Seat 2B By Joe Brancatelli
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T'd Off at the TSA
April 28, 2016 -- Concerned about missing my flight to Chicago on Monday evening and worried by my airline's exhortation to show up at least two hours early due to delays at TSA security checkpoints, I arrived at Newark Airport with two and a half hours to spare.

I was through the PreCheck line in four minutes. It would have been three minutes if not for the woman ahead of me. She didn't realize that PreCheck flyers don't have to take their laptops out or remove their footwear.

Welcome to the parallel universe of business travel that we may as well call "When Pigs Fly." Because I did see a few figurative pigs devouring mounds of cheese cubes and vats of mediocre hummus as I waited in the United Airlines lounge for my flight to board.

If you've flown in the last few months, you know my security checkpoint experience was literally exceptional. Delays are piling up, queues are lengthening, tempers are fraying, the Transportation Security Administration is alibiing and even the usually even-tempered J. Jennings Moss, who edits this column, is steamed about a pair of one-hour security delays at LAX two weekends ago.

"The biggest reason for the holdup was that TSA had staffed only one of the three screening machines at Terminal 4," he told me. Besides, he noted, "there was only one TSA agent checking IDs" and an indifferent supervisor who wasn't "looking at the people in line or observing the job the agent was doing."

You surely have your own TSA horror story, too. But just for grins and giggles, check out the tales of delays, denials and bureaucratic stupidity chronicled recently by Business Journal reporters in Atlanta, at Midway Airport in Chicago, at perennially problematic Denver International, at overwhelmed Minneapolis-St. Paul, and in Seattle, where Sea-Tac Airport officials may try to dump the TSA and return to private screeners.

My favorite TSA-is-messing-up piece ran at NBCNews.com, however. It quoted American Airlines spokesman Ross Feinstein griping that TSA lines are "unacceptable" because "customers are waiting in lines greater than one hour." The irony is that Feinstein used to be a TSA spokesman. Back when he was flacking on taxpayer time and dimes, Feinstein never saw a screening delay or checkpoint screw-up that he couldn't blame on "customers."

Passengers, of course, are not the problem. Never have been. The fault lies almost totally with the TSA, an astonishing large and uniquely unresponsive bureaucracy constructed in just 15 years.

The genesis of the current checkpoint crisis is last year's revelation that the TSA is demonstrably incompetent. It failed to detect fake weapons or dummy bombs in 67 or 70 government-administered tests. The TSA responded not by getting better, but by getting slower. And since it can't manage its somewhat limited resources the TSA budget of nearly $8 billion annually and its employee headcount are both restricted by Congressional fiat checkpoint lines are getting longer as the the agency pouts over its failures.

The TSA's most recently suggested solution was literally insane. It wanted to eliminate security checkpoints at some smaller airports and screen passengers only after they've flown. Besides the obvious security risk, the plan ignored the fact that the TSA isn't a law enforcement agency and probably doesn't have the right to stop and frisk you after your flight.

Of course, crackpot ideas aren't new at the TSA. Remember the machines that puffed air up your butt? Or "backscatter" machines that displayed graphic images of us as we passed through the scanners?

And there's the TSA's biggest failure to date: PreCheck, the agency's pay-to-play security bypass scheme. As I warned nearly two years ago, the TSA's cavalier attitude toward the service would repel average flyers and keep them from buying in. Instead of making PreCheck reliable, predictable and widely available, the TSA has wasted millions of dollars opening enrollment centers in a futile attempt to entice occasional flyers to opt into a program that won't guarantee the service for which you're paying.

All of this is meaningless, however, because we've got to fly, the TSA has the statutory authority to block our path and the busy summer months are about to clog checkpoints even further. We're stuck with the status quo indefinitely.

Yet that dreary reality shouldn't stop you from doing everything you can to make your time at the security checkpoints pass a little more quickly. Here are some reminders:

  • Join Global Entry: U.S. Customs and Border Protection operates Global Entry, a bypass program that speeds international flyers through the formalities of returning to the United States. It's everything that PreCheck should be. Even better, Global Entry gives you a Known Traveler number and access to TSA PreCheck. As I experienced on Monday, PreCheck is fabulous when the TSA allows it to work. Best of all, several credit cards will rebate your $100 fee, so Global Entry and PreCheck are literally a free ride.
  • Work the system: As annoying as TSA has become, it is generally transparent on what it expects at the security checkpoint. If you have PreCheck, you are permitted to keep your laptop and liquids in your carry-on bag and you're not required to remove shoes, belts or jackets. If you're going through the regular lines, know the rules of what can pass and what will get you delayed. If in doubt, pack it in your checked luggage, ship it or just leave it home
  • Guesstimate wait times: The TSA has a decent enough system for estimating wait times at specific security checkpoints. But make sure you're tapped into to social media especially airport Twitter feeds to learn if there's a real-time delay.
  • Join the clubs: Planes are crowded and your schedule will be scrambled if you miss a scheduled flight due to a security checkpoint delay. So leave enough time yes, usually two hours to get to your flight. If you have extra time, as I did on Monday, have airport club memberships. That'll guarantee you can use the down time productively, keep your devices charged and relax a little bit.

I started this column offering my own outbound TSA experience this week, so I'll end it with my return trip back home to New York.

On Wednesday evening, having left two hours for security clearance, I joined a long, snaking queue of TSA PreCheck flyers at O'Hare Airport. The line moved swiftly. But I "beeped" going through the magnetometer.

"Take everything out of your pockets," said a female screener as she directed me to a full-body scanner. When that revealed two trouble spots my right thigh and my right bicep she said: "Wait right here. Are you sure you don't have anything in your pocket?" A male screener approached and politely informed me he would pat me down. My leg and bicep cleared, I was dismissed.

Elapsed time: just 15 minutes from entering the queue to grabbing my carry-on bags off the belt. I'm going to count that as another "When pigs fly" moment.


This column is Copyright 2016 American City Business Journals. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright 2016 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.