TSA Turns 10: Examining the Agency's Strengths and Weaknesses


As for TSA gaffes, anyone remember the "puffer"? The trace portal machines were supposed to detect explosives by blowing air on you, but some of the machines "had trouble detecting bombs," which would seem be a pretty big mark against them. So the Dept. of Homeland Security pulled them in 2009, but not before they'd already invested more than $30 million in the contraptions.

Onward and upward to full body scan machines, which is when the real uproar began. Although identifiable "naked photos on the Internet" was never a real threat (fairly graphic images but with blurred faces), you wouldn't know it from social media reaction. And despite the fact that the latest scan technology only produces a cookie-cutter outline, outrage dies hard; just the other day, a woman on Facebook referred to today's security imaging experience as "the nude-o-matic body scan."

People also hated the seeming lack of common sense on display when it came to singling out certain individuals for the scan treatment, or the alternative "enhanced" pat-down. I don't have to repeat the stories about security excesses involving the 6-year-old kid and the 95-year-old woman in the wheelchair.

Yes, we get it: terrorists take on many disguises, but c'mon. Fortunately, one of those saying "C'mon" happened to be the Secretary of the Department of Transportation. Now kids 12 and under are much less likely to undergo this scrutiny, and in most cases they don't even have to take their shoes off.

That's another 'fail' in many peoples' eyes, the whole shoe removal thing; as one of my site's Facebook friends noted, "Having to go bare foot. GROSS!" It could be worse. The shoe removal rule was instituted after shoe bomber Richard Reid tried to blow up a plane via explosives embedded in his black hiking boots back in late 2001; imagine what could have happened in the wake of 2009's thwarted underwear bomber plot.

Meanwhile, security is getting easier for some of us anyway. The TSA recently announced it will open up three more airports (Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Minneapolis-St. Paul) to its speedy PreCheck program, already in place in Atlanta, Dallas, Detroit and Miami. It allows pre-selected, voluntary "elite" miles members to generally bypass some of the more onerous security requirements in exchange for providing some personal info. However, Time magazine posed this timely question: Does airport security favor the 1 percent? Occupy TSA, indeed.

But we can't forget the TSA success stories, the confiscated guns and drugs and even hand grenades (screeners recently found inert grenades in two carry-on bags in separate incidents). But maybe one of its bigger successes is how it's raised security awareness in general; travelers are no longer passive passengers in planes. When somebody sees something wrong, they act (see the aforementioned shoe and underwear bombers, who were subdued by seatmates).

Whether you credit the TSA or passenger smarts or terrorist disinterest, the fact of the matter is that we have not lost a plane since that gut-wrenching day in September.

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