TSA Airport Security: Good, Bad and Beyonce

PHOTO: Beyonce Knowles leaves John F. Kennedy International Airport on June 10, 2009 in New York City.PlayRay Tamarra/Getty Images
WATCH TSA Agent Groped by Passenger Upset Over Pat-Down

Americans have a love-hate thing with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), but how to feel about this new wrinkle? According to one congressman, airport screeners should give celebrities like Beyonce a pass.

I'm sure Ms. Knowles is a fine person; I know she's a fine singer. But assuming Beyonce ever sets foot on a commercial jetliner, should she -- or any other celeb -- get star treatment from the TSA? Last week, Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) referred to the singer, saying, "She's not going to blow a plane up," and I agree. But neither are you and neither am I.

That's the thing about airport security today; it remains full of irritating contradictions that drive us crazy -- like the idea of giving celebrities a pass while being told endlessly that the reason pat-down videos of crying kids and angry grandmas keep winding up on YouTube is because profiling does not work and that anyone could be a threat to our nation's air travel system.

No wonder rage against the TSA continues, at a volume usually associated with hatred of the IRS. Yet, most of us go along with it without complaint because we know we need some kind of security. Besides, what choice do we have?

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And some aspects of security are better, while some things remain bad. Here's my list:

Better: I really like this -- the TSA is seeking proposals from technology companies for a lightweight hand-held screening wand that would detect metal, explosives and more. The point is to eliminate pat-downs altogether. Sign me up.

Bad: Won't happen this year, and it's not clear when we might see this.

Better: The latest figures from the Dept. of Transportation on TSA complaints (April 2012) show biggest problems had to do with courtesy (304 complaints) and personal property (365 complaints). Considering that the TSA screened 53 million passengers and 42 million checked-bags that month, the number of complaints is very low.

Bad: Critics may argue that many unhappy flyers may not have wanted to take the time or bother to make a complaint, and/or that no complaints should be the goal. I can't argue with that.

Better: Long lines have been sped up thanks to the TSA's PreCheck program -- and I know it's quicker because I've done it. These faster, keep-your-shoes-on lines are now available at 15 airports nationwide.

Bad: PreCheck is only available in 15 airports nationwide! Yes, 1.5 million are now enrolled but the TSA screens 600 million passengers a year. Plus, to take part, you must be an elite flyer with Alaska, American or Delta, or fork over $100 for a government pre-screening program (but if you fly a lot, it's worth it). Another quibble: PreCheck does not guarantee a quicker experience. You still might have to take your Florsheims off, but it's better than nothing.

Better: Quicker security lines for the 12-and-under set and for those 75 and older. If travelers in these age groups set off a body scan machine, it no longer means instant pat-down; they get another shot at the scanner. Plus, no frequent-flyer status is required for participation, so long as you're the right age.

Bad: Again, no guarantees about pat-downs -- you might still have to endure one. And while the 12-and-under rule is in place at all airports, only a handful of airports currently have the special lanes for seniors.

Something else that really deserves a place in the "bad" category: the seemingly endless stream of stories about TSA officers who've been accused of and/or convicted of theft, bribery, drug dealing and more at airports like Newark, Ft. Myers, LAX and others. Sure, out of a workforce of 50,000 employees, you could call that "a few bad apples," but I think we'd all welcome more transparency on the agency's hiring process and background checks.

Some think the answer is in privatization; longtime critic Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) does, and Orlando just got the go-ahead to hire private screeners. They must follow the same security procedures as the TSA, and they must do it more cheaply. By the way, Mr. Mica was on TV recently, carping about the TSA "harassing grandmothers and veterans," but as the agency points out, 23 percent of its employees are military veterans.

That may not make much difference to another critic, the aforementioned Rep. Rogers, who derided the TSA during a recent transportation subcommittee hearing as "bloated and inefficient" and has suggested the agency's acronym stood for Thousands Standing Around. TSA administrator John Pistole in turn defended his employee numbers but said efforts will continue to make the agency "more efficient" and reiterated that the TSA is committed to a more risk-based approach to security.

For the record, the TSA does some very good work. Check out their blog sometime to see a list of knives and grenades and other bizarre and dangerous weaponry they've found carefully secreted away in passenger luggage. Then there all those guns: TSA screeners found 30 of them during a single week in May -- and 29 of the guns were loaded.

Finally, if you think the TSA is bad, you should hear some of the criticism of other nations' airport security. The always outspoken Michael O'Leary of Ryanair recently slammed Dublin airport security for some missteps by calling it an "international embarrassment," on a par with "Somalia or Afghanistan."