Traveler’s Triathlon

Today I am attempting the traveler’s triathlon — a three-leg trip with tight connections, heading into snow country, in winter. Add in a government shutdown and what that potentially means for TSA workers, air traffic controllers, and every other federal employee who works in the nation’s air traffic system, and the degree of difficulty ratchets up to just about Iron Man Triathlon levels.

So far, though, so good. No bad weather, no security delays, no de-icing issues, and no mechanical problems. I had to run through several terminals and concourses at O’Hare, but that just gave me some much-needed exercise.

If my last leg leaves and arrives on time, I may just need to buy a lottery ticket when I read my ultimate destination.

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REAL ID

The other day I was in line to pass through security at the Columbus airport when I saw a sign announcing that, effective January 22, 2018, drivers’ licenses from certain states will not be accepted at TSA checkpoints as appropriate identification.  According to the sign, licenses from Maine, Missouri, Minnesota, Montana and Washington are not compliant with something called the REAL ID Act.

REAL ID Act?  Of course, the name brought back memories of high school days, when your more daring classmates would proudly if furtively show you the fake ID they had acquired (featuring, of course, a name other than “McLovin”) in hopes of buying beer at the local carryout.  The TSA sign seemed kind of weird, and I found myself wondering why the federal government has a problem with the licensed issued by the “m” states . . . and Washington. So I followed the instructions on the sign and went to the tsa.gov website to see what it was all about.

It turns out that in 2005 Congress passed something called the REAL ID Act.  The Act establishes certain federally mandated minimum security standards governing issuance of drivers’ licenses and identification cards by states, and if the states are non-compliant, their licenses won’t be accepted for certain federal purposes — like passing through the federally operated security checkpoint at domestic airports.   (You also will need a REAL ID Act compliant drivers’ license if you want to get into a nuclear power plant, in case you were wondering.)  Ohio and a number of states are already compliant, still other states have received extensions to become compliant, and the four “m” states are noncompliant.

Why are some states resisting?  According to a member of the Maine state legislature, it’s because of concerns about privacy and the possibility that the Department of Homeland Security could interlink the information from the state drivers’ license bureaus to create a national identity database.  She also states that, to get a REAL ID drivers license, individuals must have their photograph taken with facial recognition software and have documents like a certified birth certificate and original social security card scanned into a database, where it will be kept for seven years — and, she notes, potentially would be accessible to hackers who are constantly trying to get to confidential personal information.  Her description of the bill, and the reasons for her opposition, ends on this ominous note: “And how much do you trust the federal government?”

I’m as interested in privacy as the next person, but it’s hard for me to get too excited about the REAL ID law.  Obviously, there is a need for identification cards, and all of the information that is collected as part of the REAL ID process seems to be already in possession of the federal and state governments, anyway.  I’m quite confident that the federal government knows what I look like (or could find out with a few strokes of a keyboard), facial recognition photos or not.  And since I have to fly frequently for my job, I need to have an ID card that gets me through security — so I’m glad Ohio licenses are compliant.

It’s troubling to think that people are so distrustful of the federal government that they would be concerned about a database that included photos and basic identification information, like Social Security numbers, that people routinely disclose on things like tax returns.  It says something about the fraying relationship between the government and the governed that the question of appropriate identification could be so controversial.

Armed Travelers In An Armed Nation

In 2016 the Transportation Security Administration found 3,391 guns being carried by passengers going through airport security checkpoints.  That’s a new record, and represents a 30 percent increase over the number of guns found in 2015.

Oh, yeah . . . and 83 percent of the guns found at checkpoints were loaded.

art-tsa-checkpoint-afp-giOf course, as a percentage of the millions of people taking flights from United States airports — the TSA screened 738 million passengers last year — 3,391 obviously isn’t a big number.  Still, it’s a surprising statistic, and disconcerting to those of us who travel frequently for business and pleasure.

Since airport checkpoints became ubiquitous after 9/11, any cognizant person has got to know that you can’t carry guns and ammunitions onto planes.  Can thousands of people really be unaware of this rule, or are those people just testing to see whether it’s actually enforced?  The story linked above suggests that at least some of the apprehended travelers claim that they did not intend to carry the guns found at checkpoints — that they simply grabbed a piece of carry-on luggage without checking to see whether it included a gun.  That seems wildly implausible to me.  Can people actually not be acutely aware of where they are storing loaded firearms in their homes, would they really not hear or feel a gun rattling around when they retrieved a suitcase from the closet, and wouldn’t they find the gun during the process of packing?

The recent shooting at the Fort Lauderdale airport baggage claim area by a guy who apparently had a gun in his checked-in luggage is scary precisely because airports are, by definition, impersonal public places where you’re surrounded by total strangers whose intentions are completely unknown to you.  It’s bad enough to think that the person next to you at the luggage carousel might pull out a Glock and start blasting, but in some ways it’s even worse to think that thousands of fellow travelers are so stupid or careless that they are trying to bring loaded guns through the TSA checkpoints.

The TSA And The Teddy Bear

Let’s face it:  a lot of people really don’t like the Transportation Security Administration.  They don’t like waiting in lines to go through security, they don’t like the uniformed officers telling them to take their laptops out of bags and to remove their shoes, and belts, and overcoats before they go through screening, and they don’t like having to madly scramble around to reassemble their attire and gather their things after they come rolling out of the x-ray machine.

https3a2f2fblueprint-api-production-s3-amazonaws-com2fuploads2fcard2fimage2f3196242f0a03fd4a-0903-4e30-921d-6a63a0fb3fd8So when people heard about TSA officers taking steps that kept a gigantic teddy bear off a plane, and then posting, on Instagram, a sad photo of the bear, slumped over next to a trash can, people were quick to label the TSA this year’s Grinch.  They assumed the bear was a gift for a kid and thought the TSA was heartless.

The real story, though, is that the TSA was just doing its job — and the bear wasn’t a gift for a kid at all, it was part of an effort by an adult man to make a YouTube video.  After the outcry about the pathetic abandoned bear, the TSA explained that even though the YouTuber had a ticket for the bear, the bear was simply too large and too dense to be effectively screened.  In fact, the TSA has previously found a disassembled gun and ammunition hidden in stuffed animals.  If the TSA can’t effectively screen a carry-on item, then obviously that item shouldn’t go onto a plane.  And the airline also determined that the bear was too big to go into the cabin of the airplane, anyway.

So I’m with the TSA on this one.  Going through security at airports is a pain, but the vast majority of the TSA officers I’ve encountered in my travels are friendly, professional, and just trying to do their job.  If anybody deserves the blame for the pathetic Teddy Bear Tale, it’s the guy who thought it would be a good idea to create a potential problem for the TSA and an airline just to make a YouTube video.  It’s totally inconsiderate — toward the TSA, toward the airline, and toward other travelers who might have found themselves on a plane with a guy who’s trying to carry an oversized teddy bear down the crowded aisle and then seat the bear next to some unsuspecting traveler who’s just trying to get home.

Does everybody have to make YouTube videos about everything these days?  We’ve got enough to worry about without self-absorbed people trying to get a few minutes of internet attention coming up with stunts that inconvenience the rest of the world.

Airport Chic

  
The B concourse at Port Columbus has undergone a bit of a facelift, and the renovation process has addressed two of the new issues raised by modern travel.

First, what should be placed right beyond the TSA checkpoints, to help those sock clad, disassembled travelers who emerge stumbling from the process, holding up their pants, clutching belt and shoes, and trying to navigate their roller boards past the other huddled masses?  Port Columbus has come up with star-shaped benches just after the TSA area that seem to work pretty well as a drop bags, shoe-tying, put yourself back together gathering point.

Second, what about seating areas at the gates?  Before, the airport just had rows of back seats; the new feature is serpentine pods with low tables that look like the interior of the Jetsons’ house.  The black seats are still there, but the serpentine seats at least break up the monotony.  You’re not going to use them if you need to charge your devices, though.

  

Long Lines At Big Airports

When I arrived at Atlanta Hartsfield airport on my return home Thursday night, it was jammed.  No surprise there — it’s one of the busiest airports in the world.

It’s also the first airport I’ve been through that has the TSA pre-check passengers using an entirely different checkpoint area than other travelers.  Usually, we’re in the same area, with a direct pre-check lane and a winding “standard passengers” lane.  In Atlanta, though, the pre-checkers turn right and the standard passengers turn left.

013014 snow BG21Having to check-in in Atlanta also demonstrated the great convenience value of pre-check status.  At less busy airports like Columbus, the regular line usually isn’t too bad, and pre-check status might save you five minutes of waiting time, tops.  In busy airports like Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas and Denver, on the other hand, the difference in wait time between pre-check and standard can be enormous.  I was traveling with a co-worker on my Atlanta trip, who said he had to wait in a line to even get into the standard passenger line at the TSA check-point.  It look him an hour longer to pass through standard check-in than it took me to go through the pre-check line.  That obviously sucks from a stress and frustration standpoint, but even worse, when you’re in a huge airport, an hour can be the difference between making your flight and missing it.

And guess what?  Even the TSA is acknowledging that lines are long, and are likely to get worse as spring and summer arrive and more people are traveling.  The TSA says it’s due to budget cuts and efforts to improve the thoroughness of screenings; the news media has reported that the process has been slowed down because tests have shown failures to identify weapons making it through check points.  In any case, it made me glad, once again, that I spent the time, and the $85, to get pre-check status.  On the busy days in the big American airports, it’s worth every penny.

May The Pre-Check Be With You

I’ve been on the road a lot lately, and I’ve encountered some long lines going through the TSA checkpoints.  They suck, frankly.  So I’ve thought about how to deal with the issue in the classic American fashion — by paying more money to avoid the lines.

That’s right:  I’ve decided to go over to the Dark Side of getting TSA PreCheck clearance.

IMG_7215So today, Kish and I stopped in one of those humble, entirely anonymous five-story office buildings that you find among the strip malls — the kind of generic space filled with plastic potted plants that probably is an incredibly depressing place to work — to go through the PreCheck clearance process.  After waiting for a while, we presented our passports, answered a few questions about our lack of felony convictions and general mental health, gave the government our fingerprints, and then paid $85 each for the privilege of avoiding the regular TSA lines and keeping our shoes on and fluids in our bags when we go through security.

In all, the actual interview process took about five minutes.  We’re supposed to get our TSA PreCheck numbers in a few weeks.

Interesting, isn’t it, that we pay the government $85 to collect our fingerprints and allow us to avoid lines that the government security procedures have created?  Nice work if you can get it!  I couldn’t find any information about how many people have coughed up the cash for PreCheck, but I imagine its a good moneymaker for the feds — and if it keeps me from standing forever in lines, listening to TSA personnel shouting at those in the queue to remove their laptops, place them in separate bins, etc., etc., the $85 is worth it.