Sunday, March 4, 2007

Of TSA and Flying

I rue the day terrorists attacked our comfortable utopian lifestyles and rudely awakened us to a dose of reality; America is not invulnerable to terrorism within the presumed safety of our national borders. 9/11 stands out in my mind for many more reasons than the tragedy of innocent deaths that befell our nation and disrupted families forever. The carnage of that unconscionable event impacts us still, five years removed from the cowardly attacks.
One of the more subtle disasters of the 9/11 attacks was the formation of the TSA (for those of you who happen not to be frequent flyers, these are the guys and gals at all of our airports wearing pseudo-police uniforms and rubber surgical gloves, whose sworn duty is to harass weary travelers and ensure that we give serious consideration to taking the bus next time we have to travel across the country).

I know, I know, some of you are already on the defensive as you think of how helpful they have been in averting potential bombs being brought on board aircraft designed to be used as missiles. I apologize in advance to those TSA employees who truly understand and value the nature of their job and do it with great pride and honor, but as with anything that you paint with broad brush strokes, the innocent are bound to get splashed with color.

Consider for instance my recent trip to St. Louis, MO. I was on a scheduled one day business trip from Orlando and so packed as lightly as my cumbersome but life-saving C-pap (breathing machine) would allow. Wanting to avoid the potential hassles of delayed or lost luggage, I packed just enough to fit into my carry on wheelie. I meticulously went through everything in my toilet bag so as to ensure that I wouldn’t be transporting anything that would potentially be confiscated at the TSA security checkpoint. I left behind my shaving knife even though it wouldn’t slice through melted butter, as well as my metal nail file and nail clippers (believe it or not I have seen these items confiscated as potential weapons).

The outbound journey to St. Louis went without a hitch. The TSA agent checked my bag and did whatever it is they do with the little round magnetic strip, rubbing it on the different surfaces of my C-pap machine, placing the strip in a large piece of hi-tech equipment which eventually gives the green light that I hadn’t been anywhere in the vicinity of bomb making material (or at least my C-pap hadn’t), and I was on my merry way. Not so the return journey the next day. I was unfortunate enough to end up in a line manned by a female TSA agent whom we will call Ursula (this name springs to mind each time I picture her and it seems rather appropriate considering her Nazi-like disposition). Ursula began by politely informing me that she needed to check my C-pap machine. Evidently she’d seen enough of them come through so that she knew what it was before she had opened the bag. I gave her the thumbs up and she proceeded to meticulously take my bag apart after she had merely glanced at the C-pap.
Ursula unzipped my toilet bag and picked up my tube of toothpaste, informing me that it was too large of a tube to be allowed through security, based on directives from Washington D.C. Then she examined my shaving cream tube and decided that it was too large also. Apparently I foolishly failed to check the TSA website before my departure otherwise I would have discovered that the limit on any gel, liquid or paste is 3.4oz, and since my shaving cream was a whopping 6oz pack, it was instantly apprehended. Next was my bottle of body lotion along with an $18.00 bottle of facial cleanser from Mary Kay (Yes, I admit I use skin care products because I’m a pretty secure male). By this time my irritation was apparent and so Ursula, having carefully studied the German print all over the bottle of skin lotion which I had purchased in Germany on a previous international flight, decided I could keep it. She then picked up my tiny tube of lip balm and asked me if I had a small Ziplock bag in which to put it. Responding with exaggerated patience, I informed her that I didn’t whereupon she proceeded to add that to the growing pile of “illegal” contraband items I was attempting to transport through airport security. Did I mention that there was a stack of Ziplock bags sitting on the counter right in front of her?

By this time the commotion had attracted the attention of a TSA agent with a brain, who suggested to Ursula that she could give me one of the Ziplock bags strategically placed in front of her for just such a purpose. Phew! I had saved my lip balm, but for good measure and to ensure that I knew she was still in charge Ursula decided that the German body lotion had to go in lieu of the lip balm. I watched despondently as my German skin care lotion, my $18.00 tube of Mary Kay facial cleanser, My tube of toothpaste and my shaving cream were unceremoniously tossed into the massive trash can strategically positioned just for that purpose.

So let me try and make some sense of all this. TSA was created to protect citizens from potential acts of terrorism that might occur on airplanes as people surreptitiously attempt to transport bombs and other such paraphernalia through airports. It would appear that somewhere along the line they lost sight of that purpose and decided that in view of the limited amount of airline terrorism that has happened lately; they needed to redefine their purpose. The new purpose, it would appear, is to monitor and discourage the growing number of dissident travelers that attempt to transport toiletries which exceed 3.4oz, and stop our sordid and flagrant abuse of that rule.

It is beyond unfathomable that hard working tax payers have to fund an organization that seems obsessed with the idea of confiscating “illegal” items that we are transporting through our airports for hygiene purposes and tossing them in the trash. For my own sanity and peace of mind I have to believe that discretion is an option in this profession. I fully understand that safety is paramount---but come on, toothpaste, shaving cream, body lotion and face cleanser are hardly threats to national security!

I imagine that the rule to limit the size of these types of toiletry articles (gels, pastes and liquids) was established to ensure that no one was carrying a pack large enough to hold a certain quantity of potentially dangerous explosive material. This being said, I’m equally confident that the purpose of the rule was not to have TSA agents toss away our hard earned money because we are carrying 3oz more toothpaste than Washington D.C. thinks we need on any trip. So my question is this: are TSA agents worried or concerned that they may lose their jobs if there isn’t enough spurious “activity” going on? It would be disingenuous for anyone to suggest that seizing oversized toiletries is a job worth paying people for. Come to think of it, what did these people do for a living prior to the formation of the TSA post-9/11?


Jennifer said...

As a TSA officer I assure all the travelers that read this that most of us feel bad that we have to take away items. We give the travelers options to check their carry on bag or take the items back to their car. Now if you are running late for your flight or are pressed for time then you should allow the recommended 2 hours before your flight.

We are trained many times a week through hands on as well as what other agencies (FBI, DEA, ETC.) has found to be dangerous weapons and explosives. You would not believe what someone could put into a toothpaste tube! And believe me it does not take much explosives to take down a plane or at least scare a ton of people.

So don't tell me that we are just in it to be "natzi's" We are here for YOU! We put our lives on the line for YOU! All it takes is one bomb to go off at a checkpoint and many TSA workers are dead.

Anonymous said...

DFW to Aus is about a 30 to 45 minute flight including taxie time.

So with your mandated 2 hours plus flight time = 2.45 hours and no end of hassle.

Automobile time, 2.45 hrs., larger seats, no abusive TSA and I can take my favorite beverage and all of the other items I want.

TSA make flying a poor option.

Way to go!

Joseph said...

Wow, Jennifer, did you actually read the article? Your defensive posture makes me wonder whether you might be related to Ursula. I began the article by apologizing in advance to those TSA agents who are doing their job. I also specifically referred to the disposition of that particular agent as 'Nazi' like, so how do you draw the conclusion that "we are just in it to be natzi's" Did you miss the parts were I mentioned the uneventful outbound flight and the supervising agent that came over and suggested "Ursula" give me one of the ziploc bags in front of her? I must tell you that your defensiveness simply lends credence to my article. Instead of being so blindly defensive, you people need to take to heart the serious image problems you have inadvertently created for yourselves and work at fixing them otherwise, rest assured that agencies like yours will eventually go the way of the dodo!

Joseph said...

BTW Jennifer, since you so carefully penned your response, I wanted to address the other issues you raised. With your mandated two-hours-before-flight-check-in, it still takes almost an hour to get through the TSA line in most major airports (Orlando International has been known to have lines over one hour long). According to you the TSA agents give us the option to check-in those items that would be confiscated. If it's taken the better part of an hour to get to the check point, and now we have to return to the check-in counter, wait in that line just to check in a few articles (and by the way you have to find a new container for the articles since your original checked bag would have gone through), come back to the TSA line (which may or may not take you close to another hour), what exactly is the benefit of arriving 2-hrs early?

Finally, get off your arrogant high horse about putting your life on the line for us daily. People in Iraq and Afghanistan put their lives on the line for us daily! To suggest that if a bomb went off at a checkpoint many TSA agents would be killed is patently stupid! Wouldn't many other innocent travelers be killed too? At least you would have been killed in the line of duty, doing a job for which you get paid. They, on the other hand would have died in vain. I think you really need to examine your motives for why you do the job you do, and maybe consider getting a job where you won't face the sort of criticism that makes you defensive (like working at Burger King or something). That's my final answer!!!