TSA Makes Travelling Suck and Why we need Root Cause Analysis

I have just returned from a vacation trip to Italy, which was absolutely amazing. However, on my way back to Seattle from New York, I had a run-in with my friends from the Transportation Security Administration, and now I’m mad at a bunch of people. “President” George Bush. Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff. TSA Director Kip Hawley. LaGuardia Airport General Manager Warren Kroeppel. The TSA Supervisor who was working LaGuardia’s Security at 530 AM Eastern on Wednesday, 11 April 2007.

WARNING: This is a long rant. If you are only interested in the purpose of it and not it’s specifics, click here.

I must be on somebody’s watch list. This is not my first incident with TSA. I have one pretty much every time I fly, and I’ve been flying a lot over the past year and a half. My last major incident was on my return trip from the Free Press National Conference for Media Reform this past January (oh, and the time that they made me miss a flight in Seattle that I was more than on time for, but I digress). In Memphis, I had an interesting conversation with the screener, a Black woman, who did not like my clear, 1 quart container of 3 oz. bottles. As she was throwing my stuff away, she told me words I’ll never forget:

I have to fight this fight here sir.

Not sure why, but I never thought I’d hear a Black woman say that. Boy was I wrong.

Fast-forward to this past Wednesday and my next major TSA incident. This time, it wasn’t that they didn’t like my bag of bottles, it was that they didn’t like that some of the half-empty 3 oz. bottle didn’t have labels on them. The little intern that first handled my stuff looked perplexed when he saw my bag and, stupidly I might add, put the bag back through the X-Ray machine, as if something was going to change about the bag the second time around. He then looked to his boss, another Black woman incidentally, and asked her:

Some of these don’t have labels. Are they OK?

It was here that I said, “What’s the problem? I have a [smaller than] 1 quart clear plastic bag with not-even-full 3 oz. containers fitting in it ‘comfortably.’ I have been traveling with these in and out of not only LaGuardia, but JFK, Detroit, Minneapolis, Charlotte, Memphis, Rome, Paris, Amsterdam, and Las Vegas. Nobody ever had a problem with this stuff before, not even here! There are no rules about labels.” (note that I said this in a very, very un-calm tone). The woman in the security line behind me, a complete stranger, also jumped in and said that she had never seen or heard of such a restriction.

It was at this point that I was sure that logic would triumph. Again, boy was I wrong. The TSA “supervisor” lady told me flatly:

If it doesn’t have a label, I don’t know what it is, and you can’t take it on the plane.

I became even more un-calm then and demanded that I be shown this alleged rule and where it was posted at the airport. I let them know that I have read the entire TSA website, paying special attention to the section on what can and cannot be brought onto an aircraft. Not only is the word “label” not even on the page, but there is not even an implication that labels are needed on anything. In fact, the word “label” only appears 4 times on TSA’s website, and each time it appears it is in reference to people carrying medication or syringes, none of which I had with me. I then read out loud (again, in my un-calm voice, but this time much louder) the 3-1-1 poster I saw and the posted rules sheet (couldn’t find a link to this online). Again, nothing about labels anywhere. I guess I was the only “stupid” one to realize that (along with the lady behind me).

Since everyone was playing deaf, impotent, and illiterate, I went over to two men sitting at some podium/booth/desk thing who appeared to be watching over everything. I explained to them in my extra-un-calm voice about how this woman was about to discard $100 worth of 3 oz. liquids because she couldn’t read. I then told the guy that no sign anywhere in this airport or any other said anything about labels being a requirement. I also re-iterated the fact that I have traveled with these containers through this airport at least 3 times without incident. Then, he said what is arguable the most stupid thing that has been said to me since I listened to the State of the Union:

There are a lot of rules that we don’t post. We can’t tell you all of them. I know it’s inconsistent, but I can’t do anything about that.

My jaw dropped, and I considered whether or not this was worth me missing my flight to Seattle so that I could go to work that afternoon. Who knew that people could be so d@mn stupid?!?!?! “…rules we don’t post…” Was he for real? I’m in the process of filing my complaint for my compensation as I type…

This long rant does have a purpose. It calls into question how we are handling the so-called “War on Terror.” The reactionary bullsh!t we call security measures in this country lead to more headaches than safety assurances. It shows not only a lack of respect for decent citizens, but it shows blatant underestimation of “the enemy” by over-correcting in ways that assume that “the enemy” is dumb enough to try the same thing twice. Perhaps the thinking man’s approach would be one where we tried to work on what pissed “the enemy” off in the first place instead of only “fighting” against the results of them being mad and nothing more. When a kid burns his or her hand on the stove, you treat the wound. More importantly, however, you tell them not to put their hand on the stove, addressing what led to the injury in the first place. Why can’t we take this approach to Foreign Relations and National Security? Instead of having escalation as our only tactic, why not try a little Root Cause Analysis? Maybe then I could travel in peace.

I leave with a quote I head on the radio this week that sums up what is wrong with this administration:

People with Good Intentions trust their own people. People with Bad Intentions fear their own people.

One Love. One II.

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About Garlin Gilchrist II

I am the City of Detroit's first ever Deputy Technology Director for Civic Community Engagement. My job is to open up the city's public data and information for the consumption and benefit of all Detroiters. I currently live in Detroit, my hometown, with my beautiful wife Ellen and our twins Garlin III and Emily Grace. I'm from Detroit. I created Detroit Diaspora, and was formerly the National Campaign Director at MoveOn.org. I also co-hosted The #WinReport on "The Good Fight," a an award winning, nationally syndicated radio show that was one of Apple's Best of 2013. After graduating with degrees in Computer Engineering and Computer Science from the University of Michigan, I became a Software Engineer at Microsoft. By day, I helped build SharePoint into the fastest growth product in the company's history. On my personal time, I sought out opportunities to connect my technical skills with community building efforts across the country. This led to my co-founding The SuperSpade: Black Thought at the Highest Level, a leading Black political blog. I served as Social Media Manager for the 2008 Obama campaign in Washington, and then became Director of New Media at the Center for Community Change. I spent two years creating and implementing a strategy for the Center to take it's 40 years of community organizing experience into the digital age. I speak before diverse audiences on effective & responsive government, empowerment in revolutionary new organizing spaces, increasing civic engagement & participation through emerging technologies and protecting civil rights in the age of the Internet. Full bio here.

2 responses to “TSA Makes Travelling Suck and Why we need Root Cause Analysis”

  1. Kip Hawley says :

    You are right – there is no requirement to label 3 oz. bottles in the quart-size bag. We didn’t want to put our TSOs in the business of auditing the contents of the 3 oz. bottles (is that shampoo or did you put something that looks like shampoo…?). Instead we went with the results from National Lab explosives testing that said that at the 3 oz. level, there would not be a significant vulnerability. We can identify the liquids that could pose a problem through other means and as long as you keep it in the 3 oz. bottle and didn’t exceed the quart bag, we have a good way of letting liquids on the plane without adding significant vulnerability. I am sorry for our apparent mistakes and you losing your stuff. We will use this as a training opportunity. Thank you for paying such attention to the rules, I appreciate your willingness to work with us. Thanks also for venting — hopefully you know that our TSOs do a great job overall. It’d be great if you would give them a smile or recognition when you have a good experience as well. Thanks, Kip Hawley

  2. Garlin II says :

    Thank you Kip, your response pleasantly surprises me. I can respect that.

    I do not have a problem giving credit where I feel credit is due. The issue is that I have not had a good relationship with TSA for the last year, despite my living well within published rules and regulations. When things go smoothly, then my opinions will be different.

    Thank you for being accountable here. I am going to include your statement here about the lack of a label requirement in my claim, which should expedite my compensation. I will update here if it does not.

    One Love. One II.

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