A few reflections on the Department of Homeland Security and its Transportation Security Administration:
The TSA declares it “has developed standardized security screening procedures for all airports. Therefore, you can expect that you will encounter essentially the same procedures at each airport you visit.”
I doubt this claim. Note that my remarks are reserved, tolerant and most respectful concerning an agency that can arbitrarily deny me almost anything, including my freedom, in the name of national security.
Consider my recent trip: I flew from Chicago-Midway (Indiana’s second airport) to Omaha, Neb. I breezed through security. At the first checkpoint, I presented my boarding pass and my driver’s license. Zoom, I was on to checkpoint two.
At this stop, I placed my hat, raincoat, suit jacket, cell phone, PDA, tie clip, change, computer, pen, wallet, keys and shoes in a series of plastic buckets. I did not remove my belt with its metal buckle in the hope I could get through, despite several times being admonished at other airports that all belts had to be removed.
Note: I removed my shoes. TSA says on its Web site that you do not have to remove your shoes. Yet I have learned that, if you do not remove your shoes, a TSA agent will tell you to remove your shoes. If you say that it is not required, the TSA agent will insist you remove your shoes.
If you persist to defend your socked feet from public view, you will be taken aside to be “wanded,” as TSA calls it. At this point, your entire body is subjected to a metal detector. You may or may not be requested to remove your shoes so they can be put through the machine they would have gone through had you taken them off in the first place.
Thus did I pass, shoeless, but with my trousers held in place by my belt, through security point two in Chicago. There was no unpleasantness, although in the past I’ve had verbal encounters with TSA agents as they apply their powers with remarkable inconsistency.
The next day, returning from Omaha, I moved right through checkpoint one.
But as I loaded the plastic buckets at checkpoint two with my keys, clothes, phone, shoes, etc., I was informed I had to show my boarding pass again.
“No problem,” you say. “Just take out the boarding pass and show it.” But I went into orbit. The routine had changed. The boarding pass had not been part of the process at that point in Chicago the day before, so why was it required in Omaha the next day? I expected uniformity across the nation.
“Why do you have to see my boarding pass again?” I cried out in a voice louder than considered appropriate by the TSA agents. My presumed belligerence caused them to set me aside to be wanded. I took offense since all I wanted was an explanation of why Omaha has different rules than Chicago. They insisted on treating me as a potential threat to national security-perhaps not a terrorist, but an unbalanced grandfather who posed a risk to the well-being of my fellow travelers and the airways of the nation.
At this point, I made a mistake. Uncharacteristically, I used indiscreet words to describe the relationship between the nearest TSA agent and his parents. Now several TSA agents gathered about me, visually assessing my danger index potential while one called the airport police. To all I tried to explain my distress: inconsistency. All responded that Omaha is Omaha, Chicago is Chicago and I must comply with the dictates of the TSA agents.
Answers, if any, I was told, could be obtained from TSA’s Web site or from TSA by e-mail. I apologized for suggesting improprieties in the relationship between the TSA agent and his mother and the legal status of his parents at the time of his conception. With restrained smiles, I was released from detention. Yet, all this time, not one TSA agent asked to see my boarding pass, the object of my objection.
We need an extensive review of security measures at airports by an agency outside of the Department of Homeland Security. Are we overdoing oversight? Do we give efficiency sufficient attention as we seek security? Do we allow citizens the freedom to ask questions in the airport? Today, if you do, you will have to step out of line like a noisy, naughty kindergartner.
Marcus taught economics more than 30 years at Indiana University and is the former director of IU’s Business Research Center. His column appears weekly. To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.