Tuesday, November 30, 2010

TSA Now Manages Watch-List Checking; Airlines Delighted to Be Rid of It

[Photo above: Jack Anderson at age 7 and his Mom, Christine. Little Jack is no longer automatically assumed to be a terrorist suspect, thanks to the completion of the TSA's Secure Flight program]

Assuming all goes according to plan (famous last words there), the administration of the infamous and widely misunderstood terrorist watch lists is now entirely in the hands of the TSA, in a program called Secure Flight designed to greatly reduce the scandalous number of false-positives that drive some travelers nuts at the checkpoints.

You know, like that little kid named Jack Anderson whose Mom was frantic every time they went to the airport because a Jack Anderson happened to be on the unholy mess that is the selectee portion of the watch list?

Well, the reason that kid always got the time-consuming third degree, along with thousands of others who share a name that matches or even resembles a real name on the selectee list, was that the process used to be in the hands of the airlines. Because of privacy concerns, the airlines had only the name of a passenger, and when someone booked a ticket and arrived at the airport, that name was helter-skelter checked against the secret watch lists that the FBI manages and shares with the TSA. I have spoken with Jack Anderson's Mom on several occasions over the years about this weirdness.

Bingo, Jack Anderson, starting at age 3, routinely got stopped and questioned. As did David Nelson, elderly son of Ozzie & Harriet, and untold numbers of others, many of whom I have heard from over the years.

Now, in a new program called Secure Flight (which the TSA said today has finally been completed), airlines collect names but also birthdates, gender and other personal information at time of booking, and dispatch this information to the TSA. Armed with more detail than just a name, the TSA then is able to check readily note that the child Jack Anderson is not the same person as the actual Jack Anderson on the watch-list. So the child Jack Anderson no longer rings an alarm when his Mom takes him to the airport.

Why an adult Jack Anderson is on the watch-list to begin with is strictly a matter of conjecture here. I'd bet my horse that Jack Anderson, the famous muckraking columnist, ended up on the list because his name was prominent on the infamous Nixon White House enemies list. Jack Anderson the columnist died some years ago, incidentally.

The watch lists comprise two sections. The smallest list is a "no-fly" list that has on it several thousand names and identifying information of actual suspected terrorists. Anyone on that list does not get on a plane, and if that person should show up at the checkpoint, the cops are called.

The other portion of the list, the selectee list, has about 400,000 identities on it, but it's a bureaucratic law-enforcement hodgepodge, a legacy data-dump from all of the myriad law enforcement, intelligence and other agencies, including state and local cops. There are not actually 400,000 people on that list, which is riddled with errors, repeat identities, aliases, and names that are only there because they were in some agency's file.

The FBI, to its credit, has tried to keep the list current and relevant, but it's been a daunting task. The TSA has also struggled with the issue, in face of protests about privacy.

Meanwhile, we have had years of routine hassling of totally innocent, and always baffled, people at the airport -- many of whom are under the mistaken impression that they are on a terrorist watch list, when in fact, they only have a name that approximates a name, or a friend of a name, ad infinitum ...

Airlines absolutely hated being caught in the middle in this mess. Now they're off the hook.

The TSA is now vetting 100 percent of passengers on flights within or bound for U.S. against watchlists. That was announced today -- a month ahead of schedule.

Ignore the absolutely typical media proof today of Bill Moyers axiom that journalists are paid to explain things they don't understand. Because actually, and as is well known by anyone paying attention, the TSA reached 100 percent watch list matching for all domestic airlines in June. All that's new is the early completion and adding the international flights.

From the TSA press release today:

"Under Secure Flight, [the TSA] prescreens passenger name, date of birth and gender against terrorist watchlists before passengers receive their boarding passes. In addition to facilitating secure travel for all passengers, the program helps prevent the misidentification of passengers who have names similar to individuals on government watchlists. Prior to Secure Flight, airlines held responsibility for checking passengers against watchlists."

(Removing the typical PR blather here from Janet Napolitano et al)

For months, as the program was moved into place, passengers have been required to provide their full name as it appears on the government ID they plan to use when traveling, date of birth and gender. The TSA says it will adhere to "strict protocols" to protect privacy, now that the airlines are giving it all of that infrmation about Americans' travel plans.

Which does bring up one small matter. Used to be that the airlines acquired only your name when you bought a ticket. (Members of frequent flier programs of course willingly provided more). Now they acquire personal information from everyone who buys a ticket. That information has value, obviously.

Just sayin'


Monday, November 29, 2010

Delta Expanding In-Flight WiFi to 223 Regional Jets

In the strongest indication yet that the in-flight WiFi phenomenon isn't just a flash in the pan, Delta Air Lines said today that it will add WiFi service to 223 regional jets -- those with two-class cabins -- operated by its Delta Connection carriers. This will expand by 40 percent the number of Delta aircraft with Gogo Internet service.

Delta said it finished installing WiFi on all 549 mainline domestic aircraft earlier this month.

"Adding Wi-Fi capabilities to our two-class regional jets marks another milestone in our efforts to invest more than $2 billion to enhance our airport facilities, aircraft fleet and onboard services for customers through 2013," Tim Mapes, Delta's senior vice president for marketing, says in a press release.

WiFi installations on Delta Connection jets will begin in January and will be complete by the end of 2011. Then all Delta domestic flights with first-class cabins will have WiFi access, including every Delta Shuttle flight between New York-LaGuardia and Boston, Chicago-O'Hare and Washington, D.C.

Delta began installing WiFi on domestic mainline aircraft in 2008. With the 549 mainline aircraft and the addition of 223 regional jets to the Wi-Fi program, more than 80 percent of Delta's domestic fleet will have Internet access.

Delta Connection aircraft with first-class cabins include Embraer 175, Bombardier CRJ700 and Bombardier CRJ900 models. Those planes have between nine and 12 seats in first class and between 56 and 64 seats in coach.

Delta says it has taken a number of steps to fully align service on Delta Connection and mainline flights, including adding first-class cabins to 66 additional CRJ700 jets; introducing meal service in first class on regional jets; and installing more jet bridges at Delta hubs to reduce ground-level boarding of regional jets.


I Hate to Say It, But Drudge Is Right ...

For over a year now, that pitiful scoundrel Drudge had been watching his once-remarkable influence wane on his Web site, which is nothing more than a collection of links to other people's work. But those links are carefully chosen -- curated, you might say, to present a picture of the world from the right-wing reactionary, faux-populism perspective.

I've always thought that Drudge was basically a very smart wire editor who could have worked for some crazed modern online manifestation of the old New York Mirror. That is said with some admiration.

Anyway, Drudge came back big-time this month, as he drove the furor on the TSA with deftly chosen links and the usual attention-getting headlines.

And he's right today, highlighting reactions to the amazingly quick cave by the media, which has abruptly changed narrative on this story because one element of it, the much-hyped "National Opt-Out Day" protest, failed to materialize at the airports on the day before Thanksgiving. (Politico's Ben Smith also makes the point about the Drudge effect on what Smith calls, I think correctly, as the "weekend collapse" of the TSA's new screening policies.

Backward ran sentences until reeled the mind, to allude to the classic 1936 New Yorker parody of the old Time Magazine by Wolcott Gibbs.

Unseen in the current media rewrite of the narrative (ahem) is the fact that Thanksgiving air travel was down to the extent that the TSA itself said it closed checkpoint lanes at airports. The TSA didn't say this, but anecdotal reports from travelers all over the country say that in many airports, the body-scanner lanes were the ones closed.

Other anecdotal reports say that TSA screeners over the Thanksgiving holiday travel period were friendly, courteous, kind, cheerful and helpful, manifesting at least some elements of the Boy Scout Code, and most of the important ones at that. The great TSA patdown grope-fest that had horrified travelers in the weeks before Thanksgiving seemed to be in recess, as well.

One strong indication to me showing how this narrative was deliberately changed over the weekend is the way media reports dismissing the TSA furor now routinely mention old polls showing majority acceptance of the new TSA procedures, while ignoring new polls in the middle of last week that showed exactly the opposite.

We'll see how this plays out. The new Accepted Narrative includes a theme that says this reaction has been solely driven by right-wing media, which is nuts, and I could show you a couple of thousand e-mails to prove it.

But maybe there is a new environment at the checkpoints. The inappropriate patdowns, far more than the body-scan machines themselves, drove the fury. And I do give great credit to a brilliant PR campaign by the TSA (and again, this is said with some admiration).

And hey, whatever works.

[Meanwhile, the always compelling Mike Boyd has some hard-nosed things to say in his weekly essay today about the media and the sorry record of the TSA. Airport security, he says, "has been a pirate's chest of heavy gelt" for many who make dough off it.]


Thursday, November 25, 2010

Did the TSA Idle Body Scanners to Thwart Protests?

As I reported here yesterday, the TSA does admit that some "screening lanes" were closed at various airports yesterday, but says this was because airport lines were running so smoothly.

On its blog crowing about how there were no protests yesterday, the TSA (oddly, it seemed to me) felt the need to also say: "Though volume was around expected levels, our preparations for today kept wait times at such a minimum that some airports are closing screening lanes due to a lack of passenger throughput." The TSA does not address which kind of "screening lanes" were closed.

But anecdotal reports, which first surfaced on Gizmodo yesterday are accumulating to support suspicions that the TSA might have roped off body-scanners, at least at some airports, perhaps in preparations for an "opt-out" protest that in fact failed to materialize.

Meanwhile, here's a video of a female passenger being patted down yesterday at the Houston airport. This is what to expect, for those who haven't yet had the new grope.


Thanksgiving at the Airports 2010

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Only Minor Delays At Airports; TSA Says Checkpoints Moved Swiftly

[The TSA posted this photo {above} on its blog today, showing appreciative children at the Cincinnati airport this morning]

[Map via FlightView.com, airports as of 6:45 p.m. EST]

There are only minor delays are being reported at airports as of 6.45 p.m. eastern time, and the rumored "opt out" protest fizzled.

On its blog, the TSA is merrily reporting that lines moved swiftly at most airports. The TSA posted a photo (above) that it said was taken this morning at the Cincinnati airport, showing children holding up a sign thanking the agency for keeping travelers safe. The TSA blog early this evening began this way: "What some protesters threatened as an opt out day has turned into a TSA appreciation day."

Meanwhile, there are anecdotal reports that the TSA took at least some of the hated body-scan machines off-line today. The TSA says this is not so -- or at least, not for the reason assumed. "Though volume was around expected levels, our preparations for today kept wait times at such a minimum that some airports are closing screening lanes due to a lack of passenger throughput," the TSA says on its blog today.

It isn't clear yet how many people decided not to fly today because of the enhanced security procedures and/or worries about congestion. But so far, so good.


By the Way, What Exactly Are We So Afraid Of?

It's hard to recognize this as the nation that won the Battle of Midway, especially now, with millions of Americans being frisked like prison perps at airports by representatives of a federal bureaucracy that thrives on its ability to constantly ratchet up the level of fear.

What, precisely, are we all supposed to be so afraid of, that we will submit to this level of indignity and invasion of fundamental privacy? How have we become such a bunch of passive patsies? Patsies not just to the rapacious gropocracy, but to the ragtag international clown brigade that profits so well from the fear-induced notion that it's a terrorist monolith.

This is the same nation that bravely pinned back the ears of the mighty Empire of Japan in its greatest stronghold, the Pacific, a mere six months after we lost our fleet and got knocked on our kiesters at Pearl Harbor?

By all stated accounts from the gropocracy, the rationale for this current toss of the public is the need to guard against the likes of the Christmas Day underpants bomber. What are we afraid of? We're afraid of some clown on a crowded airplane with some explosive powder in his shorts, is what. Remember, the last clown who tried that ended up with little more than a scorched scrotum and a thrashing by fellow-passengers.

Here's a piece that I recommend in Politico today by Jim Harper. It begins: "Today, the busiest travel day of the year, the Transportation Security Administration will introduce many Americans to a new indignity and offense to privacy. ..."


Stop Annoying the Gropers?

Kind of amazing, how some folks are busily promulgating the idea that it's the TSA workforce that's being put-upon these days.

OK, I agree with the idea that we need to cut the screeners a little slack, given the awful situation the current policies from Washington have put them in.

But come on. Here's a piece in today's Wall Street Journal that, I think, puts this into context. And here's a piece by Glenn Greenwald in Salon today that takes on the notion, most prominently conveyed by this asinine, fact-free hatchet-job in the Nation magazine, that the grassroots protests against the checkpoint groping are somehow being driven by insidious "astroturf" operators like the Koch brothers.


Flight Attendants Also Get Exemption from Intense TSA Searches

Last Friday, pilots were happy to learn that the TSA had backed off a ridiculous policy of subjecting them to intense security searches. Ridiculous, of course, because a pilot flying an airplane doesn't need a corkscrew to take control and crash it.

At first, indications were that pilots would get a free pass -- but at least in the initial rollout of more sensible security rules for pilots who have verified IDs, it seems that the change is merely that pilots aren't routinely subject to the new, invasive body patdowns associated with the much-hated body-scan machines. Instead, it seems, they only need to go through metal detectors.

Trying to make sense of this is daunting. Suffice to say, there appears to be a process in motion to designate flight crews as so-called trusted travelers who are not automatically assumed to be potential terrorists, but who are nevertheless subject to basic checkpoint search.

Given that, then, there is no compelling reason not to include on-duty flight attendants in exemptions, given that a flight attendant with verified ID is certainly presumed not to present an imminent danger. Though, as I said the other day, a pilot can crash a plane. All a flight attendant can do is crash the drinks cart.

Nevertheless, any glimmer of common sense is welcome. The TSA, which seems to change its story by the day, has now also included flight attendants in the new rules. Flight attendants and pilots will be treated the same at the checkpoints. Both groups must show ID (which will supposedly be matched against operations data supplied by the airlines), and go through a metal detector. If that sets off an alarm, they may still get a pat-down in some cases. The rules apply to pilots and flight attendants who are in uniform and working.

In development is a more comprehensive system for flight-crew security called CrewPASS, a trusted-traveler-type system being developed for the TSA by a private company. It's now being tested for use by pilots in Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Columbia, S.C.


TSA Body-Scanners: Follow the Money

The story about Michael Chertoff's financial interests in working as a consultant for a major manufacturer during the $2.4 billion initial phase of awarding contracts for airport body-scanner machines has been around since the Washington Post first timidly wrote it, and then quickly backed off early this year. The Post news story, interestingly, was published the same say that the same newspaper published an op-ed piece by Chertoff arguing the case for the machines. A disclosure notice about Chertoff's financial interests was added to the online version later. The Post story and the op-ed piece both ran on New Year's Day, when nobody reads a newspaper.

Till recently, the media haven't paid a lot of attention to the fact that, while he was Homeland Security secretary and afterward, when he was making money from it, Chertoff energetically promoted these machines, which cost over $100,000 apiece. The TSA now has 400 deployed at 70 airports, and another 600 due on line in the next year.

Generating fear is famously and historically profitable on many levels. As always, following the money is an excellent tip for figuring out the evidently unfathomable. Here's a good summary of the Chertoff scandal in the Huffington Post today.

And here is a nice wrap-up USA Today did the other day on the whole sordid money-generating framework around this issue, including the lobbying spending by the manufacturers of these machines.


Tuesday, November 23, 2010

More Travelers Looking to Avoid Flying; Almost Two-Thirds Oppose New TSA Measures, Zogby Poll Finds

Reacting against the current program of body-imaging scans and aggressive body pat-downs at airports, 48 percent of Americans, and 42 percent of frequent fliers, say they will choose an alternative to air travel whenever possible, according to a new poll by Zogby International.

Overall, 61 percent of 2,032 likely voters polled from Nov. 19 to Nov. 22 oppose the use of full body scans and the current form of TSA pat downs. Republicans (69 percent) and Independents (65 percent) oppose in greater numbers than Democrats (50 percent).

Of those polled, 52 percent believe the new, so-called enhanced security measures will not prevent terrorist activity; almost half (48 percent) say they are a violation of privacy rights; 33 percent say they should not have to go through enhanced security methods to get on an airplane, and 32 percent believe the full body scans and TSA pat downs to be sexual harassment. This is in line with frequent fliers (fly more than once every 3 months), as 53 percent say the enhanced measures will not prevent terrorist activity, 48 percent believe it's a violation of their privacy rights, 41 percent say they should not have to go through it to get on an airplane, and 35 percent believe it is sexual harassment.

While roughly the same amount believe the full body scans and TSA pat downs are necessary to keep the country safe and prevent terrorist activities on airplanes (34 percent of frequent fliers vs. 29 percent overall), frequent fliers are more likely to feel that the enhanced methods are not needed because metal detectors and bag screenings are working fine (33 percent to 26 percent). Just 16 percent of frequent fliers say no one has an absolute right to fly and if people don't like the security measures, then just don't fly compared to 20 percent of everyone polled.

The Zogby poll also found that when given a choice, likely voters will choose full body scan over the TSA pat downs (48 percent to 7 percent), but 42 percent would rather have neither. Frequent fliers feel about the same.

Said pollster John Zogby: "It's clear the majority of Americans are not happy with TSA and the enhanced security measures recently enacted. The airlines should not be happy with 42 percent of frequent fliers seeking a different mode of transportation due to these enhancements. It seems the airlines and TSA need to come together to find a solution before the American flying public abandons both."

Meanwhile, the busiest travel peak of the year starts tomorrow -- and as if we don't already have enough hassle in air travel, the weather is turning very bad in big sections of the country.


TSA Bumper Stickers

Currently circulating online ...

Monday, November 22, 2010

TSA Public Service Announcement:: HOW Many Ounces?

The TSA administrator, John Pistole, stars in this new public service announcement in which, among other things, he reminds the traveling public about the rule regarding carry-on "liquids and gels less than 3 ounces."

Uh, that's 3.4 ounces, actually, for anyone who might be confused and think that there is still another new policy. Any containers of 3.4 ounces or less each of liquids or gels, which containers all fit within a zipper-type one-quart plastic bag. The TSA changed the liquids limit over a year ago to conform with the European and other standard of 100 milliliters, about 3.4 ounces.


Shakedown By Bag-Handlers At Miami Airport -- Cops: Security Risk? On-Site TSA: Hey, No Prob

While the traveling public was being groped and scanned and often humiliated around the country, 18 baggage handlers at Miami International Airport were being charged with taking bribes to let people secretly check extra or overweight baggage, the AP says here, "and authorities are investigating whether some of those bags made it onto planes without going through security."

Miami-Dade County police said they are also investigating whether American Airlines ticket agents and others may have been involved in the scheme. The baggage handlers work for a private company under contract with the Miami airport, a major international gateway.

The TSA director in Miami, Mark Hatfield, said that there was no "nexus to security" in the case. "But police spokesman Detective Roy Rutland said investigators think some of the luggage checked by the skycaps could have gone onto planes without passing through security" or being otherwise checked by the TSA, the AP says.


Saturday, November 20, 2010

Should Flight Attendants Get a Free Pass At TSA Security? No.

Pilots, as I reported here yesterday and indicated in a newspaper column a week ago, are getting a special screening exemption at the airport checkpoints.

This new move by the TSA addresses an absurdity: Till now, on-duty pilots who are going through the checkpoints to take control of an airliner have been subjected to asinine inspections of their persons and possessions. As pilot after pilot has said ad infinitum for 10 years, Yo, I don't need a steak knife to commandeer an airplane and crash it into the Empire State Building.

The pilots new ability to bypass TSA checkpoints is predicated on verified identification -- a biometric system that proves the pilot is who he or she claims to be, and a secondary system, linked to airline operations, that says he or she is about to fly a plane.

But once again illustrating Bill Moyers' joke that reporters are paid to explain things they don't understand, we have today some reports wondering why flight attendants aren't being given the same security bypass as pilots.

Because they don't have control of the airplane, is why.

Patricia A. Friend, the head of the big flight attendants' union, the Association of Flight Attendants, has been pressing for the same security exemption for flight attendants that pilots are getting. "There is no reasonable explanation why this highly vetted group of aviation employees continues to be exposed to lengthy airport security lines which may affect their ability to report to the aircraft on time," Friend said in a press release. She likes to make announcements on paper, but is hard to come by when you're looking for an actual answer to a question.

But yes, there is a reasonable explanation why this highly vetted group doesn't get the same exemption as pilots. We'll take it slowly for the slow among the media: A pilot can crash the plane at will. Flight attendants cannot crash anything but the drinks cart.

Flight attendants already get special treatment at security, in that they usually have access to special priority crew lanes. Meanwhile, I am well aware of the complaints of many flight attendants that they seem to be singled out for an extra degree of security hassle by some of the checkpoint humps.

That needs to stop.

Nevertheless, flight attendants, it seems to me, are the best possible argument for a new program based on the "trusted traveler" concept, limply mandated by Congress years ago and basically laughed at by the TSA over the years.

A trusted traveler program, based on verified ID and a reliable background check for members, would solve many of the chronic and ridiculous security-hassle problems at the checkpoints for frequent fliers who enroll, and who would be given special lanes with expedited security. The idea is that not every traveler is a terrorist.

It's a part of this risk management that the TSA talks about. Risk management, rather than pawing through everybody's carry-on looking for butter-knives. But so far, intelligent risk management is just talk at the TSA.

We even had the outlines of a trusted traveler program once. It was called Clear, and the TSA killed it dead.

(Yes, I know a Clear program has been weakly revived. It, too, is so far essentially nothing more than a Disney World-type front-of-the-line ticket.)


Friday, November 19, 2010

Pilots Getting a Pass On Checkpoint Security

The TSA administrator, John Pistole, told me last Monday morning that the agency was about to announce new policies that would address the absurdity of requiring on-duty pilots to submit to TSA checkpoint inspections of their persons and possessions, and the agency has now done that.

The agency says that a nationwide sterile area access system for pilots is being phased in, and pilots traveling in uniform on airline business will see immediate modifications to their checkpoint screening process "due to their trusted status." Eligible pilots must work for a U.S. carrier, be traveling in uniform, and on airline business. Pilots will enter the secure area after presenting their airline-issued identification and another form of identification. TSA officers then will check credentials against a secure, real-time airline flight deck crewmember database, which includes a picture and other information to verify the individual’s employment status.

Flight deck crewmembers who utilize this program will also be subject to random screening and other layers of security, the agency said.

"Pilots are trusted partners who ensure the safety of millions of passengers flying every day," Pistole said. "Allowing these uniformed pilots, whose identity has been verified, to go through expedited screening at the checkpoint just makes for smart security and an efficient use of our resources."

Airline pilots unions hailed the move.

"Establishing a secure system to positively identify and verify the employment status of uniformed pilots is a common sense, risk-based approach that allows TSA to dedicate more resources to unknown threats," said Capt. Paul Onorato, president of the Coalition of Airline Pilots Associations.

"The U.S. Airline Pilots Association appreciates the TSA’s willingness to work with us to find a solution that recognizes what an important asset pilots are to the security process,” staid the president of that union, Mike Cleary.

The Allied Pilots Association called it "a very welcome policy change."

The TSA said it is working closely with pilots to expedite their security screening by verifying their identity and employment at the checkpoint at airports nationwide, modeled after a successful pilot program that is currently operational at three airports.

In conjunction with the Air Line Pilots Association International, TSA tested a sterile area access system called CrewPASS in 2008 and 2009. In June 2009, TSA announced Crew Personnel Advanced Screening System (CrewPASS) would continue to operate at the test sites: Baltimore-Washington Thurgood Marshall International, Pittsburgh International, and Columbia (S.C.) Metropolitan airports.

The move addresses an obvious absurdity that has long vexed pilots. A pilot doesn't need a "prohibited item" to cause a plane to crash. So searching pilots makes no sense. The new move is, of course, predicated on having an utterly reliable identification system in place, and that obviously will include biometric data.

This is definitely a victory for common sense, and John Pistole deserves credit for doing it.


Breast-Cancer Survivors and the TSA's Gropes

I've been telling people this for months, and now I see it's finally becoming an issue. Women who are breast cancer survivors and who wear prosthetic bras are suddenly vulnerable to TSA sexual groping because of these new body-scan machines.

This is another problem that I am astonished the TSA did not anticipate. The body-scan machines detect mass of any sort on the body -- including in a prosthetic bra. (The old metal-detector machines don't show that, of course).

This means that women wearing prosthetic bras -- women who have been through the ordeal of breast cancer -- are now subject to intense physical groping. That occurs even when they've taken the normal precautions not to trigger an alarm at the checkpoint, whether in the metal detector or a body-scanner.

The media are generally clueless on this subject, because they're simply not paying attention. And the ones who are trying to pay attention don't get it. To quote Bill Moyers again, reporters are paid to explain things they don't understand.

A local TV station in Charlotte, N.C., does get part of it, at least. WBTV has this report on a flight attendant and cancer survivor who was forced to show her prosthetic breast so that a couple of humps from the TSA could examine it. And this was in August, before the current regime of even more hysterical use of body-scanners and gropes.

Here's the WBTV report. By the way, the text of the report links to what is described as TSA procedures for prosthetic devices. It's inaccurate. These actually are old procedures designed for those with metallic prosthetic devices and implants that routinely trigger the old metal detectors. The TSA has not yet been required to address its thinking on non-metallic prostheses such as prosthetic bras, and whether women who wear them can expect to be forced to strip down and show them to screeners, after they've been spotted on a strip-search machine.


Thursday, November 18, 2010

Today in Dumb: Hiring Rent-a-Cops To Spite the TSA

[Corrected from original version: Not Orlando International Airport, but Orlando Sanford International Airport]

Every dumb idea eventually has its day, and here's today's: The idea for airports to "opt out" of the TSA running checkpoints in favor of what the shills call "private enterprise" and the rest of us recognize as rent-a-cops.

Orlando Sanford International Airport, an institution that inhabits the epicenter of Mickey Mouse thinking, has decided to do just such a thing -- to spite the TSA. Mind you, current TSA procedures like the invasive patdowns would still have to be used. But now they'd be hiring who knows what to staff the checkpoints, rather than federal employees.

By the way, this also means that the local authorities who run airports, and award contracts, would receive even more patronage bounty to dispense.

Remember: Nothing changes, except the federal employees would be replaced by private security guards hired by local pols at any airport that exercises the option, which is written into the TSA governing rules, to go private in its checkpoint hiring.

And remember how well that worked out in past years, before the federal government took over. You think you got a problem with the TSA running the checkpoints? Wait till you see what happens when Skeeter's Security and Storm Door Co. (a division of Halliburton Inc) brings in those ex-cons and other unemployables to grope the women and paw through wallets when you aren't looking.


Wednesday, November 17, 2010

TSA Checkpoint: The Country Western Album

A radio producer in San Francisco and I were discussing the current checkpoint fury this afternoon and decided there was definitely a country-western album in the making.

Some titles:

1. Just a Sad Country Girl Sittin' in Newark Bein' Felt Up By All the Wrong People

2. Don't Touch My Junk

3. Groin Check!

4. How 'Bout I Punch You in the Face Instead, Hoss?

5. I'd Rather be Goosed Than Radiated (--from reader David Tallman)

OK, I'll knock it off.


'Nobody Likes Violating the 4th Amendment,' But Tough

I'm always vastly amused by the way some of the media, especially the television media, blithely appropriate other people's (ahem) reporting, and pretend they discovered these things all by themselves, but hey, onward and upward.

Meanwhile, check out this astonishing statement in a TV interview on Fox with Mo McGowan, a former head of security operations at the TSA. Says McGowan of the intrusive body-groping that has everyone so anxious: "Nobody likes having the 4th Amendment violated going through a security line, but the fact of the matter is, we're going to have to do it."

[It's at about 4.30 on the video].

Yo, Mo: You know who reeeeeeallly might not "like" having the 4th Amendment violated? A federal court is who. And the lawsuits are already flying, you should excuse the term.


Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Hands Down Your Pants? Hoo Boy, Here We Go

Let me say something first. I've been covering the TSA since the day it began. In this blog and elsewhere, I've been fair, but also very tough on the agency when I thought it was appropiate, which was frequently.

But whenever I write a post or a column that blasts or ridicules the TSA, I always do so with the anxiety that, God forbid, I might go online or pick up the paper tomorrow and see a blaring heradline: Terrorists Crash 747 Into Rhode Island Orphanage -- while at the same time there's my little blog or column pissing and moaning about some checkpoint hassles.

That said, I repeat here that the current public fury about the checkpoints, which admittedly is being fanned by conservative and libertarian media, with the MSM huffing along behind, is just about out of control.

It must be addressed, head-on, by Washington.

For example, look at the latest sensation, via the Drudge Report, of charges that patdowns can include hands down your pants. The report is anecdotal and perhaps reflects an anomaly, rather than a policy -- but it is going viral.

This level of emotion and fury cannot be shrugged off much longer.


TSA: Dumb and Now Dumber at San Diego?

I'm old enough to know that Satan does not exist, but stupidity roams shrieking over the landscape with evident impunity. As Ron White says, "You can't fix stupid," I might add, nor can you exorcise it.

That said, my jaw still dropped seeing a report in the San Diego Union-Tribune newspaper this morning that the TSA official who runs the TSA's operations at San Diego International Airport has "opened an investigation" into John Tyner, the software engineer who declined to submit to a full body-patdown (including what some screener called a "groin check") and ran into a major hassle when he decided instead to chuck the flight and leave the airport last Saturday morning.

Now, I often wonder why some (most, I would say) airports have TSA staffs that are professional, courteous and well-trained, while others seem to go out of their way to employ humps. The TSA chief at any individual airport -- who reports to Washington -- is the one responsible for the performance of the TSA employees on his watch. Michael J. Aguilar, chief of the TSA office at San Diego, is such a person.

Now, anyone who listens to the full recording of Mr. Tyner's 30-minute Kafkaesque encounter knows that Tyner, while he was certainly considered a pain in the ass by the screeners who were trying to get him to accept the patdown, behaved calmly and in a civil manner. Faced with the patdown, he decided instead to cancel his trip and leave the airport.

Here's what should have been said:

TSA Agent: "OK, sir, that's your choice. Have a nice day." (sotto voce: "And don't let the door hit you in the butt on your way out of the terminal."

Instead, like the worst sort of small town cops, the TSA at San Diego kept hassling him as he tried to leave. Tyner recorded the whole thing. In the terminal, where he was escorted after the checkpoint standoff, Tyner made it clear that he had given the screeners all of his personal information, which he had, and that he did not understand why the officer now detaining him insisted on having him repeat the same information, as the officer said, "for your benefit."

Tyner: "For my benefit? I think we're done. My benefit has been achieved."

Officer: "Actually, sir, we're not, no sir. I'm trying to give you some mitigating factors in your favor."

Tyner: "Mitigating? Meaning what? ... I would like to leave --"

Officer: "I understand that--"

Tyner: "Can I leave?"

Officer: "What I'm asking you to do is cooperate with me ... You want to be non-cooperative with me as well."

Tyner: "You're preventing me from leaving the airport."

At this point, the officer informed Tyner that he was subject to a civil lawsuit, with an $11,000 fine, for ... well, for whatever.

As we all know, the Tyner story went viral online. People are flat-out furious about it, along with the other fury being directed at the TSA>

At this point, the TSA -- already being beaten like a rented mule in public opinion -- had one smart move. Address the issue: Why was Tyner detained and questioned long after he departed the checkpoint? Why was he threatened?

Instead, the TSA at San Diego doubled down on a very, very bad bet. The San Diego TSA chief, Aguilar, actually called a press conference to announce further harassment of Tyner.

Certainly, one would think, this was a matter of Aguilar cowboying it on his own.

He certainly did not clear that bone-headed move with Washington.

Did he?


Friday, November 12, 2010

Travel Industry, Pilots Meeting With Homeland Security Over TSA Checkpoint Furor

The rising furor over aggressive airport-security patdowns and the use of and procedures for those new body-imaging machines has prompted a meeting today between top Homeland Security officials and travel industry representatives.

Representatives of the industry, including airline pilots who increasingly are vowing to "opt out" of body-scans, are meeting today with Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and with John Pistole, the former deputy FBI director who became the T.S.A. chief in July.

Napolitano, Pistole and others in Homeland Security and the T.S.A. were evidently caught flat-footed by the public outcry that followed a new program of more aggressive patdowns that started on Nov. 1 -- at a time when airline passengers increasingly were being confronted with the body-scan machines.

[Some conservative and libertarian media are engaged in a relentless campaign denouncing the T.S.A. and the intrusive patdowns. See this for an example.]

There are also increasing calls -- especially by groups like the pilots -- for an independent assessment of the real radiation risks associated with the backscatter form of the machines. The T.S.A. has cited studies showing that the radiation effects are "minuscule," but pilots and others are expressing concerns about the backscatter machines and about cumulative effects of repeated doses. See also here.

The former Homeland Security boss, Michael Chertoff, runs a consulting firm that represents the manufacturer of those machines, which the T.S.A. is buying along with another version of imagers that use less controversial millimeter wave technology. Here's some background on Chertoff's business interests, and the business interests of other well-connected officials, in the body-scan industry.

The U.S. Travel Association, a trade group for the travel industry, which accounts for over $700 billion in direct spending in the U.S. annually, has expressed concerns that the security-checkpoint furor will crimp the ongoing rebound in travel, as people simply decide a trip isn't worth the hassle of the related trip through the T.S.A. paddle-wheel at the airports.


Air Traffic Increasing; Airplanes More Full Than Ever; Airlines Adding Capacity

The Bureau of Transportation Statistics says that passenger traffic on U.S. airlines was up 1.8 percent in August (compared with August 2009), to a total of 66.2 million enplanements on domestic and international flights.

Showing that all those reports about drastic airline constriction are wrong, overall available seating capacity rose 2.4 percent. And airplanes are, as anyone who flies regularly knows well, more crowded than ever. In August, airplanes were on the average 85 percent full, a record. On most flights, as we all know well, there isn't a single open seat (and hasn't been for well over a year).

However, the August 2010 passenger total was 2.4 percent below that of two years ago in August 2008.

The Bureau of Transportation Statistics is an agency of the Transportation Department.


Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Another Setback for Boeing 787

Boeing's in-testing 787 Dreamliner program, beset with problems that have caused a three-year delay in planned deliveries, is coping with a new setback. Boeing has now postponed test flights.

A test flight of a 787 made an emergency landing after an onboard electrical fire knocked out primary electrical power during approach to loredo, Texas.

Here is the latest statement on the incident from Boeing:

"Backup systems, including the deployment of the Ram Air Turbine (RAT), functioned as expected and allowed the crew to complete a safe landing. The cause of the fire is still under investigation ... The pilots executed a safe landing and at all times had positive control of the airplane and all of the information necessary to perform that safe landing.

"Initial inspection appears to indicate that a power control panel in the aft electronics bay will need to be replaced on ZA002. We are inspecting the power panel and surrounding area near that panel to determine if other repairs will be necessary.

"We have retrieved flight data from the airplane and are analyzing it in Seattle. This process will take several days. We are committed to finding the cause quickly but will not rush the technical team in its efforts.

"The team was conducting monitoring of the Nitrogen Generation System at the time of the incident but there is no reason to suspect that the monitoring or earlier testing of that system had anything to do with the incident.

"Consistent with our internal processes, until we better understand the cause of the incident on ZA002, we have decided to postpone flight test activities on other airplanes. Ground test activities will be conducted until flight test resumes.

"Likewise, we cannot determine the impact of this event on the overall program schedule until we have worked our way through the data. Teams have been working through the night and will continue to work until analysis is complete and a path forward is determined


'Sharkey Wins Brazil Case'

What a wonderful relief for me this morning to have read that headline online. But more importantly, this is a triumph for free speech, including free speech for bloggers, and for the First Amendment in general.

A judge in Brazil dismissed the defamation and libel case against me, which stemmed from reporting and comment by me in print, on blogs and in T.V. and radio interviews after I and six others on an American-owned business jet survived a horrific mid-air collision at 37,000 feet over the Amazon on Sept. 29, 2006. The plane collided with a Brazilian 737 airliner, which went down in dense jungle, killing all 154 aboard. The severely damaged American-owned plane, which was on its delivery flight from its manufacturer near Sao Paulo, managed an emergency landing at a jungle airstrip, where we survivors were taken into custody.

As I reported from the beginning, and as the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board ultimately found, the main causes of the disaster were operational and systemic faults in Brazilian air traffic control.

My engagement with the furies in Brazil started immediately with my front-page report in the New York Times, followed by numerous interviews I did on national and international television and radio. I was astonished by the violent reactions from Brazil. Then I began reporting on and arguing the case on a blog. On the blog, I pressed for Brazil to release the two American pilots who were held for over two months while the federal police and military sought to cobble together criminal charges in an intensely anti-American environment stirred up by the authorities and the Brazilian media.

The pilots were released amid international pressure, including outrage expressed by international air-traffic controllers and pilots. But they were later charged with negligent homicide as Brazilian authorities insisted on scapegoating the Americans rather than honestly confronting the manifest crisis in Brazilian air traffic control. The two pilots remain on criminal trial, in absentia, in Brazil.

Meanwhile, I was sued for defamation and libel by a widow of one of the dead, one Rosane Guhtjar, who made wildly false allegations about what I was alleged to have written and said. The plaintiff claimed that those alleged statements about Brazilian authorities insulted her -- a woman I have never written a word about, and whose name I have never mentioned, till this minute. The lawsuit was based on the notion, very dangerous to the First Amendment in a world connected by the Internet, that a statement that may be considered offensive to a nation is also an actionable insult to every citizen of that nation.

By the way, even the most wildly false of those accusations (I was alleged to have called Brazil a "banana" and to have said that Brazil was "most idiot of all idiots") would not even remotely constitute defamation under U.S. law. This, and the fact that the lawsuit was filed in a foreign country for alleged statements made within the U.S., pushed the case out into the forefront of current First Amendment concerns in the U.S.

The concern is: If any citizen or any foreign country can successfully win damages against any American (journalist, author, blogger, scientist, social-network user, travel reviewer, etc.), for anything any American writes or says within the U.S., the First Amendment has been gravely damaged. With the Internet, anything you write or say in the U.S. is, of course, "published" everywhere in the world.

In the Brazil ruling, I am informed, the judge initially considered that I be tried in absentia, in that I never offered a defense. I did not defend because to do so would have been to lend credence to the absurd. A defense by me would have given standing to a grave insult against the U.S. First Amendment. However, because I did not offer a defense, the allegations against me in Brazil could be taken as what the judge called in his ruling a "formal true."

That is, in the absence of defense, an allegation of defamation is presumed to be formally true in Brazil. This troublesome notion, that any allegedly offensive statement is defamatory unless the defendant proves in court that it is not false, also afflicts libel law in England, by the way. In the English High Court, plaintiffs from aggrieved Hollywood celebrities to Saudi terrorism financiers have long had a field day, suing Americans for things written in the U.S. that are fully protected under the First Amendment.

Most prominent is the "libel tourism" case of the New York scholar Rachel Ehrenfeld, who lost a defamation suit to a Saudi billionaire/terrorism financier in England for true statements in a book she wrote in the U.S. on Saudi funding sources for Islamic terrorism. Dr. Ehrenfeld's case (with a little extra boost from mine) led to the passage recently of a federal law that prohibits enforcement in the U.S. of defamation judgments against Americans for speech that is protected in the U.S. under the First Amendment.

The law prohibits enforcement in the U.S. of such judgments. Of course, there is also the matter of an American's ability to travel internationally to certain countries, given an outstanding international warrant on civil or criminal conviction for defamation. Dr. Ehrenfeld, while she is protected from enforcement of the English judgment against her in the U.S., is unable to travel freely to the UK.

In my case, the Brazilian judge finally ruled that Guhtjar had a clear lack of standing to sue. "In her complaint, Mrs. Guhtjar argues that Mr. Sharkey tarnished the image of Brazil, of the Brazilian citizens and of the National Aviation and Justice, but has not established any direct connection between those statements and herself (her name, by the way, has never been mentioned by Mr. Sharkey)."

The judge also said that I had "not exceeded the freedom of speech and opinion." He noted the recent election and electoral campaigns in Brazil "which, in his view, were more spiteful than the statements made by Mr. Sharkey," I am informed in a note from counsel monitoring the case for the New York Times from Sao Paulo.

[My note here: While I was certainly hard and at times harsh on Brazilian authorities for the cover-up of the causes of the accident and for the scapegoating of the American pilots, everything I wrote or said has been shown to be accurate. And the "spiteful" comments noted by the judge are evidently a reference to comments made by others (in Brazil) and falsely attributed to me. Does anyone really think that, had I chosen to be "spiteful," I would have selected these barely-in-English words: "Brazil is most idiot of all idiots?" I think I might have come up with something a little more stinging, in standard English.]

The judge's decision in Brazil is still subject to appeal. Besides the plaintiff's lawyers in Brazil, a New York law firm retained by the Brazilians -- Grant Herrmann Schwartz & Klinger -- has abetted this folly by sending people to serve me papers at home (one of the servers falsely claimed to be a state constable). First they came to my home in New Jersey and then, just recently, another process-server arrived at our door in the dead of night at our home in the Arizona desert to serve me with notice of a criminal complaint.

Meanwhile, the judge has ordered the plaintiff to pay damages to me in the amount of $1,500 reais, which is about $883. I don't expect to ever see that, but if I do I will divide the money between donations to two stand-up groups that work tirelessly on behalf of free speech and stood up for me when I needed it: The Committee to Protect Journalists and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

On the other hand, two other journalistic organizations that love to sound off on the Big Issues, the Columbia Journalism Review and the Poynter Institute, cravenly ran away and hid when I approached them for moral support.


Monday, November 08, 2010

Free WiFi on Delta, Virgin America, AirTran Through Holidays

Delta, Virgin America and AirTran are offering free inflight WiFi from Nov. 20 through Jan. 2.

Delta has WiFi on about 540 mainline aircraft with 2,200 daily flights. Virgin America and AirTran were slow on the PR uptake this morning, allowing Delta to get the news jump.

The big question in inflight WiFi remains, will enough people pay for it to make the business viable? To date, much of the use of the industry-leading Aircell Gogo WiFi system has been subsidized by third-party promotions. The Delta, Virgin America and AirTran promotions are in partnerships with Google Chrome.

Airlines and service providers like Aircell have been extremely coy about discussing the actual "take rates," or percentage of passengers on a given flight who opt to pay for WiFi service. In general, the take rate so far is believed to be under 7 percent.

Part of the problem, as I found out over a year ago when I tried out the WiFi on an uncomfortable AirTran flight, is that coach seats are so cramped and planes are so full that it's difficult to get a laptop efficiently open and operating on those jammed-in-your-solar-plexus little tray tables, WiFi-enabled or not.

WiFi providers are banking on the ongoing explosion of WiFi enabled smartphones and other small gizmos to overcome that obstacle. On the other hand, the very demographic that dominates this market is the segment of the population that's most heavily conditioned to expect free WiFi connectivity on the ground.

Recently, Southwest Airlines (which is in the process of taking over AirTran) announced it would set an initial $5 price for use of its own WiFi system, which is being installed on Southwest's fleet of about 550 Boeing 737s. Southwest is using an Aircell competitor, Row 44, a satellite-based technology. Gogo -- by far the leading inflight WiFi provider on numerous airlines -- is based on land antennas. AirTran uses Gogo.

The price for Gogo has ranged to above $12, depending on flight length, but as I said many users so far have opted-in through discounts.

Delta began installing WiFi on its domestic fleet in the fall of 2008 and today operates the largest fleet of WiFi enabled aircraft.