The Transportation Security Administration likes to keep terrorists guessing. Apparently, it likes to keep travelers guessing, too.
And we do. Shoes on -- or off? Laptop computer in the bag -- or on the conveyor belt? And tickets: middle name, middle initial or just first and last? Oh, and are they going to pull you over at the gate for additional screening?
"We don't want to be consistent," TSA spokeswoman Lauren Gaches told me. "We want to be flexible. We don't want a checklist mentality. If we are predictable, it could become easier for someone who wants to do us harm to figure out the system."
A little context is in order. Gaches and I were talking about TSA officers' essential ability to use their discretion during the screening process, and why some of them, for example, allow a half-empty tube of Crest in a carry-on bag to slide through but will pull aside travelers for no reason other than that they think they look suspicious.
There's no denying that the screening process often perplexes air travelers.
Last year, for instance, TSA officers at North Dakota's Grand Forks International Airport told Susan Jean Schostag that she could pack a few jars of peanut butter in her carry-on luggage. (Why on Earth would anyone bring 16 ounces of Skippy on a plane? Schostag, an administrative assistant who lives in Grand Forks, was flying to Germany. And if you've ever lived in Germany, you know it's almost impossible to find good peanut butter there.)
But this fall, a TSA agent at the same airport told her that peanut butter was verboten in carry-on bags. "We know about the liquid rule, of course," Schostag said. "But this is just stupid."
Or how about Kenneth Akin -- actually, make that Kenneth Alexander Akin, Jr., a retiree from Sierra Vista, Ariz. His name is the problem. "I'm not really sure what the hell TSA is asking for and what the airlines are doing," he told me. He's flying to Mexico this month and can't figure out what name should be on his airline ticket.
In preparation for TSA's Secure Flight program, which is intended to streamline the watch list matching process and is now being put into effect, his airline asked him to update his frequent flier accounts with his full legal name as it appears on his ID. But that's easier said than done. The name fields allowed him to revise his account only to add a middle name, but no "Jr." "When I tried to do 'Akin, Jr.' I got a minus on my report card," he said.
Airlines grading passengers? What's this world coming to?
"So TSA wants full name, but the airlines do not develop the form to input the full name," Akin said.
There are perfectly good explanations for both of those apparent inconsistencies. Secure Flight, the TSA will tell you, is a work in progress, and the agency's liquid-and-gel rules are clearly spelled out on its website. (How they're interpreted -- well, that's another story.)
I asked security expert Bruce Schneier, one of the TSA's most outspoken critics, why air travelers continue to be confounded by the rules. "Because," he said, "they're confusing."
He doesn't see the point to the airport screening theater. "If you try to figure out the point, you'll be frustrated," he told me.
Maybe the TSA is a little confused, too. Try working for an agency where you have to be transparent, yet at the same time opaque; where customers expect consistency but you need to stay unpredictable; and where the only real measure of success is when nothing happens. No wonder the agency has an alarmingly high turnover rate among senior executives, according to a recent U.S. Government Accountability Office report.
I can't be objective or even consistent on the subject of the TSA and the way it treats air travelers. I've been covering this agency from the beginning, and in the eight years since its creation, I've criticized it, praised it, ridiculed it and called for more funding and for it to be de-funded. If TSA has been consistent about one thing, it's the way in which it mystifies the travelers it's supposed to protect.
You want a quick fix? Sorry. My best advice is to expect the unexpected when you arrive at the airport. Give yourself more time than they say you need. Put everything on the conveyor belt. Be prepared for a secondary screening, a frisking and a game of 20 Questions.
That's how the TSA likes it.
Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the host of "What You Get For The Money: Vacations" on the Fine Living Network. E-mail him at email@example.com.
(c) 2009 Christopher Elliott. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.