TSA airport security inspections suck.

Who was it who said that TSA stands for “Thousands, Standing Around.”

There is, on one hand, the whole political argument about being subjected to a search without probable cause, and the attendant argument about whether any of this is really doing what they say it’s doing, but that’s a rant that been ranted in other places by other ranters. Let me just say that I have deeper questions about the whole thing.

But the frustration that I’m ranting about here, is related to the aesthetics of the experience. I mean, I know there’s probably some sort of security reason why the whole thing has to be flexible or something, but why does it always seem like these TSA inspections are run by FEMA? I know for a fact that there are architects in this country. It follows that some of them are talented. It follows that some of these could solve this. It just doesn’t seem that hard to design a way to do this with a modicum of grace. It’s one thing to have to take your belt and shoes off as part of a public transportation experience. But I don’t think they could do this worse if they tried. Even the newer facilities that have been built in the last few years, look like they were set up in a couple of hours by some high-school student council committee.

Beyond the design issues, there is the problem of the staff. There seem to be two types.

The first is the type that knows that there is an inherent arbitrary absurdity to the situation and the best thing they can do is try to maintain compliance with this week’s regulations with a minimum of stress. These people are relatively helpful.

Earlier this summer I was going through security in Las Vegas (on the way from Edmonton Alberta to Chicago Illinois… in addition to architects I think we could use some cartographers.). I have taken to carrying Sigg water bottles with me when I fly. By filling them at water fountains at the gate, I can avoid the carbon footprint of bottled water and the bacterial footprint of onboard water tanks. Anyway, the trick requires going through security with the bottles empty, but in Las Vegas, because I was on a lay-over I didn’t expect to have to do the TSA thing, and one of my bottles was full of Canadian water. So the guy said, you’re going to have to empty it, and then escorted me on a circuitous path that took me around the entire inspection area and back to the other side. We walked past several water fountains and restrooms. He said he’s having to do this more and more because more and more people have similar hydration strategies to mine, and he doesn’t think it’s right to take their bottles away. When I said “And there’s no way I can just dump it on THIS side, he shook his head and rolled his eyes.

The other type of TSA employee is apparently dealing with the largest amount of authority they have ever had. They are not dealing with it well. They have allowed their perception of the stakes of their situation to stress them out, and make them vaguely abusive. Harking back to Milgram, these people have been given instructions that allow them to be stupider and ruder than they probably would be in normal circumstances.

I was going through security in New Orleans once, several years ago. I had a button shirt that I was wearing over a T-shirt. It was unbuttoned and untucked. I was flying north and I would want it buttoned by the time we landed. The guy told me to take my jacket off. I told him that it wasn’t a jacket, it was a shirt. But he made me take it off. I asked him if he would have made me take it off if it had been buttoned up. He just stared at me. But I really wanted to know, so after getting through, I went back out, buttoned and tucked in my shirt, went through again. The guy just stared at me. He was clearly pissed off at me, but he couldn’t ask me to take my shirt off.
Ok, so that’s a story about how I’m kind of a jerk, but the point is that these rules are CRAZY, and they set up situations in which human interactions become really dumb. Unless this craziness is the common enemy we’re at odds with each other.

On the positive side, the TSA has set up TSA Complaints, and I have heard reports that this has been effective. Some things that people have complained about have been addressed.

However, in addition to the TSA staff, there is another group of people who frustrate me when going through airport security.

The other passengers.

I’m sure I’m guilty of pissing people off in TSA lines as well, but I have NEVER gone through one of these lines without feeling that people aren’t paying attention or thinking ahead. I understand that some people don’t travel very much and aren’t used to this process, but it just isn’t that tricky. Here are some “rules” that have emerged for me.

1. Think ahead. Pack your carry-on with a thought towards this process. Put the contents of your pockets in your bag before you get anywhere near the scanner.

2. Think through how many of those plastic tubs you’re going to need. Grab that number and keep moving. Keep your stuff together for as long as you can.

3. Put your, laptop, little baggie of liquids, your shoes, and belt etc in the tubs at the last possible moment, and send them through the scanner.

4. At the other end, the priority is to keep moving. Grab your stuff and get as far from the scanner as you can. If you are standing at the exit to the scanner, putting your shoes on, you are causing a problem.

If people would just do this, it would move SO MUCH smoother.

All of this of course is filed under the heading of sweeping generalizations. There are plenty of anecdotes about helpful TSA folk and efficient passengers. But on the whole, I find everyone to be at least mildly irritating, if not wildly infuriating while involved in this hateful practice.

It has always driven me irrationally crazy, and I could never figure out why. Going through security at Jet Blue in JFK this last weekend, I suddenly realized why this is so irritating to me. As a theatre artist a big part of my job/interest is movement through time and space. I’m not an expert when it comes to the legality of this whole TSA enterprise. I am an expert when it comes to how it’s performed. TSA security inspections are badly staged!

I can see how to fix this problem but I need everyone to either train more or rehearse.

Oy vey

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