A Wake Up Call on Airport Security

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It was inevitable that TSA would face a high-profile Fourth Amendment challenge for its use of full-body scanners as a primary airport security tool. I'm a little surprised, however, that the challenge is coming from an active airline pilot, as we reported last week in this story. In standing his ground on Fourth Amendment principle, Michael Roberts has plainly placed his career in jeopardy and in so doing, has probably spoken for many in the airline industry, not to mention the traveling public. In reading over Roberts' lucid description of his experience with the TSA in Memphis on October 16, I didn't get the impression of a wild-eyed, paranoid anti-government whack job but of a principled person who has just had enough of the insidious creep of pointless government airline security procedures.

Roberts believes the full-body scan or alternate TSA pat down procedure is a clear Fourth Amendment violation, constituting warrantless search. He is pursuing a court challenge—a good thing—but may find no relief there. This issue has never been elevated to the U.S. Supreme Court but two circuit courts have ruled that an unwarranted search with no probable cause is allowable under something called the administrative search doctrine. Courts in the 1970s established this doctrine to allow searches conducted as part of a general regulatory scheme in furtherance of an administrative purpose rather than evidence-seeking for a crime. But does this extend to intrusive body scans? Pat downs? How about body cavity searches? Or restraining subjects forcefully for the purposes of either? Where should the line be drawn? Roberts is angling for the Supreme Court to decide.

Meanwhile, his case may serve as a rallying point for a parallel political effort to push back against government excess through budgeting and administrative means. In a season of loud noisemaking, the Tea Party's clarion call is to reverse unwelcome government intrusion, excessive expenditures and erosion of basic rights and the TSA is all those things wrapped into one. Perhaps a Congressperson or two could spend less time worrying about wedge issues and make trimming back TSA's authority and reach a popular cause for legislation.

At the very least, there should be an independent office or agency whose sole job is to aggressively investigate and report on TSA employee and procedural abuses, with the authority to take action, including firing people. Furthermore, no uniformed airline crew person with proper identification should be required to do anything other than pass through a metal detector, if that.

For a political solution to take root, we as the flying public have to reject the political class's habit of using fear of terrorism as a cudgel to gain votes. In that sense, TSA is a campaign button for some pols. We have to understand that no security apparatus will protect us against all attacks and that there will be attacks and not just on and from airliners. In other words, in demanding our rights, we accept some degree of risk. We have to grow up.

I can't think of a single person in aviation—professional pilot or otherwise—who thinks some kind of commercial airport security isn't necessary. Roberts said as much himself. I also don't know anyone who thinks that what we have now is anything other than an absurd charade which gets more costly, more intrusive, more aggravating and more pointless with each passing year. There's simply no collective will to tell the government we've had enough. Someone has to speak for the people and currently, no one is.

If nothing else, Michael Roberts has offered a wake-up call. It may take many more to finally have some action on this issue.

Comments (36)

Paul, if I may say, respectfully, it appears you are coming (or have come) around to comments I made on some AvWeb threads (and a personal e-mail communication to you in response to your challenge) many months ago. Liberty and freedom are being infringed, however incrementally. The incursions into freedom are not resulting in any increased security.

Perhaps a rational way to react is that offered by www.DownsizeDC.org, in their campaign to Congress entitled "I am not afraid", in which anyone can send e-mails to Congress about this topic, for free, without having to tediously fill out all the nonsense legislators put on their website e-mail forms. I do this several times a month. Imagine what Congress would do if 400,000 did this several times every month?

Posted by: Bruce Liddel | October 25, 2010 1:52 PM    Report this comment

I'm glad to see someone with credibility making a case for "enough already". The fact that he has put up his career as an ante makes him even more so. All I can think of these days at airports is the old Clint Eastwood film Firefox, with KGB agents stopping everyone and asking for "your papers please". Time to send the TSA packing.

"Malo Periculosam Libertatem Quam Quietum Servitium."

Posted by: Jerry Plante | October 25, 2010 2:14 PM    Report this comment

I agree, ENOUGH is ENOUGH when pilots are being full body searched before boarding their own aircraft. The TSA is wasting time and money on such senseless searches.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | October 25, 2010 2:44 PM    Report this comment

I couldn't agree more. I'm glad someone is finally taking notice.

Posted by: Brad Vaught | October 26, 2010 11:24 AM    Report this comment

Imagine what would happen if the entire ALPA membership did what Mr. Roberts decided to do. ATC proved you can't go on strike against the Feds in the early 80's, but then again, this wouldn't be going on strike!

Posted by: christopher perkins | October 27, 2010 5:04 PM    Report this comment

Hi Paul...Good article!

Security is always a balancing act of protecting the collective good of the public with protecting the rights of the individual. We need to stay engaged as both a community of aviators and as individual pilots. Just as TSA learned with the LASP last year, 7,000+ negative responses translates into many, many disapproving American citizens. So I recommend not only lending our support to the many alphabet soup groups who send responses on behalf of their memberships, but also adding to the chorus with our own individual voices.

Don't forget to voice your opinion--vote in the upcoming elections.

Cheers from the Alamo...Dave Hook

Posted by: David Hook | October 28, 2010 7:22 AM    Report this comment

I noticed in the newspaper this morning that British Airways, Heathrow officials and the EU are also officially commenting that the US security rules (including removing shoes, removing laptops as well as the full body scans) are too intrusive, and incidentally, not effective. So there is now official resistance at levels higher than a single brave soul pilot. Interestingly, the Germans (Lufthansa) were circumspect and non-committal. I can see the stereotype views pouring in on that one.

Posted by: TOM LUBBEN | October 28, 2010 9:16 AM    Report this comment

What we have is not security. It is security theater, but at a horrendous cost. Every time I'm standing in those half-mile-long lines it is sickening to think I'm paying to get delayed and abused like this, for no real increase in security. There is no such thing as perfect security, and we are staffing and operating as though this system gives us perfect security.

Posted by: Don Smith | October 28, 2010 9:17 AM    Report this comment

"..single person in aviation who thinks some kind of commercial airport security isn't necessary."
We don't have an airport security system..we have a system to annoy, employ, and hassle as many people as possible!

Posted by: CRAIG DOW | October 28, 2010 9:33 AM    Report this comment

We've characteristically seized on a technological solution that is effective only at invading our privacy. As James Fallows reported in The Atlantic earlier this year, consider "the flat-out judgment of the person in charge of airline security in Israel [Rafi Sela] that the whole idea is preposterous and another illustration of easily-thwarted, Maginot Line-style, tech-heavy "security theater" thinking.

Rafi Sela told parliamentarians probing the state of aviation safety in Canada 'I don't know why everybody is running to buy these expensive and useless machines. I can overcome the body scanners with enough explosives to bring down a Boeing 747. That's why we haven't put them in our airport,' Sela said, referring to Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion International Airport, which has some of the toughest security in the world."

Posted by: Robert Davison | October 28, 2010 9:53 AM    Report this comment

After my wife, chosen at random, was given an embarrasingly intrusive full-body pat-down search - in full public view, not behind a screen - when leaving Baltimore three years ago, we have decided not to visit the United States again until more respect is shown to travellers. That is not incompatible with security checks, the necessity for which we fully recognise, but the TSA staff do not seem to understand that, or care.

Posted by: Unknown | October 28, 2010 10:18 AM    Report this comment

I'm (thank the Lord) retired from commercial aviation after some 22,000 hours. My wife and I don't fly unless its absolutely necessary. The unsensitive TSA is the main reason. Heck, we can't even fly a 172 OUT of the country to Canada without TSA permission, and the same to come back. We don't need this.

Posted by: RAY GIBOULEAU | October 28, 2010 11:03 AM    Report this comment

Having been harassed at border crossings by overzealous DHS guards, searched by aviation security screeners I wonder more and more who it is we should be concerned about? Citizens, both Canadian and US have few if any avenues of recourse when pursuing complaints against paramilitary security services. Laws seem to be enacted in the name of terrorism which give carte blanche to such intrusions into citizen rights and freedoms. Some of the stuff done is just plain silly! I don't feel more secure, just more watched.

Posted by: Terry Spurgeon | October 28, 2010 11:38 AM    Report this comment

We can't even secure our national border effectively and properly, and we want the TSA altered or removed? I commend Mr. Roberts on his intent, but to me the entrenched fear and as Paul mentioned immaturity of society as a whole is really the wall in the way. All we need is another attempted attack like the goofy shoe and underwear failures and we're off and running again. Politicos using fear of terrorism is just like some of the negative, despicable ads being used now for next weeks' election. Why? They work. Switching the political power groups back and forth every few years by 'voting' never works in the long run. It's just a nice pacifier for the masses. Just look around at the majority of people - some pilots included. They're facinated with electronic gizmos to the point of being startling. It's the new personal fulfillment trend. We're less healthy, fatter, have poorer interpersonal skills, but watch me operate these tecknotoys. Interesting how technological advancements can illuminate the condition of social advancement in other areas.

Posted by: David Miller | October 28, 2010 2:37 PM    Report this comment

The meaning of terroism is that you do not know when, where, how the next attack will come. So we have this HUGE federal agency looking for what they don't know they're looking for. TSA really does stand for Thousands Standing Around. I have a fake knee so I am treated to their full attention every time I have to fly and I say a silent thanks every time I pass through security successfully without being arrested for telling them exactly what I think of their procedures.


Posted by: Linda Pendleton | October 28, 2010 4:54 PM    Report this comment

The current airport security screening of passengers/crews is nothing more than a dog & pony show in the 3-ring circus that airline travel has become. While the clowns of the TSA are performing this farce upstairs, tens of thousands of airport workers, fuelers, cleaners, rampers, are daily accessing the secure area through the downstairs card-reader doors with NO screening at all. Many of these people are non-citizens, even illegal aliens, & some don't even speak English. Current airport security is mostly for show & is beyond absurd.

Posted by: Bob Merritt | October 28, 2010 6:32 PM    Report this comment

Paul thanks for your article! Also I say "Thanks to Michael Roberts" for his stand.
My wife and I for many years flew back and forth between Oklahoma City to Phoenix AZ, to visit our daughter's family. My wife was a "stroke victim" and land travel was a stress for her! So now she had to endure the ‘random TSA’ body searches! The so-called RANDOM TSA body searches were 100% for my wife in a wheelchair. Eight flights, six years, 16 pat-downs each trip. 100%? Is that random?
By the time I got through the TSA metal detector screen, TSA had wheeled my wife around to the other side and trying to pull her out of the wheelchair for a pat down. She couldn’t standup and needed a walker. I believe each flight produced additional stress, producing future ‘mini-strokes’. Eventually my wife asked for a ‘Car-trip’ instead, because of the body searches by air! That ground trip failed when a sliding door at a ‘rest stop’ in Texas closed on her walker and she was injured when she fell... She had another stroke after that!

Posted by: George Durning | October 29, 2010 2:25 PM    Report this comment

Unfortunately the trend by the US government to continuously make inroads into hard-won civil liberties spills over into other countries.

Here, in South Africa, we are also having our rights abused by the authorities on the basis of "national security" and nonsense about "the war on terror".

Perhaps in the USA it is understandable: the US has been pretty much continuously at war with someone (even Granada!) ever since the founding fathers sat down around a table.

But in South Africa there is no terrorism, no threats to national security, no wars. Yet we still inherit your government's threats to our freedoms - especially in aviation!

Posted by: Chris Martinus | October 29, 2010 2:56 PM    Report this comment

Good for Michael Roberts, having spent 20 years in airport security I can tell you for certain that if someone wants something on an airplane (gun, explosive, knife, whatever) and is determined enough, it will be on the airplane. The U.S.A. is the only country in the world that makes you remove you shoes. The Terminally Stupid Agency is nothing but a intrusion into the liberties of the traveling public. A little more profiling and a lot less political correctness would be a whole lot more effective. Hopefully this case will make it to the Supreme Court and then we will see if we truly have a free country or country that gives up it's liberties for a little false security.

Posted by: Duane Hallman | October 29, 2010 3:34 PM    Report this comment

Isn't there a firearm present in airliner cockpits now? Regardless, anyone who's sitting at the controls of an airplane has a pretty good shot at bringing it down if that's their aim, armed or not.

Just illustrates the ridiculousness of it all.

Posted by: Mike Holshouser | October 29, 2010 5:24 PM    Report this comment

I flew for a fractional jet company for 10 years. The thing I hated the most about the job was airlining to work one week and home the next. The worst part of that was TSA. Even with the ID and in uniform, we were subject to strict TSA searches, usually because the ticket was bought the day of travel. Don't they realise terrorists can plan ahead a couple of days? The searches are based on old guidelines, for instance, our tickets were always one way.
I applaud Michael Roberts standing up for all of us. I was too close to retirement to stand up myself and did not have the guts to do it like Michael did.

Posted by: ROBERT MCEACHERN | October 30, 2010 10:47 AM    Report this comment

The most amazing thing about that forum topic is the discussion of how ludicrous the security checks for the crews are, yet the ground crews and aircraft cabin maintenance people aren't checked at all at most airports when the enter the SIDA and have complete access to the aircraft, and TSA people are no longer required to go through theur security equipment because of the difficulty of removing their badges that set off the metal detectors.

Posted by: Dean Billing | November 1, 2010 11:37 AM    Report this comment

On a similar and related topic... Why is it that we, General Aviation, are singled out for special treatment in the DC area, or any area that the POTUS visits. If I remember correctly, it was airline aircraft that were used a few years back. Yet the airlines can continue to fly. We, in our smaller aircraft, are grounded. I live in Las Vegas, and am getting pretty damn sick and tired of having the entire city closed to GA whenever the President drops in. We have a number of flight schools and tour operators in the city, and they all loose money every time. I travel as a consultant in our 172 (because I can't stand dealing with the TSA, and the airlines don't get me to where I need to go). When are we going to stand up and demand our fair treatment? The safety of GA, and it's potential for terrorist use has been studied (at tax payer expense) and the verdict is that GA IS NOT A THREAT. So when are these stupid TFR's going to end?

Posted by: Ken Anderson | November 1, 2010 11:56 AM    Report this comment

I guess I'm in the minority here, but I see two things wrong with Roberts' actions.
1. By making such a public show (and then blogging/bragging about it), he has essential told all passengers that they should feel free to reject anything they are asked to do with which they disagree as an invasion of their 4th Amendment rights. So if you are asked to do something like buckle your seat belt, turn off your MP3 player, etc., just say no and then brag about the fact that you stood up for your "rights". How long do you think that will last?
2. It has long been known that terrorist organizations are quietly placing sleeper cells throughout the West. I have to believe those include airline personnel at ALL levels, pilots included. If a pilot can overpower the first officer, or vice versa, then they have complete command of their guided missile. Sadly, many flight schools (mine included) have chosen to shut down rather than endure the risk of training the next 9/11 pilots.

I'd rather have a little too much security than not enough. The passenger airlines and TSA must be doing something right since the air cargo companies seem to have become the easier target, as shown by the events of the last couple of days.

Posted by: Stuart Ball | November 1, 2010 1:15 PM    Report this comment

Bravo Zulu to Mr. Roberts for being a true patriot and putting his livelihood on the line to support one of our fundamental, documented rights. Hopefully, any number of groups that defend our rights, like the Landmark Legal Foundation, will help Mr. Roberts carry this case to the US Supreme Court, and to persuade our elected representatives to reign in the TSA. As usual, technology has gotten ahead of the government regulation bureaucracy and political correctness crowd who have no problem with eliminating our freedom in the name of (false) security. The one item in the thread I do not agree with is that uniformed crew should be exempted from the pat down/body scan, while the rest of us continue to have our rights abused. The real answer is to start profiling the bad guys and leave the rest of us alone.

Posted by: John Salak | November 1, 2010 1:38 PM    Report this comment

Is it true that either DHS or TSA, when asked what security procedures are in place to protect against airport perimeter RPGs, responded that they must first address security issues relating to boarding passengers? If true, it seems to be a strange response. But then, what is the value added to have F-16s escort an airplane with a suspected cargo issue?

Posted by: Douglas Manuel | November 1, 2010 2:01 PM    Report this comment

Does an airline pilot, who has completed his arms training and is permitted to carry a concealed pistol on his flight, have to remove his weapon while being scanned?

Posted by: JOEL MAYHALL | November 1, 2010 7:03 PM    Report this comment

I went through a TSA millimeter wavelength full body scan prior to boarding a commercial flight a few weeks ago. Submitting to the scan didn't upset me as much as the irresponsible TSA procedures in conducting the scan. I was instructed to empty all of my pockets, including my wallet, and place them in the plastic tray with my shoes, watch, and wedding band. As the line waiting for the body scan grew to 6 people deep, TSA began allowing people who were in line behind me to pass me by and, instead, pass through the metal detector. My wallet and valuables were exposed and unprotected on the far side of the x-ray machine while I was stuck in line waiting for the body scan. I'll never agree to be separated from my valuables again.

Posted by: Charles Dickinson | November 1, 2010 8:31 PM    Report this comment

The simple truth is that the Global War On Terror is a fraud of epic proportions. Great for business, if one is in the right business, but a fraud nonetheless.

I commend Michael Roberts for his personal efforts to 'restore sanity', if that is even possible anymore, and I wish him the very best of luck in whichever field he ends up.

Posted by: Richard Sinnott | November 1, 2010 9:00 PM    Report this comment

The truly sick thing is that the U.S. has become what we once hated, the Nazi and Soviet regimes with all their papers, secret police, etc. and we take it. You know, there is never not an excuse by a government to implement these schemes. They're always going to say, "But this is different." What was different? You want real security on an airliner? Give every adult passenger a 22 handgun when boarding with 1 .22 short bullet.

Posted by: Michael Mahoney | November 2, 2010 8:38 AM    Report this comment

“Anyone who trades liberty for security deserves neither liberty nor security” - Benjamin Franklin

Posted by: Chris Martinus | November 2, 2010 10:13 AM    Report this comment

I can't help but think that every scare, every tightening of the security cordons, and every newscast is a boon to the "Terrorists". They cost everyone much money. They terrify the populace. They gain much press coverage. THEY WIN BIG TIME !

So....we can debate this forever. In the meantime the power of these nightmares might serve certain political agendas as well as the financial outlook of those who gain from supplying equipment, tell stories etc.

Talk about a circus!

Posted by: Charles Elliot | November 2, 2010 10:25 AM    Report this comment

My wife a natural born citizen of the USA, and I, an Australian citizen both in our seventies reside in New Zealand. We travel extensively in the South Pacific and each year we visit family and friends in the USA. I was a professional pilot for half a century. Firstly, I have no quarrel with airport security though I do feel nostalgic for the times gone by when we could wander about an aerodrome at will. My aviation career started when my father took me as a youngster for an afternoon stroll around the hangars at Eagle Farm aerodrome at Brisbane in the late forties. Realistically and reasonably those days are long gone. As already stated we need airport security in these days of uncertainty and real threats.
However, the extent of the intrusive b-------t we, as passengers have to put up with to fly, particularly to and within the USA, is totally over the top. OK I can already hear the cry “Hey Aussie if you don’t like it don’t come here”. Be that as it may, this story is not about me, it’s about my wife who is a citizen of the USA. She has more metal in her body than the Titanic! Two artificial knees, one artificial hip and the other hip and femur held together with plates and screws. Until recently all she needed to do was go to the disabled line and declare her ironmongery and the security officer would wave the wand over and around her and that was it. Continued ---

Posted by: Mick Brannigan | November 3, 2010 11:20 AM    Report this comment

Continued from above.
Departing recently from Denver she was directed to walk through the scanner thingo with the obvious result that it went crazy. She was then directed to the search area by an obviously very green, inexperienced, officious officer apparently bent on demonstrating her power who then called a supervisor. My wife was then subject to a search and swab test by this officer who was young enough to be her grand-daughter. My wife asked her if she wanted to go the whole hog and conduct a vaginal examination as well which the officer declined. I was in the search area with them and the supervisor, a much older woman, was obviously embarrassed but was apparently powerless to halt the process. The upshot of this performance was that, despite our arriving at the airport two hours, that’s right two hours, before the scheduled departure time the flight was delayed for us and we were the last to board. Needless to say, there was no overhead locker space left available and we had to endure the inconvenience of having our cabin luggage including my walking aid further restricting the very limited leg room available.
Continued ---

Posted by: Mick Brannigan | November 3, 2010 11:24 AM    Report this comment

Continued from above.
When are the security officers going to be as well trained as the customs and immigration officials in, dare I say it, profiling? Those officials have been successfully and efficiently making judgement calls on the people standing in front of them for years. There is no need to treat fare paying passengers, not to mention crewmembers, like common criminals to “keep us safe”. This sort of paranoia empowers those threatening us without doing its intended job of “keeping us safe”. I suppose the security procedures is a bit like a child sucking his thumb while hugging his security blanket, it keeps him feeling good while doing nothing much in the way of protecting him. The end.

Posted by: Mick Brannigan | November 3, 2010 11:26 AM    Report this comment

Sadly, yesterday Americans missed a perfect opportunity to do something about this nonsense. Once again, the Democrats and Republicans took something like 95% of the popular vote, though neither of those parties wants to end the runaway authoritarianism.

Posted by: Bruce Liddel | November 4, 2010 7:43 PM    Report this comment

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