Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Leaving Syracuse

I left Syracuse in May of 1987 as flurries fell.  I missed my own graduation I was so anxious to cross the country and start my post-college life (and escape the never ending snow).  I have not returned to my alma matter nor to the city which seems fortuitous since to enter the city via the airport you now need TSA authorization.  According to both NBC News and the Daily Mail passengers can’t leave the arrival area at Syracuse airport without approval from the TSA.  Passengers must now enter a pod and wait for the TSA to electronically authorize them to leave the terminal – from which they can’t return.  

Way back in the last century when I would go from Boston to Syracuse I flew the nascent airline People’s Express before Continental ate them up only to later merge with United.  The flight attendants would come up and down the aisle collecting payment and all the fares were fixed and flat.  (Bit of trivia: They were also the first airline to charge for checking a bag:  $3 and snacks cost you $0.50.)  It was the predecessor to Southwest and so many other discount airlines.  Of course in those days you went right up to the gate without having to undress, justify your travel plans to a government official or have your possessions searched for the privilege of going from point A to point B in your own country.
Now it seem the old days are 2013 when TSA agents would staff the exit areas by the gates to insure that passengers don’t turn around after crossing a particular point (arbitrarily chosen by some committee somewhere no doubt).  How many of these agents have we all seen dozing off, reading books, talking to other agents?  I didn’t realize they were the last line of defense in the U.S. security protocol against terrorism.  Now very expensive looking pods will require each passenger to step in, and then a robotic voice will authorize their departure or direct them to be detained.  The TSA claims that this will save costs for staff and improve security.  Likely it won’t save time for passengers and will make flying even more festive than it is today.
I’ve done some search engine looking to see what security breaches have occurred with passengers turning around at the end of the gate area and causing mayhem, harm and threats of terrorist activity.  While Bing and Google aren’t the most definitive way to identify all cases that fall in that definition, it is noteworthy that the bots couldn’t find one.  So it’s unclear what the agents, and now the pods are protecting against. 
TSA agents are paid between $17,083 per year and $24,977.  (The more senior you are the wages can go up to $120,326.)   The pods at Syracuse’s Hancock Airport were installed as part of a $60 million upgrade – the actual pod cost wasn’t identified – but suffice to say each pod likely cost more than the cost of paying $75K per year (3 shifts of agents per day).

Earlier this month (Nov 2013)  the Government Accountability Office completed its investigation into the $1 billion (with a b) TSA program to observe and talk with passengers as a deterrent to terrorism.  The report said the results were “no better than chance.”  Put another way:  the TSA could have flipped coins and gotten the same impact as the billion dollars it spent on the program.  I’m comforted by the TSA’s sudden concern for thrift.
Cost-effectiveness doesn’t appear to be a priority for the TSA when the full body scanners that showed people naked were abandoned back in 2007.  Now those units are being sold at $0.10 on the dollar to prisons.  The money the TSA is suddenly concerned about saving is all pass-through dollars anyway – fees and taxes charged specifically to cover security costs have increased the cost of air travel for every ticket, every leg since 9/11.  Doubtful that those fees will be reduced with all this cost savings going on.
Electronic devices have now been authorized by the TSA.  The freedom to use a Kindle was hard fought and took many years.  What will it take to restore the freedom to leave the airport without proving your innocence?  (Or to at least get enough people outraged about being literally held prisoner by the government.)

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