Gripes About Airport Security Grow Louder

R.A. Hettinga rah at
Mon Jan 24 19:19:25 PST 2005


The Wall Street Journal

      January 25, 2005


Gripes About Airport Security Grow Louder
More Travelers Are Stopped
 For 'Secondary' Checks;
 A Missed Flight to Atlanta
January 25, 2005

The frequency of secondary security screening at airports has increased,
and complaints are soaring.

Roughly one in every seven passengers is now tagged for "secondary
screening" -- a special search in which an airport screener runs a
metal-detecting wand around a traveler's body, then pats down the passenger
and searches through bags -- according to the Transportation Security

Currently, 10% to 15% of passengers are picked randomly before boarding
passes are issued, the TSA says. An additional number -- the TSA won't say
how many -- are selected by the government's generic profiling system,
where buying a one-way ticket, paying cash or other factors can earn you
extra screening. And more travelers are picked by TSA screeners who spot
suspicious bulges or shapes under clothing.

"It's fair to say the frequency of secondary screening has gone up," says
TSA spokeswoman Amy von Walter. "Screeners have greater discretion."

That may explain why passenger complaints about screening have roughly
doubled every month since August. According to numbers compiled by the TSA
and reported to the Department of Transportation, 83 travelers complained
about screening in August, then 150 in September and 385 in October. By
November, the last month reported, complaints had skyrocketed to 652.

To be sure, increased use of pat-down procedures in late September after
terrorists smuggled bombs aboard two planes in Russia undoubtedly boosted
those numbers, though many of those complaints were categorized as
"courtesy" issues, not "screening," in the data TSA reports to the DOT.
There were 115 courtesy complaints filed with the DOT in September, then
690 in October. By November, the number of courtesy complaints receded to

Yet the increased traveler anger at secondary screening hasn't receded.
Road warriors complain bitterly about the arbitrary nature of the screening
-- many get singled out for one leg of a trip, but not another.

For Douglas Downing, a secondary-screening problem resulted in a canceled
trip. Mr. Downing was flying from Seattle to Atlanta last fall. He went
through security routinely and sat at the gate an hour ahead of his
flight's departure. As he boarded, a Delta Air Lines employee noticed that
his boarding pass, marked with SSSS, hadn't been cleared by the TSA. He was
sent back to the security checkpoint.

By the time he got screened and returned to the gate, the flight had
departed. Delta offered a later flight, but his schedule was so tight he
had to cancel the trip. Delta did refund the ticket, even though the
airline said it was the TSA's mistake not to catch the screening code. TSA
officials blamed Delta.

TSA screeners often blame airlines, according to frequent travelers. Ask a
screener why you got picked for screening, and they often say the airline
does the selection and questions should be directed to the airline.

But airlines say they shouldn't be blamed, since they are only running the
TSA's programs, and the TSA's Ms. von Walter concurs. "I wouldn't go so far
as to say we're blaming them," she said. "Perhaps some screeners are
misinformed in those cases."

She also says the TSA isn't sure why screening complaints have risen so
sharply since August, although the agency says it may be the result of
greater TSA advertising of its "contact center" (e-mail
TSA-ContactCenter at or call 1-866-289-9673).

If you do get picked, here is how it happened.

The TSA requires airlines to pick 10% to 15% of travelers at random.
Airlines can "de-select" a passenger picked at random, such as a child,
officials say.

In addition, the government's current passenger-profiling system, called
Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System, or CAPPS, picks out
passengers. The system, which resides in or communicates with each
airline's reservation computers, gives you a score based largely on how you
bought your ticket. Airline officials say the TSA has changed the different
weightings given various factors, and certain markets may have higher
programmed rates for selectees.

Passenger lists also are checked against the TSA's list of suspicious
names, which has included rather common names and even names of U.S.

Interestingly, airline gate agents who see suspicious-looking passengers
can no longer flag them for security. Some ticket-counter agents did flag
several hijackers for extra security on Sept. 11, 2001, and were praised
for their work in the 9/11 Commission's final report. At the time, all that
meant was the airline took precautions with the hijackers' checked luggage.
But because of racial-discrimination concerns, airline officials aren't
allowed to single out passengers for scrutiny; only TSA screeners can do

If picked in advance by the computer system, your boarding pass gets marked
some way to identify your "selectee" status. Some airlines print "SSSS" in
a corner.

When you show up at the checkpoint, you should be picked out as a selectee.
The TSA counts on contractors checking boarding passes and driver's
licenses to steer you to the selectee line, but that is also why screeners
make travelers display boarding passes several times through the gauntlet.
At some airports, the TSA also does one final check of boarding passes when
you leave the security area -- to check again for selectees.

Once checked, the TSA marks your boarding pass so that flight attendants or
airline gate agents boarding planes know you got a thorough poking and

The TSA says it hopes the frequency of secondary screening will decline
when it gets its new profiling system in place. "Secure Flight" will use
passenger records from airlines to, it is hoped, sniff out terrorists. The
system will focus on the passenger and not simply how the ticket was
bought. The TSA is testing comparing airline bookings against other
commercially available information as well as government databases, which
has raised privacy concerns. Current testing using historical airline data
is supposed to end this month.

R. A. Hettinga <mailto: rah at>
The Internet Bearer Underwriting Corporation <>
44 Farquhar Street, Boston, MA 02131 USA
"... however it may deserve respect for its usefulness and antiquity,
[predicting the end of the world] has not been found agreeable to
experience." -- Edward Gibbon, 'Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire'

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