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The TSA fun began last Monday and lasted through the whole week. Fun might be the wrong word — it was a second consecutive week of PR nightmares after last week's debacle - but at least we got through five whole days without a top organization official having to resign or being fired. Baby steps.
It started with the appearance of travel politics stories based on a recent inspector general report showing that TSA had failed to identify 73 airport workers — that's 7 times 10 plus 3 airline workers — who should have been flagged as terror concerns. The agency neglected to do background checks on a bunch of people who had access to secure airport areas, so airline employees and airport vendors who have actual real life connections to terrorism slipped through the cracks. TSA thought the airports were going to do those checks successfully, but the airports didn't at all, and so ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.
The short version of this story - and if you follow travel politics at all you've already heard about it - is that the acting administrator for TSA has been reassigned after ABC News revealed that TSA screeners flunked 67 out of 70 trial runs where investigators tried to smuggle fake explosives through airport security. That's about a 5% success rate. The investigation more broadly concluded that TSA had made zero significant improvements since a 2009 review, which had itself pointed out enormous flaws.
To give you a sense of what the public reaction has been like, CNN published an article by a pilot yesterday asking "Is TSA security a complete failure?" and it was probably one of the kindest things written about the fiasco. The responses write themselves: if TSA agents are not making us any safer, why have we spent the last 14 years going through nonsense lines, pat-downs, scans, secondary scans, explosives sniffers, backroom questioning, etc. etc?
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There are small TSA screw-ups, like screwing up a PreCheck procedure. There are big TSA screw-ups, like publishing classified info in the dumbest way imaginable. And then there are the screw-ups that make you sit up, kind of tilt your head sideways, and ask yourself how anybody could be so bad at their jobs.
A TV station in Texas did some digging about possible security vulnerabilities at DFW and found what might be generously described as a total clusterfuck: "lost and stolen airline uniform shirts, an entire FedEx pilot's uniform, missing TSA badges and even a federal flight deck officer's credentials and badge, which allow a pilot to carry a gun on a plane." And that was just one airport. The station uncovered similar problems, specifically having to do with lost badges, across the country.
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TSA has contracts totalling $1.2 billion with four different companies to maintain its machines. Last year it spent about $251 million making sure its super-irritating scanners and its somewhat-less-irritating bomb detectors were at least working. Maintenance seems like a reasonable thing to do, and is the minimum you'd expect in exchange for the hassle that U.S. travelers go through.
Except a new report from the Office of Inspector General has revealed that, oh by the way, officials from TSA have no idea if any of the maintanance work is keeping the machines working. Take the next step, and the logical conclusion is that officials from the travel security agency don't know if the machines themselves are working properly. Because why would they?
Why are they so bad at everything?
Just as we all thought the border between the U.S. and Cuba was beginning to soften for good, members of the U.S. House of Representatives introduced a Department of Transportation bill this week with a caveat that could put the brakes on the momentum.
According to Reuters, the bill, if passed, has a section included that "would effectively keep the U.S. government from recertifying any airline or cruise line if it were to travel to Cuba." This measure of the bill was introduced by Representative Mario Diaz-Balart of Florida, a Cuban-American Republication and a major opponent of the changing relationship with Cuba.
The TSA groping scandal seems like it's been going on for a year, but people are still talking about it so it's worth putting on your radar.
The Economist - an outlet that has spent roughly 150 years developing its dry, understated tone - lit up the airport security agency earlier this week, calling it out for "repeated sexual assaults." This is of course in the wake of two TSA agents, a guy and a girl, getting fired for being part of a "pat downs for pleasure" conspiracy.
The scheme was actually kind of clever, albeit staggeringly illegal and guaranteed to detonate whatever trust the public still had in TSA. When the guy saw another guy he wanted to grope heading through a scanner, he would send a signal to his accomplice. The accomplice would then tell the scanner that it was scanning a female. The scanner would look for female body parts and - there's no gentle way to write this - detect a bulge around the groin area that wasn't supposed to be there. It would return an alarm, the traveler would get pulled aside for secondary screening, and then the groping would happen.
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Last Friday a lunatic - we think it's fair to call him a lunatic - walked into Louis Armstrong International in New Orleans and began trying to hack up the place with a machete.
He used anti-wasp spray to keep security officers at bay, and it would later be discovered that the bag he was carrying was filled with Molotov cocktails. The attacker managed to badly injure a TSA worker before finally being brought down by a sheriff who was in the area.
And therein lies the debate that started on Monday: what would have happened had the armed officer not been there? TSA personnel are trained to handle rampages, and this article describes some of the tactics they used (one guy blocked the machete with a piece of luggage while travelers fled the area). But the only thing that stops an attack like this in its tracks is a well-aimed shot, and TSA agents aren't armed.
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Either the TSA is actively trolling the American people, or these guys actually are so incompetent they could screw up a one car parade.
You guys obviously know about PreCheck and PreCheck lines, and you've probably heard about how some airports send passengers randomly into the PreCheck line to speed things up. The idea is that if you randomly send every 10th or every 20th passenger through expedited screening, what are the odds that the person you randomly selected is actually a terrorist? Want to guess how this turns out?
A new report, published last week by Homeland Security, revealed that the system sent a notorious felon and terrorist through a PreCheck line. This guy was so famous that he was recognized by sight by the officers in the PreCheck line. They alerted their supervisor, who of course ordered the officer to let the terrorist continue on his way. Stellar work from start to finish from America's exquisitely staffed airport security agency.
The TSA's response, by the by, is that it "takes its responsibility for protecting the traveling public very seriously." Feel better?
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TGIF and thank god for another entertaining travel rant, this time courtesy of our long-time ranter, er, contributor, Omri. #Fistpump
A few years ago, we described our feelings about what was then a growing movement to ban e-cigarettes on planes. My feeling? A ban would be silly and pointless and completely unenforceable.
Don't get mewrong, it's not that I think e-cigs are 100% safe. There are some metals in the vapor, as a result of heat applied to the device itself, that aren't great for you.
But when you consider what's already in the air you breathe on airplanes, to say nothing of what's literally crawling around on the seats and tray tables, I just can't bring myself to care all that much.
We realize that America long ago gave up on "live and let live," but really? Banning e-cigs on airplanes? Have we solved literally every other problem, everywhere in the world?
El Salvador Travel / San Salvador Travel / Central America Travel / Costa Rica Travel / Travel Politics / → All Tags
Is El Salvador the new Costa Rica?
The short answer is no. Let us explain.
Costa Rica is a wonderful place to be. There is no doubt about that. Gorgeous beaches and eco-adventuring are just some of the things that travelers have come to love about the country. It's been going strong for decades.
El Salvador is still only just beginning.
The country suffered a terrible civil war that lasted 12 years and finally ended in 1992. Since then, El Salvador has been rebuilding its infrastructure with the aim of attracting more tourism. And you know what? It's working. Driving some of the growth are tax cuts for businesses investing in tourism, which in turn help make visiting and enjoying El Salvador accessible and affordable for many first-time tourists.
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?
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It's true. US visitors to Cuba are now allowed to bring $100 worth of Cuban cigars back into the country and it's all thanks to a little speech this morning by President Obama, to announce the resumption of US-Cuba relations for the first time since 1961.
This major development, which will see the reopening of a US embassy in Havana and easing of travel bans, came about thanks to talks orchestrated by Canada and Pope Francis in the Vatican. According to the NY Times, the final step occurred just this morning, when two world leaders picked up the telephone: