Monday, October 5, 2015

Consorting With The Bureaucracy

Amendment IV
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

My feelings about the Department of Homeland Security and specifically the TSA are widely known by those who know me.  In case you missed them, my take on the TSA is clearly articulated here and updated here.  I know it's bullshit. You know it's bullshit,  The only ones unaware of the bovine excrement that is the element of security offered by the TSA are the rookies who travel on the Wednesday prior to Thanksgiving with a sense of entitlement over their accomplishment of booking their first airfare.

One thing I've learned in my years of navigating the travel machine is that once I step through that cancer cavern that is the millimeter wave scanner, my future is totally out of my hands.  My human fate and my ability to arrive at my destination both rest on the competence of the TSA and the compassion of the airline employees who clearly are growing increasingly lethargic with their jobs and with passengers.

Since I posted Security Theater and Security Theater, Act II, the TSA has created the Known Traveler Number program and enacted TSA Precheck status at airport security gates.  In case you live in a cave or don't have to suffer the indignant processes thrust upon today's business frequent traveler, I'll briefly describe the procedure.  Travelers who aren't aware of the 4th Amendment submit themselves to additional background scrutiny and fork over $85 can enjoy the privilege of having that very 4th Amendment right violated just a little lessThey also enjoy more expeditious passage through that gauntlet of security professionalism and technology enablement that is TSA security.  I first heard of this when I saw "TSA Pre" printed on my boarding pass and was directed by a woman wearing a hijab  into an almost empty screening line.  What's more, I got to leave my laptop in my bag, I didn't have to completely empty my pockets, I didn't have to practically disrobe, and finally, I got to pass casually through the good old magnetometer and didn't have to stand arms up in the spinning millimeter wave cancer cavern.  If the radiation exposure risks from those things aren't bad enough, the images they yield could be quite embarrassing. I managed to sneak a photo of my most recent scan from while the TSA officer had her back to me.  I'm glad images like these are so well protected by the TSA.  But I digress.

I was intrigued by these more convenient security portal events and even considered signing up.  However, when I saw the cost, I rejected it on philosophical terms.  I'm already paying the TSA to do their job through my taxes.  Now they want me to pay them even more of my money so they can essentially do less of their jobs.  The payout they hyped to me was the more expeditious airport experience. What wasn't hyped was the fact that the same payout in the form of shorter non Precheck lines was also given to the majority who chose not pay.  The result is those who didnt pay in are reaping the benefits of those who did.  Sound familiar?

During that flight, I studied my boarding pass thoroughly and used a barcode scanner app in my phone to analyze and compare the code on the TSA Pre boarding pass to one from a previous flight without the mark.  With the exception of the flight details, the barcodes were exactly the same. So for my next flight, I employed the same technique I typically used to promote myself to Platinum status on my boarding passes.  An explanation is due here.  Before I earned lifetime American Airlines Platinum status, I would download my boarding passes and edit them to indicate that I was a Platinum flyer.  Then, I would print them and use my self-promotion to get into the first class/elite flyer security line.  But equally important than the security line was my ability to board the aircraft early, just after the first class passengers and guarantee a spot in the overhead bin for my carry-on bag.  The gate agents couldn't verify my status when they scanned the document and seemingly cared less as long as my boarding pass had the Platinum marks on it.  The other high tech traveling hipsters probably thought I was a Luddite for using paper, but I always had the upper hand.  Since the airlines started charging for checked bags, the "Battles for the Bins" became more common and the behavior of some passengers could make an entire blog entry on its own; probably even a reality TV show.

Since the Platinum upgrade scheme worked so well, I decided to step it up a notch add the TSA Pre icon to the upper left corner and see what happened.  It worked; for a while.  Then the TSA figured out idiots like me were smarter than they were, so they began to manipulate the barcode to include the TSA Precheck indicator.  Then idiots like me figured out how to beat that too, so the TSA stepped up their game and enacted features that issue new bar codes on timed intervals that appear too random (to idiots like me) to predict and mock.  Knowing my luck would soon run out, I decided to limit my boarding pass alterations to elite frequent flyer status and try to figure out why on some flights I was blessed with genuine TSA Precheck status by American Airlines and other flights I was not.  I still haven't figured that one out, although I'm told the airlines have been granted discretion by the TSA to assign it to their elite status flyers.  Happy as I was whenever I received it, I was struck by the fact that the TSA is leaving the security aspect of passenger pre-screening up to American Airlines; a corporation whose emergence from bankruptcy under Chairman Doug Parker is slower than the American economy is emerging from recession under President Obama.  American Airlines; a carrier who is hell bent on cutting costs with no apparent regard for passenger convenience and comfort.  American Airlines; a carrier with a 25% late arrival track record, and who apparently can't manage their U.S. government-approved merger with US Air any more efficiently than Hillary Clinton managed her security resources at Benghazi.  Again I digress.

What's more questionable than the TSA allowing the airlines to select Precheck recipients is the TSA allowing their own airport agents to randomly select passengers to pass through the coveted TSA Precheck lanes, simply to shorten the other lines.  This is a common practice at McCarran Airport in Las Vegas.  Leave it to the TSA to attempt to expedite a line by randomly selecting unvetted rookie passengers who are ignorant of the Precheck process, who then clog up what is supposed to be a faster lane while they remove their shoes, belts, (not knowing that they don't have to) and generally stumble through the process - all while genuine Precheck credential holders who paid the price and know the procedure - file in line behind them and stare in disbelief.  Security Theater indeed.

So after all this ranting, why did I find myself waiting for an appointment outside the Global Entry Trusted Traveler office in the Minneapolis airport?  I'm very 4th Amendment aware, but I have to admit, I caved.  I have earned lifetime elite status on American Airlines and find that they grant me Precheck status on 90% of their flights that I book.  But I find myself flying other airlines more often these days; airlines on which I have zero status and I have to admit that I've become spoiled by the Precheck process.  So, I submitted myself to the background check and scheduled an interview appointment, which has to be conducted by a crack Homeland Security agent at an airport of my choosing.  Once again, the wisdom and efficiency of the U.S. government prevailed.  The earliest available appointments are scheduled out weeks and sometimes months ahead, making it all but impossible for road warriors like myself to plan to be in a particular airport at a specified date and time.  I looked ahead at all my scheduled flights and tried to select an airport in a city where I knew I would be, but the bureaucracy and my inconsistent travel schedule always worked against me.  I canceled and rescheduled several appointments until by happenstance, I checked the Minneapolis Airport office's schedule and discovered a cancellation during a week I planned to be there.  The appointment was surprisingly punctual and prompt and I was out of there with my photo and fingerprints taken in less than ten minutes and with an active Known Traveler Number ("KTN" to non Luddite hipster travelers like myself).  I could even apply the new KTN to the four remaining flights on which I was booked that same week.  I was told my official card with all its rights and privileges will arrive in the mail in a few weeks.  Like I need another card to carry in my wallet... 
When I take the hook, I don't waste time simply sinking it into my lip, I swallow the whole damn thing.  My trip to Australia is a prime example.  In this case, I could have simply acquired a KTN for TSA Precheck for $85.  But like a rookie car buyer in the signing process for a new vehicle who gladly pays for an unnecessary additional warranty, I took the bait and paid an additional $15 for the Global Entry pass that is supposed to allow me to expedite the U.S. Customs process during international travel.  I've flown internationally twice this year and have actually witnessed the benefits and since I could kill two birds with on stone, I figured the extra $15 for Precheck and Global Entry "privileges" for five years was negligible.  Interestingly enough, as I was typing this blog entry, I received an email from the "United Kingdom's Registered Traveller (their spelling, not mine) Service" offering me an opportunity to leverage my Global Entry credentials for expedited entry into the U.K. for £70 annually.  I have no plans to visit the U.K., but I might be persuaded if Australia offered such a plan.  I suppose I should look into that.

In the end, I'm sure it won't be long before the majority of passengers are "Known Travelers" and the line on our lane will be longer than the unknown traveler lines.  By then, I'm sure also that the TSA will have cooked up some new process for which people like me will ignore the additional abuse of the 14th Amendment and gladly pay the fee in our fleeting attempt at cutting our time watching episodes of Security Theater.