TSA Hypocrisy Underscored by Boston Arrests

TSA parody logo by Travis McHale

TSA parody logo by Travis McHale

May 31, 2014

HERE IN BOSTON last week, five airline workers — ground staff at Logan International Airport — were arrested on charges of smuggling nearly half a million dollars of drug money through employee checkpoints, using their credentials to bypass TSA security.

Four of the five were JetBlue employees. One of them, according to the allegations, had agreed to carry a firearm into a secure area of the airport.

I bring this up for no other reason than it so pungently underscores one of airport security’s most ridiculous protocols — namely, the fact that tarmac workers are exempt from TSA screening, while pilots and flight attendants are not.

That’s correct. For the past thirteen years, pilots and flight attendants have been forced to undergo to the same tedious and intrusive screening as passengers, while baggage handlers, cleaners, mechanics, caterers and the like, all of whom have access to aircraft, have been able to saunter through unmanned checkpoints, subjected only to occasional random screening.

In an earlier article I called this TSA’s “dirty little secret,” though really there’s nothing secret about it. It’s just that you never hear about it. What ought to be a scandalous story has gone all but unmentioned by the press and media — possibly because it sounds so outrageous that reporters are loath to believe it.

I assure you it’s true.

It’s an absurd double standard that undermines pretty much everything we’ve been told about the supposed importance of screening crewmembers. And there are two directions to take it: should we increase screening of apron workers, or decrease the scrutiny of pilots and flight attendants?

I mean no disrespect to the tens of thousands of honest and hardworking ground staff out there, but let’s be truthful: which is the potential higher-risk employee group when it comes to crime or terrorism, airline pilots or apron workers? Over the past several years, dozens of ground employees have been charged with drug smuggling, weapons and currency smuggling, and other crimes carried out on airport property. Pilots? Flight attendants?

At many airports, so-called Known Crew Member (KCM) checkpoints are now operational, allowing uniformed flight and cabin crew to bypass the normal TSA rigmarole. That’s a welcome change, but the fact that it took over a decade for this program to get going is an embarrassment. And we still have to stand at a kiosk while a guard fusses with our passports and ID cards, while somewhere downstairs those ramp workers simply swipe their badges at an electronic door or turnstile.


IN UNRELATED NEWS, also last week the renowned graphic designer Massimo Vignelli passed away at age 83.

Unfortuantely for Vignelli, he lived just long enough to witness the ruination of what was perhaps his greatest work: the famous “AA” emblem of American Airlines.

I’ve ranted about the disastrous new American logo before, but I can’t let it go. Each time I see one of the newly painted jets I wince.

It was once said of Vignelli’s work: “If you do it right, it will last forever.”

Alas, not necessarily. The old AA, among the last true icons of airline identity, was certainly done right. That didn’t stop the airline from killing it.

The timeless mark of American Airlines. Gone but not forgotten.

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17 Responses to “TSA Hypocrisy Underscored by Boston Arrests”
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  1. Stephen R. Stapleton says:

    The farce that is the TSA was completely revealed when a teenager, upset with his parents and without any reconnaissance or planning, managed to sneak into a plane’s wheel well at the Mineta San Jose International Airport a few weeks ago. The Mineta officials didn’t know anything had happened until the youth arrived in Hawaii. Apparently, all any terrorist need do is avoid the front door of the airport.

    • Eirik says:

      Its safe to say that the terrorist stuff they keep feeding us all the time is extremely exaggerated. First thing you hear, no matter what kind of accident; – We dont think this is a terrorist attack.

      The media makes people believe there is a boogie man on every street corner. Really, its not THAT hard to blow up something, and it doesnt have to be a plane. So if there are so many terrorists out there, why doesnt it happen more often?

      Chill, its gonna be just fine. Too much fear out there.

  2. Brett Greisen says:

    Wonderful article on TSA.

    I miss not only the old American logo but the airline in the 60s that was reliable & friendly. And that includes a 6 hour safety departure delay on a DC-6 charter from SFO to JFK.

  3. Sean B says:

    For a few years, I worked in IT for an airline catering firm at LAX. Although my job duties were off-field, I was issued an all-areas pass that would get me access to any area of the field. This was the standard pass our employees obtained.

    Although a background check was mandatory, some of my co workers who routinely went into and off the field seemed questionable.

    Once, I received an Apple computer that should have gone to the Cathay Pacific office at LAX. Since we catered for CX, they asked that I bring it to the aircraft in a few days’ time when the food was delivered, and a local member of the CX ground staff would show me around while preflighting the 747.

    When the duty and relief crews arrived (about 18 strong), everyone arrived with armloads of items purchased in the US that they were taking back to Hong Kong. The most interesting (and largest) was an autopilot rig for a sailboat.

    Other times, the specialized forms we used to print orders were running low at another airport, so we’d load boxes of forms in unused carts that were being returned to the departing aircraft as ship’s equipment, and the carrier would haul them, free, to the site that needed them.

    On another occasion, when I was working in San Diego, I found that the software diskettes I had on hand were corrupt. I asked the staff in LAX to bring them to the next aircraft departing LAX for San Diego, and when the aircraft arrived and the turboprops were winding down, the captain opened the cockpit window and handed them down to me.

    Admittedly, things tightened up after 9/11, and the more rigorous background checks resulted in some previously issued permits being revoked, but at the time, ground crews can certainly get anything aboard an aircraft, and I have no doubts it’s just as easy today.

  4. […] TSA Hypocrisy Underscored by Boston Arrests – Ask the Pilot […]

  5. Josh says:

    Airport screening involves zero common sense, that’s nothing new. The US is the worst but Canada and Europe aren’t much better. Half the time you can sneak through things without even trying; my mother forgot she was carrying a small knife in her purse and only noticed once she was on the plane!

  6. Wm Wesson says:

    You didn’t mention that the TSA does a background check on all those that enter the secure area before they are granted a badge. Also yearly training. ( I didn’t say it worked.)

  7. Eirik says:

    Sounds crazy to just let them pass like that. If the security is that bad, I guess it wont be too much of a hassle faking or stealing one of those cards. Who knows what kind of person could get access to the planes.

    Patrick; Is it the same when you are flying in Europe and other continents? Pilots are screened just like passengers?
    Just asking since I know not all airports require you to take your shoes off. Maybe different procedures for pilots too?

  8. Emily Kleine says:

    As someone who flies at least a couple times a year, I was surprised to learn about this hypocrisy. I have noticed that pilots and flight attendants have to go through security while ground workers or those who don’t get on the actual aircraft can simply flash their badge and they’re free to go. I never imagined that this would allow workers to smuggle items or bring fire arms into the airport.

    I agree that ground workers and those who load work with the planes have more opportunities to damage a plane or load something illegal on it than a pilot or fight attendant would. I can’t imagine many pilots would want to sabotage a plane while they are flying it.

    • rew says:

      The problem is that any worker at the airport can be an accomplice to a plot to bring down a plane. There are just so many ways. The guys loading the planes of course can put something on the plane while they are not themselves on it. But smuggling firearms into the secure area for someone who is willing to go “down with the plane” is also possible.

      When you have a “secure area”, you have to “secure the area”. This means checking everything that goes in (and/or out, e.g. a bank vault is concerned with things going out as well). You could decide that the employees are screened when they are hired, and then periodically checked, but otherwise “can be trusted”. Fine. But having one group checked and another (larger, less-to-be-trusted) not is ridiculous.

  9. […] certainly done right. That didn't stop the airline from killing it. The full story is here… https://askthepilot.com/tsa-arres…simo-vignelli/ Patrick […]

  10. Eric_G says:

    The TSA customer service attitude is spreading. Yesterday I visited the Colorado National Monument. At the entrance there’s a “checkpoint” where you either pay or present your season pass. The “ranger” at the gate looked at my card, immediately barked “I need to see your photo ID!” Then he carefully scrutinized both documents, held out my season pass and asked “Is this your signature?” Since I had done a fairly poor job of signing the back of the season pass I joked “for the most part, yes.” “Well is it or not?” Geez, I just want to go on a hike, buddy.

    Apparently the terrorists are invading the national parks and using phony season passes.

    • Ed says:

      As someone who works for the National Park Service (nowhere near Colorado, and at a site that doesn’t charge fees), I’m ashamed for that sort of treatment. That a visitor use assistant (the official title of a “ranger in a box”) acted like that is beyond the pale. Most folks I know are happy to wave anyone with a pass on in. Write the park superintendent and let them know what happened – I’m sure there’ll be consequences down the line.

    • Eirik says:

      This sounds like a good (bad, rather) example of someone whos got a badge and procedures, but no common sense. You find them everywhere.
      I guess their supervisors spooked them when hiring them and they wont let -anything- happen on their watch.

      Doesnt matter how unlikely it is to happen, procedures are to be followed. Sigh.

    • Lee says:

      Think that’s ridiculous? Apparently the Winchester, Virginia police think that terrorists are invading the annual Apple Blossom Festival and Parade. The Sunday after the parade, at Arts in the Park, you got your pack searched and your water bottle confiscated. There’s a percentage of people in this country that completely lost their minds after September 11, and it’s beginning to look like they’ll never get them back. Probably frustrated drama queens.

      • UncleStu says:

        “There’s a percentage of people in this country that completely lost their minds after September 11”

        We were propagandized, by our “leaders”, into a state of perpetual fear that has led us into wars, inconveniences, and a loss of privacy that were previously unimaginable.

        America the brave? Still think so?