TSA, CBP and the airlines — your pain means their profits


At first blush the government and the airlines don’t really belong on this title together. One is a capitalistic money-making entity and the other is a government “service.” However both have been creating more and more misery with long lines and abysmal service and then charging fees for upgrades or to avoid the pain they have created.

This is the Alice-in-Wonderland upside-down reality of today’s “customer service.”

At the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) long lines and invasive searches have created a market for faster processing and less hands-on groping.

TSA created Pre-Check that basically rolls security checks back to pre-9/11 metal detectors and baggage scanners. Passengers walk through with coats on, shoes on, computers in briefcases and liquids packed, just like in the old pre-TSA days. Initially, the Pre-Check system was reserved for frequent flier elite members. However, it has now been rolled out for anyone willing to fork over $85 and go through a security check for a five-year membership.

Being a Pre-Check member, eligible to go through Pre-Check lines, has changed my airport life.

The other government travel program run by CBP is Global Entry. This program is similar to TSA’s Pre-Check. However, it only applies to passage through international customs and border protection checkpoints at gateway airports upon return entry from foreign countries. This was the first “trusted traveler program” that I applied to join. Membership in Global Entry also includes membership in Pre-Check.

For Global Entry, the fee is $100.

Anyone who has been through customs and immigration at JFK or Miami (two airports with which I am personally very familiar) on a summer day knows the definition of chaos. The passport lines snake back and forth and the arrivals halls fill up with passengers. I have experienced a wait at the bottom of escalators (stopped because the entry hall was full) of more than 20 minutes. That wait was only to get to the top of the escalator, where I was directed to the Global Entry kiosks and waltzed through passport controls in only about three minutes.

I don’t even want to speculate how long it would take American citizens return home to be processed through that packed facility. And, for international visitors, the wait is normally at least twice as long as that for US citizens.

Global Entry solves that problem, except when the passport control facilities are so crowded that you can’t even get to the kiosks.

Now, the airlines.

We all know the stories. Seat pitch has been slowly but surely decreased, making sitting in coach for anyone about six feet tall miserable. The solution — purchase a more expensive seat. That, on some airlines, means moving to business class or first, which is prohibitive; or, where there is an in-between offer of something like economy-plus, an additional charge of around $100 for trans-continental or transatlantic flights.

The airline charges for checked bags have created more carry-on bags that clog the overhead bins on most flights. That charge, combined with a poor record of timely baggage delivery at destination airports, has all but guaranteed more carry-on baggage. In order to find space for carry-on bags, passengers are paying “early bird” or “priority boarding” fees in order to board the plane early, ensuring that they can find overhead space for their belongings.

Families sitting together are now a luxury and airlines with their seat reservation fee rules are, in some cases, forcing families who want to sit together to spend extra money.

The airport terminal environment is often less than optimal. There are few spaces to pound out last-minute emails or to recharge computers, smartphones and tablets. And, the general boarding area chaos with announcements coming haphazardly with varying degrees of understandability, creates an unpleasant experience. The solution — spend hundreds of dollars for an airport lounge membership.

Elite frequent fliers are already immune from the normal coach riffraff experience. They get free baggage, early boarding, free upgrades, text alerts of delays and gate changes, special phone numbers for travel problems, standby privileges and more.

The airline mantra seems to be, “Where there is pain, we can solve it with money.” Or, the corollary, “Where we can create pain, there is a profit opportunity.”

Do any readers have other examples of pain created by the government or the airlines that can be solved with extra fees assessed by the very organizations which have created the pain?