White House pushing for answers to airline industry woes

The Obama Administration is taking a closer look at the airline industry with the hopes that something can be fixed. Transportation Secretary Roy LaHood is pulling together a panel that will investigate the problems the industry faces and hopefully come up with a solution. But, I don’t think anyone’s breath is being held.

The airlines are always swamped with criticism, with consumers unhappy about customer service levels, on-time arrivals and departures, the shrinking list of amenities and increasingly cramped conditions. Now, shareholders are speaking louder about declining revenues and profits. Employees are losing their jobs, and regulators and industry observers worry about continued safety violations, including drunk and distracted pilots.

Ultimately, LaHood’s goal is for the panel to put together “a road map for the future of the aviation industry.” The panel is being convened thanks in part to a push from the airline unions, the stakeholders worried most by the layoffs that have now become routine. According to The Associated Press, they believe the industry is “dysfunctional.”

Of course, it didn’t take the airlines to offer their thoughts ask for money — lots of it. They claim that radar technology that dates back to World War II isn’t as effective as a GPS-based alternative. The industry would love to see this upgrade … as long as the government writes the check. The FAA is already prepared to spend $15 billion to $22 billion on this effort, but there is an additional $14 billion to $20 billion currently sent over to the airlines. The upside would be reductions in airport congestion, fuel consumption and carbon emissions.

The Air Transportation Association (shockingly) thinks the taxpayers should pay the bill because the system would benefit the whole country. US Airways CEO Doug Parker wrote a letter to LaHood saying that the airlines simply don’t have the cash to meet their end of this.

Unfortunately, the airline industry has once again asked for money and not offered any solutions of its own. No suggestion was offered as to any of the other difficulties pertaining to the industry, and I tend to become suspicious when there is only one problem identified. It implies that everything could be fixed, in this case, with the replacement of radar air traffic control systems with GPS technology. We’re dealing with an industry that has lost credibility rapidly, so even if this one grand move would address ever gripe, large and small, a willing audience is unlikely to take shape.

[Photo by extremeezine via Flickr]

Good TSA news: fewer SSSS victims. Bad TSA news: more gate searches

The TSA giveth, and the TSA taketh away. Never has that been more clear than with the way the agency deals with pulling people aside for a secondary search.

For years, some random and usually incorrect computer algorithm would pick victims for its “secondary security screening selectee” program. The dreaded “SSSS” on your boarding pass would mean someone at the checkpoint would yell out for a secondary search, and would pull you aside for a thorough screening.

Thing is, the whole scheme was broken, and scores of people would end up on a secret list of terror suspects, without any obvious way of being removed. Back in February, the new administration voted to fix the system, which should mean fewer people would be harassed at the checkpoint.

Of course, the whole thing also meant more of the agencies workers joined the “Thousands Standing Around”. So, in order to protect our airlines from potential terrorists, the agency is stepping up its gate screening activities.

Obviously not content with screening passengers once, you now run the risk of a random search at the gate, before you board your flight. A similar system was in place right after 9/11, but ended after a couple of years.

The new scheme does not make much sense, especially for passengers who walk from the checkpoint to the gate, only to be screened again. In their usual “scare people” response, the TSA reply is that this gate screening takes place because “security is our No. 1 priority”.

Some aviation consultants theorize that the increased screening is taking place because airline workers are not always screened, and may be able to pass weapons on to passengers. Of course, the logical solution would be to step up the screening efforts of airline workers, instead of harassing passengers. Especially when baggage handlers can steal computers and guns, and even TSA screeners are not always to be trusted, it would make more sense to screen everyone, and not just passengers.

A nice roundup of some of the dumbest things the TSA did in 2008

The TSA has made quite a name for itself when it comes to making stupid decisions. Whether it is forcing a mom to drink her own breast milk, or claiming a thin laptop could be a dangerous weapon, when the TSA screws up, they tend to screw up quite badly.

I’ve compiled some of the best TSA screwups we reported on here on Gadling in 2008.

Do not try and bring a gun through the checkpoint (unless you work for the TSA)

Can you imagine what would happen if you tried to sneak a gun past the security checkpoint? All hell would break loose, probably involving a complete terminal shutdown and a taser.

Unless of course you work for the TSA.

Back in April, Justin wrote about the TSA agent who smuggled a gun through the checkpoint. Instead of being fired, the agent was merely suspended for 30 days. Brilliant.

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Mock bomb passes through the checkpoint – CNN was there to document it

What is worse than an incompetent checkpoint that misses a mock bomb strapped to a TSA agent? Having the incident filmed on CNN!

When CNN got up close and personal with TSA undercover agent “Jason”, they probably did not expect to document someone sneaking a fake bomb past the security staff.

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1000’s of TSA uniforms and badges unaccounted for

October brought us the brilliant story of the TSA coming to the conclusion that they have lost track of thousands of uniforms and badges. Not just any old badge; these badges actually provide access to secure areas of the airport.

Apparently the TSA did not have a suitable system in place to check that retiring (or fired) agents were actually returning their stuff. So, while they are busy making sure you don’t bring dangerous bottled water on the plane, potential terrorists might be out there buying real TSA uniforms.

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Is that an Apple branded bomb in your bag?

When Apple released their new ultra-thin laptop, I doubt anyone at the design department ever thought that the TSA might confuse the sleek lines of the Macbook Air with a bomb.

Apparently the TSA had not been keeping up with the latest technologies enough to understand that a thin computer does not always have to be an explosive device.

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Breasts + nipple rings + pliers = TSA embarrassment

One of the more high profile stories involving the TSA this year, was an incident involving breasts and nipple rings.

While these 2 usually make for a steamy story that beings with “Dear Penthouse…”, this incident was quite embarrassing for the TSA.

When Mandi Hamlin passed through the checkpoint, she set off the handheld metal detector wand. Instead of just asking for a manual search by a female agent, the male TSA agents decided it would much more fun to give Mandi a pair of pliers and demand that she remove her nipple rings.

Once Gloria Allred go involved, the TSA announced it would change the way it screens passengers with body piercings.

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Greed knows no boundaries with this TSA agent

In September, I reported on a TSA agent who was helping himself to goodies from our luggage. Not content with low priced items like MP3 players and digital cameras, this idiot thought it would be cool to snag himself a $47,000 HD video camera from HBO.

As with most thieves, this guy got caught when he became too greedy. The FBI purchased one of his items off Ebay, and apprehended him.

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TSA behavior detection, detects not much more than that

In 2006, the TSA started a highly promoted “behavior detection program” which involved training their agents to detect terrorists based on nothing more than suspicious behavior.

In total, 160,000 people were flagged by this method, resulting in just 1,266 arrests. Aaron covered this waste of time and tax money in November including a priceless quote from a Carnegie Mellon professor who calls the program “a sham”.

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Sprained ankle? Prove it!

It’s bad enough when the antics at your checkpoint are merely annoying, it’s another when the screeners actually cause bodily harm.

That is what happened to Lorna Dunlap at Pasco, WA airport and Jeffrey wrote about this insane incident back in October.

Poor Lorna has sprained her ankle, forcing her to travel with a leg brace. Apparently, the screener wanted more proof of this injury, so told her to remove her leg brace and stand on one leg.

The stupidity caused her to fracture her leg in 2 places, but I’m sure she’s relieved to hear that the TSA is “looking into it”.

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Another breast related incident

The TSA really seems to have a problem with breasts. When you read what happened to Nancy Kates, you’d probably suspect that the TSA agents all received a memo warning about boobie bombs.

Nancy is a big-busted woman, but when her underwire set off the metal detector, it was the beginning of a 40 minute dispute that resulted in her having to explain to a TSA supervisor how the Constitution works.

In the end, the TSA was so kind as to let her simply remove her bra and go through the checkpoint again, but that didn’t stop her from making sure the entire world got to read her story.

Despite the TSA’s best intentions, what strange things have been found on planes?