An Immodest Stab At Consensus-building

Post-election analyses are glumly one-sided in assessing the dubious prospects for bi-partisan progress in the offing. And today’s New York Times business report contained an item entitled, “Flier Patience Wears Thin at Checkpoints.” The palliative for both shortcomings rests in reform of TSA security procedures.

Republicans could rightly view this as a victory on a couple of fronts. First, in the face of burgeoning complaints over disrespectful TSA agents, the present screening procedures must surely come to be viewed as a particularly egregious example of the despised government intrusion into the lives of law-abiding citizens.

(A word here about the writer’s considerable experience with the TSA. After 9/11, I was apprehensive that the job would attract its share of bullies, who could indulge their aggressive instincts simply because the passenger-agent relationship allowed it. This has proven unfounded. Even the occasionally surly agent has never sunken lower than the minimum standard of courtesy. Some are actually friendly, though that’s not required.)

Second, the reform in question would be a deficit-fighter, as not only could TSA staff be cut, but also commercial opportunity created, as outlined below.

Along with the fiscal benefits, Democrats would appreciate a progressive development in the privacy battle, not to mention a measure of rationality restored to the situation: The exasperation felt by most frequent travelers is not just the inconvenience or humiliation, it’s the sense that its also largely superfluous to the intended goal.

As the Times article suggested, what’s needed is a risk-based approach. For a first step, I’d propose an ID issued to passengers who have flown a certain number of times – how about 50? – since 9/11. This means they’ve never had TSA issues, have no criminal record, etc., and thus at this point can logically be assumed not to pose a security threat. Obviously, they’d still have to verify their identity, but they’d be spared the laptops-and-shoes rigmarole (which of course other countries already skip).

The idea’s been suggested before, but one newly ascendant feature of the airline industry could grease the skids: Given their apparently insatiable appetite for supplemental revenue streams, from peanuts to boarding priority, perhaps the airlines could be assigned the issuance — for a fee, naturally — of the new IDs. Qualifying could be facilitated by frequent-flier account histories, followed, presumably, by a routine background check overseen by TSA.

It could even function as a passenger-loyalty booster. Airline industry officials voice concern that people will stop, or greatly curtail, travel by air. My rigorously unscientific survey among frequent-traveler friends indicates that it’s happening already.

A revised system like the one described above would relieve congestion, save money, and cut a break to passengers who’ve proved over and over to be civilized, or at least non-violent, and who can’t reasonably be expected to be patient in the face of increased scrutiny.

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