Registered Capture

by on June 4, 2008 · 8 comments

What Tom said:

The Registered Traveler program, you might recall, is a fairly new initiative by which air passengers can pass through expedited security lines by paying a $100-ish yearly fee to one of several private firms that then run regular background checks. If enroll you pass through faster lines, and eventually you may be allowed to do things like keep your shoes on or your laptop in your bag. It’s meant for frequent travelers, and we, the public, are assured that the fees will provide additional lines and personnel — there should be no effect on those who don’t enroll.

This was not our experience. The young woman brought by the TSA employee was allowed to cut in front of us, and was then personally led through the security process like a blind baby kitten. That was irritating, but not a particularly large inconvenience — like I said, the lines weren’t long. But there also wasn’t much of a point to plopping that lady’s patrician ass in front of us and escorting her through — it probably made her feel special, and us less so, but nobody was saved or cost any meaningful amount of time. Still, if this is the system they use during busy periods, it really is going to make air travel worse for everyone who doesn’t pony up $100/year to gain entry into the program.

Now of course there’s nothing wrong with charging more for better service. But I think there’s at least a little something wrong when that service is a government-mandated barrier to travel, and more so when it’s one powered by secret lists and standards about which appeal is nearly or completely impossible. It also seems like a bad idea to give richer — and therefore more influential — passengers a way out of a system that, without some sort of opposing pressure, will inevitably become more and more irritating and inhumane as bureaucrats try to save their jobs by figuring out up ways to prevent plots that no one can anticipate.

It has crossed my mind that the liquid ban probably improves sales at concession stands inside the security perimeter. I’m not quite cynical enough to think that there’s a concessionaire’s lobby that pushed for the liquid ban, although I wouldn’t be shocked to learn some vendors are subtly encouraging TSA not to lift the ban.

But it’s much easier to imagine how a program like RT could be corrupted. The value of RT flows directly from the inconvenience imposed on non-customers, and revenue from the RT program apparently helps hire more TSA agents. So the net effect is to give the TSA both a vested interest in making the inspection process more obnoxious and a cluster of private interests with the same incentives. If the revenues become significant, it’s not hard to imagine a revolving door between mid-level TSA officials and the private company who administer these programs.

And the point about opting out is the most important one, in my view. Our only hope of someday having a sane airport security system is that the system inconveniences a significant number of wealthy, well-connect people. If those wealthy, well connected people are allowed to buy their way out of the system, it will be that much harder to fix things.

Of course, the really rich and influential people are flying on private jets, and not surprisingly, they’ve already arranged to bypass airport security entirely. So we may already be out of luck.

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