The TSA gambled on millions of wealthy Americans opting out of its
porno-scanner-and-shoe-removal process and signing up for its Precheck
policy, which allows travelers to pay for the "privilege" of walking
through a metal-detector with their shoes on, while their laptops stay
in their bags.
It was a gamble that they lost. Americans have stayed away from the
process in droves, but the TSA had already committed to cutting staff in
anticipation of much lighter queues at their checkpoints. Instead of
lightening, the queues have got longer, as the US economy has recovered
and low fuel prices have kept the price of plane tickets down.
The TSA is now warning travelers to expect very long security lines this
summer (Denver Airport warns that its TSA queues can take three hours
to clear), as it scrambles to train more staff. In the meantime, whole
airports' worth of people are missing their flights, sending the airport
managers and airlines into rare public displays of temper against the
agency, calling the lines "unacceptable" (American Airlines), a "fiasco"
(Brent D. Cagle, interim director of aviation for Charlotte Douglas
International Airport) and accusing the agency of lying when it cites
crowds as the reason for lines (Denver Airport).
The agency still hopes that more people will sign up for Precheck, which
turns travel into a profit center for the agency, rather than a cost
center. A cynic might say that this summer's "fiascos" are an attempt to
squeeze user fees out of American travelers, but whether or not the
lines are a deliberate strategy is largely irrelevant, as it will
certainly have the effect of pushing more fliers into the Precheck
David Graeber remarked on the bizarre phenomenon of lengthening official lines in his brilliant essay The Utopia of Rules:
for decades during the Cold War, long official lines were the symbol of
the Soviet Union's oppressive, incompetent bureaucracy. With the fall
of the USSR, the lines have moved west, getting longer and longer, being
joined by official forms and systems that disproportionately target the
poor and vulnerable, while elites are exempt or exempt themselves by