Seeking The Star

On October 1, 2020, the Transportation Security Administration will stop accepting the old Ohio driver’s license as a form of identification.  If you want to travel after that date, you need to have a new, compliant Ohio driver’s license — one with a little star in the upper right-hand corner.  Because deadlines such as this have a tendency to sneak up on you, and then suddenly you’re desperately trying to do everything at the last minute, Kish and I decided to be rational and proactive instead.

web1_compliantStep one in seeking the star means pulling together documentation to prove that you are who you say you are.  Kish assembled separate packets of compliant documents for each of us.  My documents included my current driver’s license, my passport, my original, dog-eared from being carried around in my wallet forever, paper Social Security card, issued in about 1969 when my family still lived in Bath, Ohio — I can’t believe I still have it, more than 50 years later — and multiple bills that show our current residence address.  (You can get information on the necessary documents here.)  Getting the required documents together is a big part of the process; I’ve heard about people who had to go back several times to get everything they needed.

Step two meant going to the sprawling BMV location on Alum Creek Road.  The office opens at 8 a.m., and we got there just as the doors were being unlocked.  There was already a line, and we steeled ourselves for a long wait — but that BMV location knows what it is doing.

We first went through a kind of processing line, where employees determined what we were there for and, in our case, looked at our documents, told us we had what we needed (Yay!  Thanks, Kish!) and put the documents into a specific order, then gave us a number and directed us to the waiting area.  When our number was called a few minutes later, we dealt with a pleasant, professional woman who looked at the documents, typed our information into the system, asked us background questions, gave us the eye test, collected the fees for the new licenses, and then ultimately took our pictures — which, in my case, was remarkably unflattering.  The whole process, from beginning to end, took about a half hour and was remarkably efficient and painless.  We’ve all heard people make fun of the BMV, but these employees really did a good job.  I even responded to an on-line survey to give them kudos for their efforts.

We’re supposed to get our new, compliant licenses in a few weeks, which will be step three in seeking the star.  Until then, we’ll be carrying around our old license, with a kind of paper version of our new license information.  We’ll also be carrying around a welling sense of pride that we didn’t wait and get snarled in a last-minute crush in our quest for the star.  It feels good to be proactive every once in a while.

Real Tie-Ups

This week the Transportation Security Administration helpfully reminded travelers that we are a year away from a fundamental change in our by-now familiar airport security requirements.  Beginning on October 1, 2020, if you are going through airport security for your flight, you will need to have a compliant “Real ID” card or a valid passport.

jwhi43emtai6tlpt64hxrqkw5aThe Real ID requirements are intended to put the issuance of ID cards and drivers’ licenses on a consistent national footing and to prevent the use of fraudulent ID cards — which many of the 9/11 terrorists carried.  To get the compliant card, you need to bring much more documentation than used to be required to, say, get a driver’s license in Ohio.  The documentation includes proof of residency (such as utility bills), proof of identity and legal residence in the U.S. (such as a passport), and your Social Security card (or a W-2 listing your Social Security number).  Those of us, like me, who don’t have the foggiest idea where their Social Security card might be will need to figure out how to get a replacement card before we go through the Real ID card process.

I don’t have an objection to imposing stricter identification requirements as part of the security checkpoint process; it seems like a prudent step.  But I am marking my calendar right now to try to avoid any air travel in October 2020, because it is guaranteed to be a frustrating disaster.  How many times have you seen people holding up the TSA process under the current process, because they need to fish through their backpack or their purse for their ID card and boarding pass, as if the request for those documents comes as a surprise?  I can’t imagine the delays, angst, fury, and arguments that will occur next October, when people get to the TSA officer and learn that they don’t have a compliant driver’s license or other compliant documentation and will end up missing their flights.

If you need to travel next October, plan to drive.

Why TSA Pre-Check Is Worth It

It seems like the standard security line at the Denver airport is always jammed, as it was this morning at 7:30 Mountain time as shown in the photo above. If you regularly fly through certain cities — Denver is one of them, as are Chicago O’Hare and Atlanta — paying for TSA pre-check status so you can skip the lines and dodge the stress and hassle is worth every penny.

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.

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.

Insecure About Homeland Security

The Washington Post has an interesting, and troubling, story about the problems at the Department of Homeland Security.  According to the article, the agency is faced with tremendously low morale, high employee turnover, and a toxic bureaucratic environment.

The DHS was created after 9/11 and was supposed to unite a host of separate agencies that had some security role.  Its constituent agencies include the Customs Service, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Secret Service, the Transportation Security Administration, the Coast Guard, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.  Coordinating the different cultures and practices of such diverse agencies would be a challenge, and the Post piece indicates that the DHS has made a hash of it, creating a highly bureaucratic environment that frustrates employees and managers.

A dysfunctional, overly bureaucratic federal agency — who could imagine such a thing?  It may be the norm, but in the case of the DHS the constant turnover, unfilled positions, and bureaucratic gamesmanship could easily have real world consequences.  The Post article notes, for example, that recent testing has shown that the blue-uniformed TSA employees at who operate all of those scanners are increasingly missing weapons or explosives being brought through security.  What is the point of spending billions for high-tech scanners at airports if the TSA employees can’t properly interpret the scanning data?  In the modern world where so many terrorist groups are looking to launch another deadly operation, we simply cannot afford security agencies who aren’t properly performing their jobs.

The TSA is only one example of a problem agency within the DHS.  Whether it is defense against cybersecurity attacks, or securing the border, or dealing with the influx of immigrant minors, the DHS is tasked with tough assignments and is widely perceived as botching them.  The plummeting morale at the DHS isn’t helping matters, either.  A survey performed last year showed that the DHS ranked dead last among large agencies.

The DHS has an important job.  With the constant threats made against America by the likes of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and al-Qaeda, you would think that effective leaders could generate energized agencies where employees understood the significance of their roles and had high morale because of the crucial nature of their work in protecting their families and friends from attack.  Instead, the DHS is a morass of infighting and leaden bureaucratic procedures that hinder effective performance.

The Post article paints an ugly picture, one that should make us all feel less secure about the Department of Homeland Security.

A Dubious Ad Spend

20140905-132401-48241691.jpg
Microsoft shelled out some amount of money — who knows exactly how much? — to have inserts placed in the plastics security lines tubs at LaGuardia Terminal C marketing its OneDrive cloud-based storage product. The insert even has a supposed-to-be-funny reference to not being able to take more than 3.2 ounce bottles through security.

Ha ha! Hey, that’s frigging hilarious! Having just taken off my belt and shoes and emptied my pockets, been shouted at, scanned, and patted down by TSA guys, and then having to hastily gather my stuff in an antiquated and overheated terminal, I’m perfectly situated to look favorably on an ad pitch at the bottom of one of those hated plastic tubs.

Who decides Microsoft’s ad spend? Are they human, or from Mars?

Doubling The Airline “Security Fee”

Last week the “security fee” the federal government charges to airline passengers more than doubled, from $2.50 per passenger to $5.60 per passenger.  The increased fee was part of a budget agreement that Congress and the Obama Administration worked out last year.

IMG_2260I don’t have a problem with the concept of “user fees,” and I view the “security fee” as falling within that category.  I think user fees are a fair way of paying for services that some Americans use, but not others.  Every American needs our military, for example, but not everyone needs the blue-shirted Transportation Security Administration folks who remind us to take off our belts, look at our drivers licenses, and wave us through scanners.  Why should people who don’t regularly fly on airplanes pay for services that are used only by regular air travelers like me?  And with all of the nickel-and-diming that goes on with air travel these days, from baggage fees to food fees to other obscure charges, who’s going to notice an extra $3.10?

The problem I have is that the money raised won’t be used entirely for the TSA, or apparently for services that are directly related to air travel security.  I recognize that the federal government is one huge bucket, and it’s hard to precisely account for specific payments, but if you really want to implement a “user fee,” the proceeds should go solely for the service being used.  Otherwise, you’re just using the fee as a thinly disguised tax to raise general revenue, and you’re targeting just one group for the tax hit.  That’s not equitable, and it’s destructive of the fairness principle that make user fees a sensible approach in the first place.

Customized

Kish and I learned a valuable lesson today.  If you are traveling to Canada and can’t get a direct flight — which is the standard reality if you are flying from Columbus — make sure your transfer is in the U.S.

IMG_20140618_135754Why?  Because if you have to go through Customs as part of the transfer, forget it.  We’re on our way to Montreal through Toronto, and we encountered (1) a walk of at least three miles from plane to Customs and then to security, (2) a misdirection by airport officials that sent us to an even longer security line, (3) a security team even less motivated tO move people through with lightning speed than the TSA, and (4) a hyper-efficient flight crew that gave away our seats and closed the doors even though we arrived at the gate 10 minutes before departure time.

Fortunately,  there are frequent flights from Toronto to Montreal, and we’re on a 3 o’clock flight.  So, for now, we’re cooling our heels in the Great White North.  Hey look!  They’ve got Canadian t-shirts!

Pre-Checked

When I printed out my boarding pass yesterday, I noticed a new legend at the top that indicated I had been “pre-checked” by the Transportation Security Administration.

IMG_5094I didn’t know what it meant, so when I got to the airport I got in the standard line to show my boarding pass and driver’s license.  The TSA officer who checked me explained that the “pre-check” program meant I didn’t need to wait in the normal line and could go through security without removing my shoes, belt, bag of toothpaste, and laptop.  He gave me a pre-printed card that explains the program, which also is described here.  It appears that, because I’m a frequent traveler, the TSA thinks they have sufficient information about me to waive certain of the security protocols.

So, I dropped my keys, cellphone, and other electronic gizmos in the plastic bin and put it on the conveyor belt and went through the scanner belt, shoes, suit coat, and all.  It was a whiff of the heady old days, before the shoe bomber and the underwear bomber and other would-be terrorists added new rules and new steps to the security process.

Going through security took about two minutes.  I enjoyed not having to partially disrobe, and I particular appreciated not having to hurriedly belt up, don shoes, fish out keys, and reinsert laptop in the scrum of passengers who’ve passed through the scanner, as bag after bin after bag come slamming off the conveyor.

I’m all for the pre-check program.