The 3-1-1 Rule: 3 hours of waiting, 1 line, 1 outraged citizenry

With airlines and airports expecting an all-time high of 231.1 million passengers this summer, flyers get to start their vacations by stand in security lines for sometimes three hours courtesy of the Transportation Security Administration. Three points account for the government agency’s complete idiocy:

#1: Supply and demand. We know the demand for air travel this summer will be staggering, as will be the demand for airport screening. But the supply to meet the needs of travelers hasn’t remotely caught up with the growing demand. Looks like the TSA slacked off a bit in their Economics 101 class.

Consider: what has the TSA done prepare for influxes of the traveling masses? Instead of expanding screening areas to meet a growing population, they decide to shrink them. At Minneapolis-St. Paul International, $17 million was put toward an extravagant new screening area at the airport’s north end. But this is hardly anything new. It was a superficial makeover of Checkpoint 1 (who cares?) coupled with a slight revamp to its layout, which came at the expense of closing Checkpoints 2, 3, 4, and 5. In other words, $17 million was spent to bring MSP from six security checkpoints down to two.

Oh, and not to mention that that 66% reduction in checkpoints brings an extra forehead-slapper, which is constant underutilization of lanes and scanners at the two entrances. Are these measures really the keys to curbing wait times?

Quite the opposite. Which leads us to point #2: Efficiency. The horror stories of literally out-the-door wait times has prompted not just the citizenry but even airport administrations to consider privatizing security. It’s about time. For years, London Heathrow’s security contractor, G4S, has been consistently getting passengers through security in 5-10 minutes or less 99% of the time at the world’s sixth busiest airport.

And what do we get at home? A three-hour line to see the blue shirts at O’Hare. Which may be why the TSA chief himself announced yesterday he would be fine with airports throwing his own agency out for favor of private screening services.

Our government’s answer to speed up the screening process without firing themselves is TSA Precheck. For $85 and passing a background check, you get to use an express security lane for five years.

That is, when it’s actually open. In the midst of this whole TSA debacle, one issue that has flown under the radar is that some airports’ special Precheck lanes have been surrendered to the general public or closed altogether.

A small aside: when taxpayers interact with their government, no one is treated specially. In addition to the TSA, everything from emergency services to the DMV, it should be that all animals are equal. But when you have to pay extra on top of your income tax contribution to achieve results that the private sector could easily accomplish (Heathrow’s G4S), then some animals become more equal than others. And when there are instances where the government says you can’t use those paid-for privileges, that spells tyranny.

Waiting in huge lines is pointless because no matter how long the lines are, the TSA doesn’t do its job any better or worse. Which is precisely point #3: Preventing terrorism in the skies. A.K.A, the reason the TSA was founded in the first place. With every incident of terror comes an equal tradeoff of liberties for security. 9/11 created the TSA. The Brussels bombing brought rigorous security checkpoints, pre-checkpoints before the actual checkpoints, and vehicle searches outside the terminal. Everywhere you look now there’s drug dogs, Invision body scanners, state-of-the-art X-rays; if you can name it, it invades your body.

And yet the TSA, despite being armed with all these fancy screening methods, failed to detect 95% of bombs and weapons last year. As soon as that report went public, you’d think the three hour queue would’ve shifted from the security checkpoint to the Delta ticket counter, where all the terrorists would be lined up to buy tickets hand over fist.

Which begs the question: why even have the TSA? If all they’re doing is reducing screening lanes, increasing wait times to egregious levels, taking an extra $85 from some of us, all while not being able to perform their assigned job 95% of the time, then who are they and what are they doing here?

The answer is not much. American Airlines’ senior VP for customer experience Kerry Philipovitch noted yesterday: “TSA is working to shift canine teams to airports experiencing the worst delays, rebalancing staffing and hiring more TSOs.”

Hiring more is good. But moving around the assets you already have simply strengthens some airports at the equal expense of depleting the resources of others. The terrorists weren’t born the day of this statement; as this news gets around that JFK, LAX, O’Hare and the like are getting the A-team security squads, they can easily move their plots to the supposedly more vulnerable airports like Chicago Midway and LaGuardia.

Perhaps it is time to privatize airport security, or just scrap the metal detectors and lines all together for favor of taboo yet wildly successful profiling. Last year the TSA found, out of 708 million passengers, a mere 2,653 firearms were found in bags. That equates to 0.0000038% of firearms per person; an absolute pinprick. Forcing the other 99.9999962% clean passengers through all the security measures seems meaningless.

Let’s just hope the 99+% of us can enjoy our vacays without boiling tensions this summer.


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