usually take with them on weekend trips to the Midwest.
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What a strange little story. Over the summer news began to emerge that TSA was letting people confirm their identities, and then to board planes, using only Notice to Appear letters and paperwork. Those documents don't have photos or really any kind of security information - so that would have been problematic, which was one problem. But the story was actually much more about travel politics than about airline security, because it was wrapped up in the immigration debate. In any case it eventually made international headlines.
TSA for its part promptly denied that it was doing something as stupid as just letting people show random letters they could have printed at home. Agency spokespeople actually got kind of pissy about it - "completely wrong... never contacted us for a statement" - and made sure to let people know. Snopes.com rated the story flat out false.
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According to Consumer Reports, 2013 saw some 4.5 million smartphones reported lost or stolen. 2014's numbers are expected to be even higher, especially with the debut of a new iPhone this autumn.
If you've long thought your phone had gone to the great charging cable in the sky, consider that perhaps it's just at the bottom of a pile of crusty lost-and-found electronics at an airport somewhere. The Transportation Safety Administration yesterday posted an Instagram showing a tiny sample of the forgotten gadgets they end up tossing into a box at LAX alone, and it's pretty alarming.
You've probably heard about the Internet of Things: the idea that everything you own is going to be online. Your fridge will be able to talk to your car will be able to talk to your pacemaker.
You also may have heard that it's going to be a total cyber-security disaster. Today's hackers are able to get into your laptop or desktop. Tomorrow's hackers will be able - by definition - to get into everything. Right now they're able to damage your data. In the future they'll be able to damage actually existing things in the real world. Unless you're very, very, very careful, putting any device online could get you very easily hacked.
Now, knowing what you know, how likely do you think it is that TSA is using machines that are easily hacked?
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As you know because you've been following along, the new TSA fees that we've been trashing since 2010 went into effect earlier this month. They had been jammed up for years by airlines - more on that below - but the administration finally managed to get them passed. The old caps, which had been set at $2.50 per flight segment with a $10 roof for a four-flight round trip, were abolished.
Would you believe that TSA may have taken advantage of the new situation to collect fees even higher than what Congress allowed? That's the argument being made by airlines, who are now suing the security agency. Game on.