So basically we’re all going to die

Because our airports are run by dingbats.

Here’s what happened at Newark airport yesterday (thank Zeus I flew into LaGuardia):

1. Man walks through “Do Not Enter” doors, into a secure part of the airport terminal without going through security.
2. The security guard manning the doors apparently ignores him
3. A passenger sees the man walk through the “Do Not Enter” doors and alerts security
4. TSA tracks down the surveillance tapes of the terminal and sees that a man did indeed breeze into a secure zone without being checked.
5. TSA is unable to find the man in question.
6. Two and a half hours later, TSA shuts down the terminal and everyone is stranded.

I’m no expert in airport security, but could TSA not have pulled up other surveillance videos and perhaps looked at where the man went? I don’t love the idea of video surveillance in public places, but an airport is not a purely public place (especially in the post-security terminals). It would make a lot of sense for the terminals to be videotaped, and for those vides to be easily accessible. Then TSA could see where the heck the dude went instead of, say, jogging around the terminal looking for the dude in the gray shirt. Do these fools not watch CSI?

I don’t oppose closing the terminal if that’s what you have to do. But as others have pointed out:

Robert W. Mann Jr., an airline industry consultant in Port Washington, N.Y., said that evacuating the terminal was “consistent with what they’ve done in the past.” But he said he was concerned by the two and a half hours between when the man went through the do-not-enter door and when the terminal was shut down.

“Presumably,” he said, “if you’re going to do this, the time is immediately, not some lengthy period afterwards.”


Because of the terminal closure, passengers were stranded for hours and even overnight. Which is especially genius, since they can’t access their luggage, and that luggage contains all of their liquids and often medication, since our fairly arbitrary carry-on rules changed a few years ago:

She spent the next five hours in a customer service line, only to be told to return around noon Monday to be booked on a flight leaving around 4 p.m. She said she tried to explain that her mother needed pills in luggage that had been checked for their original flight. She said the Continental employee she was talking to told her, “Look at the long line I have to deal with.”

So people can’t get their medication, but look at the long line I have to deal with!

Not that I fault the poor Continental employee — she probably did have an enormous line to deal with! And she probably spent her entire day dealing with yelling, crying, threatening and generally unpleasant passengers. The point is that the airports need to do serious thinking on what the goal of airport security actually is, and then develop comprehensive security measures are actually necessary, instead of these stop-gap reactions to stupid shit that happened yesterday. Could TSA really not have predicted that someone would put explosives in their underpants? Have a solid few decades of a War on Drugs taught us nothing about how people smuggle contraband?

But, hey, we can’t pee on the last hour of international flights, so I feel safe.

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20 comments for “So basically we’re all going to die

  1. Elisabeth
    January 4, 2010 at 9:18 pm

    I agree with the vast majority of your post, but can you please stop perpetuating the rumor about people not being allowed to leave their seats for the last hour? That is a Canadian Airline policy, not a TSA policy, which doesn’t seem to be taken up by other airlines. I can only report my personal experience of course, but I flew Jan 1st into the US from an international destination, and there was no mention of that policy or any attempt at enforcement. I’m all for criticizing airport and airplane security–it seems to be about spectacle rather than safety (and I wouldn’t be surprised if airport shops selling beverages and toiletries have something to do with the continued 3 ounce rule), but there’s enough actual stuff complain about with throwing in a policy that doesn’t actually exist.

  2. defenestrated
    January 4, 2010 at 11:05 pm

    On my flight home for Christmas, there was a uniformed TSA officer handing out baggies to forgetful people with liquids. That didn’t seem to be his primary function, he was also asking people questions and generally looking patrolling-y, but hey, dude had the ziplocs. By the time I realized that I with my hand lotion was one of those forgetful people, the guy had gotten an apparently amusing call on his cell phone and was pacing around chuckling into it.

    I spent upwards of five minutes in line trying to wave him down for a baggie, but even when his face turned toward the crowd of travelers, he wasn’t registering anything in front of him. [See also why I at least can’t drive while on the phone, hands-free or not.] My five minutes isn’t any huge inconvenience (I mean hell, I’m stuck in line anyway), but one minute of *not being able to get TSA’s attention if you try* is way too long if they’re going to pretend to be keeping us safe.

    Never mind a response delayed by two and a half hours. Never mind ignoring a personal tip about a known radical with no checked luggage. I keep wondering, in this competitive job market, how do people this incompetent still have work?

  3. sonia
    January 4, 2010 at 11:41 pm

    The security is pretty much all theater. About a year back I flew from Florida to Pennsylvania with a Swiss knife on me because in their zeal to get me to dump all my bottled water the TSA missed the knife in a bag that went through the X-ray.

  4. January 4, 2010 at 11:50 pm

    It’s not exactly a myth. We were prohibited from leaving our seats, or holding anything in our laps, during the final hour of a United Airlines flight from Vancouver to San Francisco on December 27. The flight attendant announced that the policy was part of a new FAA directive. However, when I flew back to Vancouver on December 31, there was no such rule in effect.

  5. PrettyAmiable
    January 5, 2010 at 12:03 am

    “The point is that the airports need to do serious thinking on what the goal of airport security actually is,…”

    TSA is a branch of Homeland Security. It’s not strictly a function of the airports, and their directives come from the US gov, not some internal devices. Please watch where you’re casting the blame. This is the second blog entry about this issue that incorrectly blames airports and airlines instead of government directives, maybe it’s because it’s hard to cast stones against someone who can defend their actions based on their interpretation of classified information. Going around kicking the next closest person because they’re easier to get to is wrong.

  6. January 5, 2010 at 1:58 am

    “2. The security guard manning the doors apparently ignores him”

    How about using a more gender neutral term such as “staffing” a door instead of “manning” it?

  7. Elisabeth
    January 5, 2010 at 2:48 am

    I flew United as well on Jan 1, though not from Canada. My guess is either they had the policy for two days, or it only applied to flights to and from Canada. Regardless, I’m pretty sure it was, at most, a flash in the pan and not a permanent change to the flying routine.

  8. January 5, 2010 at 5:13 am

    This post is really racist. It perpetuates the idea that “we” are in danger from “them” and guess what color “we” are, compared to “them”. That isn’t a Black girl or a Brown girl playing with a big ol’ gun up top this page. She’s white.

    Whites and whitey institutions kill women of color every damn day. Whites are the danger here–in this context of “keeping us safe”, globally, not some dude running through an airport–of whatever color. This whole post, to me, perpetuates some virulent, unchecked anti-Muslim/anti-Arab, anti-Black and Brown xenophobia and white supremacist mindsets and values.

    Because what if the “us” is poor women of color worldwide, and, especially poor women of color in Iraq and Afghanistan, to name but two places whites support women of color being raped and dying. What color dude you think “we” associate with danger and terrorism when dude is determined to get “here” or is seen dashing about and then disappearing in some airline terminal in “our” countries?

  9. Wednesday
    January 5, 2010 at 8:58 am

    So many TSA and related air travel regulations seem to have been dreamed up for security theatre without thought that (and how) they will disproportionately affect certain groups of already-less-privileged people. Transgender folks who haven’t got legal recognition get outed, people with disabilities that make it hard to schlep luggage around have to pay fees to check their luggage (while people who are able to carry heavy things through the airport bring ’em to the gate, where they say “golly, gee, didn’t realize that wouldn’t fit” and get it gate-checked for free), and people (who may or may not identify as PWD) can’t get at medication they need.

  10. Tom Foolery
    January 5, 2010 at 9:40 am

    thank Zeus

    Hermes is probably the more appropriate deity to be thanking in this circumstance. Zeus may be the Sky King, but Hermes is the patron of borders and travelers who cross them.

    I keep wondering, in this competitive job market, how do people this incompetent still have work?

    Incompetence in the workplace is only punished if it harms someone with the ability to make hiring/firing decisions. The TSA has no P&L, and the hiring/firing decisions are made by people who are totally unaccountable to any level of public dissatisfaction.

  11. evil_fizz
    January 5, 2010 at 9:46 am

    Speaking as someone who was at Newark for that debacle, it was genuinely much worse than the news reports lead you to believe, in part because there was no information available at the time about what was going on. They just kept people waiting.

    And whatever else the TSA is supposed to be doing, crowd control when you’ve forced thousands of people into the ticketing areas is NOT their strong suit. A woman near me fainted (not at all surprising, seeing as how it was hot, stuffy, there was no refreshment of any kind available, and we were packed in like sardines) and when we yelled for medical assistance, they thought we were just making trouble. Eventually, they realized that we were calling for medical help and made themselves useful by yelling at people in the crowd for taking pictures of the mayhem, keeping in mind that the TSA employees stood on the landing near the security check points taking pictures of us.

  12. Tom Foolery
    January 5, 2010 at 11:10 am

    Whites and whitey institutions

    Whitey institutions?

  13. William
    January 5, 2010 at 11:21 am

    I think that perhaps the biggest issue here is what airport/airline/TSA security measures do in light of a relatively minor threat. The reality is that airline terrorism hasn’t often been actually accomplished. Hijackings are rare (especially in comparison to the number of daily flights world-wide), luggage bombings are rare, actual successful airline terrorism is rare. What the Christmas case taught us, if anything, is that even an intelligent and motivated terrorist is likely to fail in the face of today’s flying public. The guy managed to get through security and all he accomplished was setting his crotch on fire and getting kicked into the ground by other passengers. The same is true of the shoe bomber. Even 9/11, the anomaly we’re still shaking from for no good reason, only managed to bring down four planes and then only managed to bring three to their intended destinations. A good argument could be made that even that level of success was due more to passengers believing the event was a routine hijacking rather than a terrorist attack (something I doubt anyone is going to assume for quite some time).

    Its also worth noting that, in this story, though someone managed to get into a secure area and disappear the actual disruption and damage was caused almost entirely by the TSA. Sure, he might have been a terrorist but at this point its pretty clear that either he wasn’t or he was shockingly ineffective. What this story proves isn’t that airports aren’t safe but that the TSA does more harm than good and is essentially yet another federal make-work program.

    Fuck this mantra of “I understand we need to keep people safe.” The TSA has never been about keeping people safe. Its about giving white people with the means to afford air travel the perception of safety by limiting everyone’s liberty.

  14. Ens
    January 5, 2010 at 12:45 pm

    The no-peeing rule was a TSA restriction, not a Canadian airline restriction, but it was cancelled before almost any airline besides Air Canada could implement it.

    The purely Canadian airlines restriction was the no carry-ons rule, which was (purportedly) intended to speed the way through security, avoiding putting in place the lengthy security measures (again TSA-required) they would otherwise have had to enforce for carry-ons and would basically have destroyed their schedules. And for all it was incredibly inconvenient and I hated it and I can’t wait for that rule to go away, I can definitely report that on my flight security, boarding, and disembarking were all so much faster than I’m used to, despite having to pass through an additional pat-down station. However check-in was insanely long.

  15. Butch Fatale
    January 5, 2010 at 1:11 pm

    You can bring your medication on board. I have a number of medications that I take when I travel – some are essential to have on hand when I fly (like my inhaler) and some I just don’t want to have to replace if Southwest loses my bag (like they did on this trip). I always bring them. If you have liquid medications over 3.4oz you have to declare them, but you can bring them on board. I don’t know why the woman described above packed hers – maybe she thought she couldn’t bring them aboard because there are so many prohibited things, maybe she just didn’t think of it. I’m not saying TSA and airlines are awesome about ability issues (I could tell you some stories about flying while asthmatic), nor that the rules work for everyone – I’m certainly not qualified to make that claim. But there’s no TSA rule barring pills in your carry-on.


  16. ACG
    January 5, 2010 at 4:59 pm

    Butch Fatale – She probably packed her medication out of habit because she thought she’d be home that same day. Instead, she was forced to stay an unanticipated extra day but couldn’t get her bag back to get her medicine. If she’d known she wouldn’t be able to fly until Monday, she probably would have packed her medication in her carryon, but then, if a frog had wings…

  17. Butch Fatale
    January 5, 2010 at 8:47 pm

    ACG – yeah, I’m sure that’s what happened – or at least it’s one of several reasonable possibilities. Some of the comments up thread read to me like people thought TSA had a policy requiring medication to be in checked luggage. I was responding because this is a misconception I have heard a number of times and it’s important for people to know that they *can* bring their medication on board with them, whether it’s prescription or OTC.

  18. Heather
    January 5, 2010 at 11:54 pm

    Was this woman someone who had never flown before? I ask because I have been told countless times not to put 1) medication 2) valuables (jewelry, ipod, camera, etc.) in checked luggage. Before 9/11, this was common knowledge. Afterwards, the TSA spelled out clearly what you could and couldn’t bring in your carry on–they have signs all over the place at the airport. Why on earth did she put medication in her checked luggage?

  19. defenestrated
    January 6, 2010 at 3:44 pm

    Y’know, I do know better, and I still put non-essential meds in my suitcase. Everything I currently take is liquid or liquid-like, one comes in a big (12oz? 16?) bottle, and nothing can be transferred to a smaller container (either because it squeezes out of a tube or because it really ought to stay sanitary). I’ve definitely kicked myself over not having meds with me after cancelled flights, but I guess I was more concerned at the possibility of them losing my luggage and me having to pay a buttload to replace scrips. I’m fortunate to not be taking anything that’s keeping me alive, though.

    It’s more essential that I travel with vitamins, since skipping them at meals can make me feel very uncomfortable. Even that’s a huge pain, though, since TSA officers have varying opinions on whether flaxseed oil capsules count as a liquid. I even had one who suggested that I treat each pill like an individual container. But gosh, how will I label each one?

  20. January 7, 2010 at 12:56 pm

    I had a similar, though low-profile and far-more-quickly-resolved, experience…

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