Summer is a time for vacations, parks, family, sports… and travel.
Often, this includes flying. And ever since 9/11, flying has been a grind.
Following the terrorist attacks, Congress authorized the federal government to nationalize airport security. This led to the creation of a giant, unresponsive, unionized bureaucracy that has taken over the airport screening process.
And like most government power grabs, this one has been a disaster.
The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) combines the efficiency of the United Auto Workers with the customer service of the Department of Motor Vehicles to create a toxic mix of pain for the unsuspecting airline customer.
Today, the cost of screening has never been higher, and the unpleasantness of the process has never been greater. But I have some practical tips that should help you navigate air travel pitfalls and fly like a VIP this summer.
Avoid Airport Lines… Forever
This summer, the cost of flying is rising dramatically.
Starting on July 21, the TSA security fee – which was fixed at $5 per flight, with a max of $10 per trip – is more than doubling to $11.20. Depending how many stops your flight includes, the fee could be as high as $28.
Politicians love this sort of tax because someone else gets blamed. Most Americans will just assume that airlines have raised ticket prices, leaving Congress faultless. Meanwhile, the airlines are powerless to stop it.
On the bright side, Congress has been pressuring the TSA to improve its screening process.
The biggest change is the TSA’s new pre-check program. Sometimes, pre-check is randomly assigned, but you can also sign up for it permanently, and I encourage you to take the time to complete the process. If you fly more than once or twice a year, it’ll repay you easily.
Getting TSA pre-check status requires a background check. To join the program, you just apply, sit through an interview and give your fingerprints. Now, I understand if you’re skeptical about leaving your fingerprints with the TSA… but many Americans are likely already on file. For example, I entered the database years ago when I joined the U.S. Army.
All in all, the pre-check list is wonderful. You don’t take your shoes off. You don’t have to walk through the cancer-causing scanners. You don’t even have to empty your bags or pull out your laptop.
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Personally, I was given pre-check when I joined Global Entry, which, if you travel abroad, is highly advantageous. The program allows you to bypass the U.S. Customs and Border Protection on your return to the United States. Instead of standing in a long line, you simply scan your documents at an automated entry kiosk that resembles an ATM, and off you go.
Unfortunately, there’s a bit of a catch.
You see, the TSA has another list, and if you slip up – say an unkind word or give an obnoxious TSA officer a dirty look – you could land on the list of people who are disqualified from using the pre-check line.
It isn’t as bad as the no-fly list, but if you land on it, you can expect an unpleasant time when boarding your next flight.
That’s because, as a group, TSA screeners are obsessed with power. The more practical among them are attracted to the job because of the large government pension, elite medical benefits and structured union work rules. But becoming a TSA officer is also a way to gain power over one’s fellow citizens.
With little real oversight, the list of people forbidden from pre-check is at the whim of any officer who awoke on the wrong side of the bed.
On top of that, the TSA won’t even tell you if you’re on the list, as it’s a highly guarded secret. And the process to get removed from the pre-check disqualification list is difficult.
That being said, if you find yourself on the dreaded list, write an appeal to the TSA’s Risk Officer at tsa.gov/contact-us. If you’re part of the Global Entry program, you can also appeal to the Ombudsman of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection at CBP.firstname.lastname@example.org.
My final piece of advice is to approach any TSA officer with a pleasant smile, even if he or she makes you mad. Never talk back, and keep your eyes lowered. And remember, it was probably worse in East Berlin before the wall came down.
Your eyes on the Hill,