The Cost of Security Hassle (and of Cruddy Infrastructure)

Often I forget to mention items appearing on Patrick Smith's Ask the Pilot site, probably because I've assumed that people interested in airlines, airplanes, airports, and aviation security will already have seen them.

Here's an exception I want to highlight (and thanks to reader SG). That is because it clarifies something that is well known to people who have spent time outside America but that often goes unnoticed or undiscussed inside our country. I'll let Smith lay it out:

With scattered exceptions, U.S. airports don't have a whole lot going for them. Putting aside aesthetics, cleanliness and a lack of public transport options, another thing that doesn't help, and which you don't hear about much, is that American airports simply do not recognize the "in transit" concept. All passengers arriving from overseas, even if they're merely transiting to a third country, are forced to clear customs and immigration, recheck their luggage, pass through TSA screening, etc. It's an enormous hassle that you don't find in most places overseas. Compare it to Singapore, Dubai, Frankfurt, Amsterdam and so on, where transit passengers walk from one gate to the next with a minimum of fuss. [JF note: The exception in my experience is Frankfurt, where connections are often a hassle.]

Here's how this hurts us: Flying from Australia to Europe, for instance, a traveler has the option of flying westbound, via Asia (namely Singapore, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur or Hong Kong) or the Middle East (Dubai, Qatar), or eastbound via the U.S. West Coast (Los Angeles or San Francisco). Even though the distance and flying times are about the same, almost everybody will opt for the westbound option. [ie, avoiding America.] The airports are spotless and packed with amenities, while the connection is painless and efficient.
Change planes at LAX or SFO, on the other hand, and you'd have to stand in at least three different lines, be photographed and fingerprinted, collect and recheck your bags, endure the TSA rigmarole, and so on, just to change planes. Few passengers will choose this option, and I suspect it costs our airlines many millions annually in lost revenue. Indeed, this is part of what has made carriers like Emirates, Singapore Airlines and others so successful.

This might seem a small thing -- hey, so what if these foreign jet-setters endure some hassle? -- but I think it is emblematic of some cumulatively larger issues. Americans are habituated to griping about our airports and airlines, but I sense that people haven't internalized how comparatively backward and unpleasant this part of our "modern" infrastructure has become. Along with our freeways, bridges, subways, buses, and other transport-related aspects of our built environment. To put it another way: we love to bitch about American "decline" but are usually thinking in metaphorical terms, or about whatever political trend we deplore. The truth is, when you go to other countries you see that many of them seem more modern and efficient than America does. In a very tangible sense America looks old and "declined."

I think there is a similar failure of imagination about how hostile-seeming the whole process of getting into America has become, even for those fully vetted with green cards or visas -- or for those merely "in transit," as Smith's item notes. Most Americans still assume that foreigners all dream of coming here. The "Build a Fence!" crowd thinks all Mexicans are desperate to crawl in and steal jobs; the "America the Beautiful" group [which is most of us] thinks Japanese and Germans want to come enjoy our scenery; the idealists at universities or tech companies are proud that Indians, Chinese, and all others want to come here for the research labs and free-speech seminars. And to some extent each is true. What's left out of the mental picture is the increasing outside-world impression of the U.S. as one giant TSA screening-line. We may overestimate how much general unpleasantness other people will put up with -- if they have a choice of traveling (or studying or investing) somewhere else.

Maybe this is why I (like Patrick Smith) am so hard-over on the anti-"security theater" campaign. I keep seeing reminders elsewhere that it doesn't have to be done in our heavy-handed way. I mention all this in a "State of the Union" spirit. Also, I'm biased toward seeing a nation's transportation and aerospace ambitions as a proxy for its modernity, this being a big theme of my forthcoming China book.

But for now, and the ever-cherished spirit of balance, after the jump a traveler's defense of the TSA, at least in the Rand Paul case.

A reader in New York writes:

Obviously, I don't know what exactly happened with Rand Paul and the TSA screening, but let's start by recognizing that he has an agenda:  He sees the TSA screening procedures as oppressive and, presumably, as an attack on individual liberty.  He also believes that the TSA should be profiling for high-risk terrorism suspects, rather than universal/random searches.  It's also possible that Paul, as a U.S. Senator, has that sense of entitlement which elected officials often display.

I would understand his ire if he thought he was being singled out because of who he is.  But to take offense at random searches?  Even if it were true that the TSA has set the scanners to randomly kick out some travelers for further screening, that might be an appropriate cross-checking device and even if totally unnecessary, it hardly seems worth creating a scene over this.
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.


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