Common sense and TSA — a consumer’s point of view


On Thursday, November 29th, consumers had, for the first time, an opportunity to speak to Congress about the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) in front of a formal committee hearing.

I had the opportunity to speak about the topic, “How best to Improve our Nation’s Airport Passenger Security System Through Common Sense Solutions.” Consumers were represented alongside the Inspector General of the Department of Homeland Security, the General Accountability Office, the International Air Transport Association and the Association of Flight Attendants.

The hearing was before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Subcommittee on Aviation. Here is my opening statement. There are links to video of the hearing and to the written Consumer Travel Alliance testimony at the end of these remarks.

Thank you, Chairman Petri, for giving passengers a seat at this hearing.

I will present recommendations that take into account three significant changes in the security landscape since 9/11.

1. Our terrorism watchlist capabilities have improved dramatically. Every American traveler is now screened for every flight. For all intents and purposes, we all should be considered members of PreCheck.
2. All airplane cockpits have been hardened, locked and fortified — even a .44 Magnum shot will not penetrate cockpit doors
3. Passengers, now aware of the possibility of having their plane used as a missile, will not allow terrorists to take over an aircraft.

My name is Charlie Leocha. I am the director of the Consumer Travel Alliance. I have also been appointed to the DOT Passenger Protection Advisory Committee by Secretary LaHood and to TSA’s Consumer Advocacy Subcommittee by Administrator Pistole.

TSA is, frankly speaking, a boogeyman. Checkpoints, intimidating screeners, strip-search machines and pat-downs with no probable cause are dreaded.

Newspaper editors report vitriolic reactions to stories about TSA from the public. Comments go through the roof. A recent story on Huffington Post by Christopher Elliott, our ombudsman, generated more than a thousand comments — a record for his columns.

Worse, TSA is the butt of countless jokes.

Even President Obama joked about TSA pat-downs in the State of the Union address. Last Friday, I heard the Capitol Steps, a popular comedy group in D.C.; perform a parody about how good the “government is about anticipating terrorist events … after they occur.”

TSA is set up like the Maginot Line. This defensive system became a poster child about generals fighting the last war. Plus, it consumed such a large budget that other facets of the defense were underfunded.

Today, TSA finds itself in a similar position — defending against old threats, in some cases threats that no longer exist. In addition, the focus on passenger screening has reduced funding to secure the vulnerable back ends of U.S. airports.

The futility of searches at the airport is best demonstrated by looking at the problems of drugs and weapons in prisons. Even our best efforts at Federal and State maximum-security prisons fail.

If maximum-security prisons can’t do it, it is folly to expect TSA to effectively interdict weapons and explosives from dedicated, trained terrorists.

Here are several of our recommendations. The rest are included in the written testimony.

#1 — Revise the forbidden items list, focus on explosives
Pocket-knives, box cutters, tools, and so on, are no threat and cannot be used to break into the cockpit.

#2 — Decommission all whole-body scanners and go back to metal detectors for primary screening
Radiation effects are not documented and half of the privacy protection software does not function according to TSA itself. These machines have not proven to be better than metal detectors. In fact, they are considered by some to be worse — taking more space and slowing security.

#3 — Dress TSA security screeners in non-threatening uniforms, perhaps, pastel polo shirts.
They are security assistants, not law enforcement officers. Their job is to check identification and make sure the traveling public is safe, not to force citizens into submission. Get rid of the starched shirts, badges and bling.

#4 — The terrorist watchlist already covers all travelers. All names are checked every time we fly.

The new world of total passenger intelligence screening combined with big data make the current invasive and intrusive TSA searches unnecessary. A metal detector will do.

If a terrorist makes it to the airport, with bomb materials, intent on taking down a plane, more than a dozen layers of intelligence have failed.

Years from now, when historians look back at our current TSA experience, they will ask, “What the heck were they thinking?”

Just like overreactions such as the internment of the Japanese during WWII and McCarthyism in the 50s, subjecting the flying public to TSA’s invasive searches will seem unnecessary, unwise and unAmerican.

I welcome any questions.
Click here for Consumer Travel Alliance written testimony.

Click here more hearing information and the video. Leocha’s five-minute statement and following testimony starts at 1:18:48.

  • Jean | Delightful Repast

    And I hope you mentioned the shoe thing – I really hate taking my shoes off at the airport!

  • DaveS

    Very well stated. As one who has criticized Charlie Leocha’s views at times, I’ll say he is exactly right here.

  • Anonymous

    Wow, a terrific article. I will print this one for keeps. Thanks.

  • Bill

    very well put

  • James Penrose

    Did you actually use “common sense” and “TSA” in the same sentence? Have you considered a career in stand-up comedy?

    The beast is now too big to kill, too well entrenched in the bureaucracy and too well-connected with private firms that can buy the needed congressional support to ever be reduced or even slowed down.

    The choice of quasi-law enforcement uniforms was quite deliberate and was done so people would “respect our offices” and even calling them “officers” was a specific choice to intimidate people into thinking they have real police powers.

    The only thing stopping them from becoming a U.S. KGB is lack of funding.

  • Bob S.

    A great job of highlighting the biggest-picture issues, where the current mistakes are the largest and/or the positive effect of ending the mistake would be greatest.

  • Anonymous

    My belt, too, since I don’t wear suspenders :-)

  • Anonymous

    My belt, too, since I don’t wear suspenders :-)

  • Anonymous

    I often disagree with you Charlie, especially on the airline fee issue. But, I think you are spot on here. I personally don’t care about the porno-scanners, but agree that plain old metal detectors and better intelligence sharing would be a far better use of resources.

  • FrostedOrange

    Suspenders aren’t the solution either, Tony. The metal fittings on suspenders set off the metal detectors.

  • AKFlyer

    Thanks for your advocacy on this issue, Mr. Leocha. I hope Congress can show some spine and adopt your commonsense changes, but I fear they, like all our “leaders” since 9/11, are too afraid of having the next security breach occur on their watch to stop the runaway train that is the DHS budget and its 4th-Amendment-be-damned policies. It’s time to start fighting tomorrow’s war on terrorism. Security theatre is convincing only to the naive. Fingers crossed that the impending budget cliff will provide the justification for some big changes at TSA!

  • Anonymous

    My dad solved that problem by wearing a Jed Clampett…a piece of rope pulled through the belt loops and tied off in front. Too funny to see when he showed us his solution after going through security.

  • Anonymous

    LOL the Beverly Hillbillies. My wife’s family was (or is) from Arkansas before her father moved to California to be a medical doctor for a mining town. Then he moved back to Arkansas when Sacramento became too much of a city. So I have first hand experience about this :-) When my mother in law comes to town here, people stare when they hear here accent. Boy the ole lady hates the TSA since they always “steal” her toothpaste in Little Rock. Don’t get me wrong, the folks in rural Arkansas are very nice people and proud Americans. The males in her family served since WW1.
    I am too ashamed to wear one of those.

  • Anonymous

    Well my Dad had to decide on this or embarassing us because his pants fell down as he had no hips or butt to keep the pants on when a belt was taken off. At 90 years of age, you can get away with it better, too :)

  • Maggie

    Much appreciated Charlie. I go through those security lines several times a month, and it’s a drag. Thanks for speaking for all air travelers!