30 June 2005

Sweet Dreams and Flying Machines

Have your bags been in your possession
the whole time?

No. Usually the night before I travel,
just as the moon is rising, I place my
suitcases on the street corner and
leave them there unattended for
several hours -- for good luck.

- George Carlin

In 1903, Orville and Wilbur Wright conquered the forces
of gravity with the first powered human flight in Kitty Hawk,
North Carolina. An unforseen consequence of this bold act
was the bottomless wealth of material airlines and airports
have provided for nearly every popular comedian of the
past hundred years.

At the pinnacle of that comic tradition is George Carlin.
Back in 1999, he so effectively and hilariously deconstructed
the absurdity of airport security that I was surprised he
wasn’t asked to testify before the 9/11 investigation

Perhaps congress and the airline industry were a little bit
embarrassed that Carlin, without access to classified memos
or secret studies, arrived at the truth long before they did.

But everything is different now, right?

Now we have to wait on really long lines and take off our
shoes before we board. And the security folks have much
more impressive uniforms with important-looking TSA
badges. So air travel simply must be safer, right?

Well, if you’re a fan of that other great American satirist,
Harry Shearer, you’ll be familiar with a regular feature
on his radio show called Tales of Airport Security.

The premise is simple: Harry reads letters from listeners who
have firsthand knowledge of just how new and improved
the airport experience has become. Sometimes shocking,
always entertaining, you can hear the latest installment

Even the Department of Homeland Security admits that there
have been "inconsistencies" in airport procedures. But don’t
worry, they’ve got the solution: go back to using privately
hired screeners.

Sounds like a good idea, right?

Wouldn’t you feel safer going back to the pre-9/11 system,
when your bags were checked by minimum-wage workers
(some with criminal records) hired by companies you know
nothing about?

Well, consider this…

When airline security was taken over by the TSA after 9/11,
the government allowed five airports to remain under private
control as a pilot program to determine which system was
more effective. In April 2004, Norman Rabkin, Managing
Director of Homeland Security and Justice, presented the
results of the program to congress.

What was the title of his report?

Private Screening Contractors Have Little Flexibility
to Implement Innovative Approaches

Hmmm… That doesn’t sound too good, does it? But if you
download the actual report here and skip to the “concluding
observations” section, you’ll see that even the title is
misleading because…

The private screening pilot program was not
established in a way to enable an effective
evaluation of the differences in the performance
of federal and private screening and the reasons
for those differences. In developing the pilot
program, TSA did not develop an evaluation plan
or performance targets by which to assess how
the performance of federal and private screening
compares. Additionally, TSA did not collect data
in ways that would enable it to reach generalizable
conclusions about the performance of private
screeners. Further, the program was not designed
to achieve its intended mission, as defined by
TSA -- to test the effectiveness of increased
operational flexibility at the airport level that
contractors may provide.

So basically, nobody knows which system is safer.
[Incidentally, I'm pretty sure generalizable isn't a real word.]

But faced with rather embarrassing evidence of its
own ineffectiveness, the TSA has decided that it must
do something -- even if there is no proof that it will
actually work.

Sound familiar?