Friday, November 19, 2010

Humanizing Air Travel

It is gratifying in the extreme to see consumers responding in increasingly vociferous fashion to the accelerating dehumanization of air travel: kudos, in particular, to the founders of We Won’t Fly. It would be truly exciting if ordinary people managed to persuade the USG to retreat by ending the pat-downs and pornoscanners.

But it would be very unfortunate if, should they win this battle, passengers let up the pressure for more decent traveling conditions. Yes, the TSA has gone too far; but it’s never not gone too far. While the latest indignities are atrocious, if we treat the air travel regime in place before they began as largely acceptable, we will provide incontrovertible evidence that, like the frog in the proverbial kettle, we’ve become far too tolerant of abuse.

Even before 9/11, air travel was often unpleasant. There was too much screening; too much passenger time and energy were wasted on dealing with security theatre. But during the past nine years, we’ve moved from the antechamber of hell to its seventh or eighth circle. To take some obvious examples:

  • Our ability to check in at the last minute has been impeded by rules that preclude checking in less than thirty minutes before take-off. (Remember Robert Hayes’s last minute pursuit of Elaine onto her flight in Airplane? Presumably, it wouldn’t even be possible under today’s asinine rules.)
  • More broadly, our time is wasted by tedious security screenings that simultaneously necessitate our spending far more time in airports than we once did and subject us to persistent and repeated indignities. We’re forced to remove our shoes, to permit our belongings to be searched in a far more detailed fashion than we once did, and to surrender harmless nail clippers and toothpaste tubes to thugs backed up by other thugs with guns.
  • Perhaps most irritatingly, in order to avoid making the screening process even longer, people without tickets aren’t allowed to come to airport gates to see off or collect their friends.
And the entire process is designed to treat everyone like a potential criminal. It’s this process, and not merely the use of this or that screening device or security technique, that has to end. A few tweaks here and there simply aren’t sufficient to fix the problem.

(1) The most basic feature of any solution has to be the recognition that the TSA’s security theatre is a response to factors created by the USG’s foreign policy. Suicide terrorism isn't a product of blood-lust or religious mania, however much those things may facilitate it: it's a (completely immoral) reaction, born of powerlessness and frustration, to imperial violence. If the USG really wants dramatically to reduce the risk of suicide terrorism, it simply needs to leave Iraq, leave Afghanistan, and close its network of military bases around the world (a move that would, conveniently, also save taxpayers [at least] hundreds of billions of dollars).

(2) As long as it continues to provide or regulate air travel security, passengers must keep demanding that the USG roll back air travel security regulations, at minimum, to their pre-9/11 level.

(3) Ultimately, though, the USG needs to get out of the airport security business. Consumers themselves need to be free to decide just what kinds of risks they're willing to tolerate: they should be free to choose low-risk/low-intrusiveness airlines or minimally-lower-risk/high-intrusiveness airlines (the deliberately tendentious formulation reflects my conviction that the real impact on passenger safety of Gestapo tactics is limited). (One qualifier: airlines that negligently allow passengers to be harmed in virtue of the imposition of risks greater than those for which the passengers contracted, or which negligently allow third parties to be harmed by suicide terrorists’ use of planes, ought to be subject to appropriate sorts of tort liability. This would presumably affect airlines’ security policies.) Michael Chertoff can fly under whatever conditions he likes; I just don't want him and his corporate paymasters determining under what conditions I do.

Responding to an earlier version of these remarks, an acquaintance observed that airlines could use responsibility for security as an excuse for higher prices and bad service. No doubt. But it is difficult to imagine a less consumer-friendly environment than the one that obtains now. And since airlines and airports would have reason to compete on the convenience-and-dignity vs. security mix, there would, at any rate, be pressure for the treatment of consumers to improve. At present, by contrast, airlines and airports have no reason to give consumers’ concerns any weight at all.

Passenger anger at airport indignities can play a crucial role in making air travel more humane. But it can do so only if passengers continue to protest until they are treated like valued customers rather than criminals and slaves—until the root causes of suicide terrorism are addressed, post-9/11 indignities are eliminated, and, ultimately, air travel security arrangements are set by mutual agreements between airlines and consumers.