Labor Day Weekend wouldn't be the cherished American ritual it is, without
cookouts, beer, one last beach weekend frequent updates on past technical, political, and aviation matters. To kick off this special all-weekend series, an airline industry insider's account on why the Transportation Security Administration condones class-war in the airport security system: Shorter lines for high-mileage passengers (like me! until my China-travel miles time out), all the longer waits for everyone else. Here's the inside view:
"You might have already gotten this from other sources, but as a 25-year airline industry veteran, the discriminatory TSA lines are easily explained.
"They exist because the Legacy Airlines cut a deal with senior-level political appointees in the early days of the TSA, and no one has ever challenged them, and it is set up so no one can challenge them. The airlines are, of course, not actually paying anything for the privilege of deciding which taxpayers have first-class/second-class access to federally mandated security screening. The "justification" is that airline rents and fees "pay" the costs of the airport, therefore they have the right to control how "public" spaces in the terminal are used. Neither airports or the TSA gets an incremental dollar for allowing this discrimination.
"The floor space used to sort passengers into different queues is officially controlled by the airlines, and is separate from the space (just behind it) that is controlled by the TSA. Thus the situation is quite different from discriminatory queues you might have experienced in London and other overseas points, where the airlines actually paid money to fund separate "business-class" airside access points. All that money you paid United to earn Platinum status pays for the lounges and upgrades you get. But your preferential TSA access is a gift from the government, and a "wealth" transfer from all of us in steerage to all of your friends in business class.
"When first introduced, I complained to TSA supervisors in dozens of different airports. Every one of them hated the system, because it made a subset of flyers angry about something the TSA had no control over, and it made their staffing and efficiency equations a bit harder to manage. Some TSAers spouted nonsense about "airport rules" or "the airlines paid for this", but most just rolled their eyes and acknowledged that there was nothing they (or you and I) could do about it.
"The logic here is obviously nonsense. The airlines are claiming that the money they paid to rent gates and ticketing space gives them "property rights" in public terminal space, that totally supercedes the rights of the taxpayers that actually funded the terminals. If this theory was valid, airlines would block access to immigration queues and public parking so that it could send Platinum Frequent Flyers to the front of the INS line and the closest parking spaces. [JF note: I have seen, and occasionally benefitted from, this front-of-the-line privilege for the immigration booth in England, Australia, and I believe Singapore.]
"The airports go along with this scam because the Legacy Airlines (somewhat legitimately) have a great deal of leverage on how airport fees are set and used. If the airports challenged the practice, there'd be huge lawsuits demanding that airline fees be reduced to exclude the costs of "governmental" space at the airport, and accepting the discriminatory status-quo costs the airport nothing. The private TSA position is that it goes along because it fears that it would have to huge space rental charges if the airline lawsuits prevailed, but of course there is absolutely no chance Congress would ever permit that to happen. The reality is that a political deal was cut with the TSA--a deal that the INS would never tolerate.
"As you know the "9/11" ticket surcharges in America are identical whether you paid $19 or $1900 for your ticket. Again, this was part of the original deal with the Legacy Airlines, who knew that a flat rate charge would shift more of the burden to passengers of Southwest Airlines and other LCCs [Low Cost Carriers]. The TSA queues force LCCs customers to wait longer than necessary, but have always been terrible at protecting their interests against these kind of political deals. Not having a well-staffed "Government Affairs" department keeps your costs low, but means you get screwed in situations like this. As Southwest continues to morph into a Legacy Airline, they've embraced the discriminatory queues themselves, even though 98% of their customers suffer. You or I could theoretically sue, but the airlines, airports and TSA would be willing to spend millions to fight us, the basis for our damages claim would be a little thin (ten minutes lost time standing in line?) and good luck finding a judge willing to challenge "security" claims to protect bleeding-heart concepts like "equal protection under the law".
"The airlines' goofy "property rights" theories are also critical to the Northeast congestion/delay problems you follow. The claim is that since the airlines paid landing fees and invested in hangars and such, it gives them absolute control over the LaGuardia slots they use, and the public's investment in airports and ATC infrastructure counts for nothing. Thus the airlines can use RJs to fill LaGuardia, even though this seriously reduces airport revenues, blocks competition and raises airfares, and generally reduces the value of existing LaGuardia capacity to the New York economy. To say nothing of the external costs of delays. But if anyone does anything to change landing fees or slot rules to address these problems, lawsuits demanding massive compensation for lost property rights will follow within the hour."
If nothing else, this explanation gives me some sympathy for.... the TSA! So that is a special holiday treat. More soon.