Upgraded: Pancakes
Want to hide your junk from the TSA’s nude-o-scopes? Stuff pancakes made of explosives into your underwear. What?!

Upgraded, potentially: Star Alliance in Australia
Somewhat surprisingly, Virgin Blue is rumored to be interested in joining Star Alliance. Such a deal, if real, would likely make a pan-global Virgin alliance moot. So much for that theory. But for Star Alliance fans, a Virgin Blue tie-up would really open up a wide range of Australian destinations.

Upgraded, barely: US Airways lifetime status
US Airways has joined its peers and rolled out a lifetime elite level. One-million miles flown on US Airways flights yields only lowest-tier status, with Star Silver status attached. And it’s not even for life — you have to maintain activity at least every three years to retain the status. Pfft. Other airlines offer a much better deal. (Especially AA, among the US-based airlines, which counts all earned miles, and not just flown miles, when calculating million-miler status.) For a nice rundown of the various airlines’ million-miler options, see the Global Traveller’s breakdown.

Downgraded: Venezuelan humor
Unclear if this is truth or fiction, but a flight attendant was allegedly detained by Venezuelan authorities for announcing the time at the destination as “local Chavez time.” Chavez time? “In December 2007, Venezuela created its own time zone, moving the clock back half an hour on a permanent basis, and according to the U.S. embassy report, ‘the crew member was likely trying to remind passengers of this and to suggest they turn their watches back 30 minutes.’”

iceland express inflight ipad Upgrades and Downgrades: iPads inflight, contraband, biofuels, and security cartoons

Upgraded: iPads as inflight entertainment
Discount airline Iceland Express, which flies primarily within Europe, but also offers limited trans-Atlantic service from Reykjavik to New York and Winnipeg (Winnipeg!), is launching iPads as inflight entertainment. You’ll be able to rent an iPad onboard long-haul flights, for starters, and eventually on shorter flights. The unit will cost £9 or $13 to rent, with about 25 units on board each flight.

Upgraded: Contraband
Most of the news regarding TSA lately has been about junk-touching and radiation’s effects on the body, but what about the contents of the bags themselves? Well, according to a recent poll by British airfare aggregator SkyScanner, “a massive 43% of travellers admitted to having smuggled banned items past security staff; 29% had done so by accident, but 14% confessed to smuggling knowingly.”

Upgraded: Biofuels in the real world
Lufthansa is testing a 50-50 blend of traditional jet fuel and biofuel on Airbus A321 runs on the Hamburg-Frankfurt route, beginning April 2011. This isn’t just a one-off test. Been there, done that. This is a weeks-long test in a real-world environment, carrying paying passengers.

Upgraded: Classic airport security cartoons
In a good reminder that frustration with the TSA is nothing new, the New Yorker provides a brief cartoon retrospective mocking airport security. One dates back to 1938. Alas, most are post-9/11.

The warnings were everywhere — protestors opting out en masse from the TSA’s nude-o-scopes and the generalized mayhem that comes with the busiest travel days of the year were going to snarl holiday travels and bring America’s airports to a standstill. Didn’t happen.

My wife and I traveled yesterday, and, contrary to all the expectations, news reports, and hype, our walk through the TSA checkpoint at Charlotte Douglas Airport was the smoothest part of our trip.

The traffic to the airport? Hellish. Clogged interstates, with cops and speed traps everywhere.

Parking? The normal long term lots at CLT — and even the daily lot and deck — were full. Overflow parking, as far from the terminal as could be, was the only option.

The flight? Delayed. (Thankfully, since traffic had delayed us so badly.) We pushed off the gate late, but were towed to a parking area to wait for well over an hour for air traffic control in Newark to give the flight clearance. Hurry up and wait.

The seat? Not only was I in a middle seat in coach, but the gentleman-of-size next to me took over 30% of my personal space. I subsequently leaned into the missus, but still, playing contortionist for the flight (and ground delay) time is never fun. (Alas, no upgrades on this flight…)

But the security checkpoint? A breeze. The “advanced imaging” machine wasn’t even turned on. There was neither scanning nor groping. A short line of travelers shuffled quickly through three traditional metal detector lanes, without any junk-touching. Agents were even in a decent mood.

For all the doomsday hype, it was a real treat to walk through security so quickly and efficiently, and without any violation of fourth-amendment rights.

Categorized in: TSA

The national anger at the TSA is not just taking a toll on passengers’ patience — and rights. It’s now also taking a toll on airlines’ bottom lines: In the abstract, of course, some people will be dissuaded from traveling because of the bad press the airline experience is getting. But now Delta is, in limited cases, refunding passengers’ tickets even when the tickets were purchased as nonrefundable.

That’s a big deal.

Delta spokeswoman Susan Elliott said Monday that her airline is issuing refunds on a case-by-case basis for customers worried about the new screening steps. The move, however, does not constitute a new refund policy at the airline.

Their competitors haven’t bit yet. No other airlines are cutting passengers any slack. Perhaps that’s because they (and Delta, actually) aren’t actually raising a red flag yet:

The Delta and American officials said they were not seeing large numbers of cancelations related to the new security checks, but they had no specific numbers.

“I can’t say no one has canceled,” [American Airlines spokesman Tim] Smith said, adding that it’s “just not a trend.”

Hmm. Well, if it’s not a trend, then why is Delta giving anyone any refunds for this reason? …and why are they admitting it to journalists?! I suspect that Delta’s admission is a tell, and that we’ll hear more in coming weeks about how the TSA’s rules are affecting the airlines’ businesses. Not this week — planes are full for the Thanksgiving holiday — and maybe not even in December, as other holiday travel ramps up. But if public anger is still high in January (and it very well could be if changes are slow in coming) then expect to see airlines lobbying to change the TSA gropefest.

I know the discussion of the TSA is inevitably tiresome by now. But this item caught my attention:

Rep. John Mica, the Republican who will soon be chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, is reminding airports that they have a choice.

Mica, one of the authors of the original TSA bill, has recently written to the heads of more than 150 airports nationwide suggesting they opt out of TSA screening.

Opt out of TSA screening? Great tagline, and yes, it’s possible: “The 2001 law creating the TSA gave airports the right to opt out of the TSA program in favor of private screeners after a two-year period.”

Unfortunately, it’s not quite that simple. Opting out is actually called the “Screening Partnership Program,” but you’re not rid of the TSA just by asking them to leave. Sure, they may fire the federal screeners, but airports still have to maintain the TSA’s standards, procedures, and policies, even if the actual workers doing the screenings aren’t federal employees. So, from a traveler’s perspective, it’s a complete and utter wash.

So who has opted out already?

There are seventeen airports participating in a Screening Partnership Program: San Francisco International Airport, Kansas City International Airport, Greater Rochester International Airport, Sioux Falls Regional Airport, Jackson Hole Airport, Tupelo Regional Airport, Key West International Airport, Charles M. Schultz-Sonoma County Airport, Roswell Industrial Air Center, Havre, Lewistown, Sidney-Richland (SDY), MT, Glasgow, Wolf Point, Glendive, Miles City and E. 34th Street Heliport (6N5), NY.

The biggest player is obviously San Francisco, which joined the SPP in November 2006. I’ve flown to and through SFO in that time, though admittedly not in about a year, but never noticed anything out of the ordinary at the time.

But at the end of the day, don’t let the rhetoric fool you. Yes, an opt-out provision exists for airports, but you’ll still be subject to TSA-mandated security techniques. Prepare for your groping, even at an airport that has opted out.

Categorized in: airport security, TSA

So, I’ve been out of commission on the blog for a week and a half, and in the meantime people have been getting “complimentary gropings” at airports across America, aircraft engines have exploded and put the Airbus A380 program in jeopardy, stranded cruise ship passengers have been airlifted Spam and PopTarts, and people have mistaken aircraft contrails for missile launches. Clearly, a great week in human history.

But the most widespread travel discussions here in the US have been over the full-body screenings by TSA officials, and the opt-out option of a full-body groping, including breasts and genitalia.

Public polling of the American electorate still shows widespread support for the heightened screenings, but that support is in the abstract. Ask again in six months, when more passengers have flown and experienced it for themselves. Ask again when limiting the sample size to actual travelers. And ask yourself, why are we doing this in the first place?

Is the scan-or-grope policy leading to increased safety, or is it an instantly-obsolete defense that will easily and immediately be defeated?

I submit that, at this point, I actually think the TSA checkpoints themselves, and not the aircraft in the secure area, may be the riskiest spots in the airport. This isn’t a commentary on the radiation, the groping, or the searches and seizures, at least not directly. But don’t let it be a surprise to you if those TSA checkpoints are going to be the real targets soon.

I fear that checkpoints will be a viable target for both al Qaeda-esque “chaos villains” who want to disrupt the flow of normal travel life, and for anti-government McVeigh-esque self-styled patriots looking to make a statement against the perceived overreach of the government agency. Either depraved act would have a chilling effect on travel, and more importantly on an already fearful society.

As we harden the security perimeter, and as long as the motivations of terrorists persist, we increase the likelihood that an attack will be attempted in, say, the area prior to security, where crowds are dense and scanning hasn’t yet taken place. Or where cargo is stored (and barely checked). This is the fundamental weakness of the increased intrusiveness, spearheaded by expensive investments in equipment over intelligence. Technology and intrusive groping techniques won’t end up preventing attacks; they’ll just force the threat to move to another location, likely merely steps away.

It’s the Maginot Line of travel. After World War I, the French military built a series of fortified bunkers to protect themselves from the eventual next German invasion. The fortifications took a decade to build and cost a fortune. They were impressive, and indeed, the Germans didn’t attack the line head-on. Instead, they found a weakness and went around it, driving deep into France within five days. I see the constant escalation in airport security technology in the same way. Lots of fanfare, enormous spend, but easily circumvented by a dedicated attacker.

I don’t envy the TSA agents who do their jobs, as they face down the anger and frustration of a long stream of innocent people who are stripped of their dignity in order to be transported from point A to point B. Now it’s appropriate to worry about them becoming targets.

Categorized in: airport security, TSA