Airport Security Signals

Lars Christensen has a theory of airport security:

…my theory is that if you meet an unfriendly bureaucrat at the security check in the airport then it is also very likely it will be hard to start a business in that country. Therefore, I tend to think of airport security as an indicator of the level of government regulation of the country’s economy. This is something that makes me terribly bearish on the US’ long-term growth perspectives every time I encounter a TSA official in an US airport – and makes me terribly depressed about the prospects for Ukraine and it gives me an understanding of why the Scandinavian countries ‘works’ well despite excessively large public sectors.

It was therefore a pleasure today to meet friendly and efficient people at the security check in Chopin airport (Poland). And if my theory has any value this is an indication that Poland has “matured” and the level of regulation is luckily getting lighter. That is good news. So now I am thinking of raising my long-run growth forecasts for Poland…

I recently asked my young son whether he thought he could travel by himself to visit his grandmother in Victoria, Canada. He said that he could navigate the airports fine and getting into Canada was no problem but he was afraid of the security people coming back into the United States. Bear in mind that my son is American.

Comments

The U.S. security experience is terrible and ought to be fixed. The P.R. value of giving visitors to your county a good first impression is quite high, I would think.

Still, this theory is bunk.

We can just focus on how the security theater is garbage on its own terms.

@Andrew'

Some 'garbage' works better than others..

“Ressam says that on the morning of Dec. 14, he called Meskini and told him he would be in Seattle that evening. That afternoon, he took a ferry from Victoria, B.C., to Port Angeles, Wash., with more than 100 pounds of explosives stashed in the wheelbed of the trunk of his rental car. His accomplice, Dahoumane, did not travel with him.

At Victoria, U.S. immigration pre-clearance agents were mildly suspicious of Ressam. They made him open his trunk, but saw nothing. He presented his fake Canadian passport, and the computer check turned up no previous convictions or warrants in the name of Benni Noris. Ressam drove his rental car, with its concealed bomb, onto the ferry heading for Washington state. Upon his arrival at Port Angeles, a U.S. customs agent became suspicious of his hesitant answers to her questions, and she asked for identification. Agents began searching the car. As they discovered the explosive materials — which they at first took to be drugs — in the trunk of the car, Ressam tried to run away. He was caught and arrested.”

In real life, Customs routinely turns back people ineligible to enter the U.S. One famous example follows

“Orlando airport officer honored for turning back 20th hijacker WASHINGTON (AP) — Inconsistent answers. No return plane ticket. Those were some of the things that made immigration officer Jose Melendez-Perez feel that “something was not right” one August day 2 1/2 years ago as he questioned a man traveling from Dubai, who just arrived in the United States.

The man, Mohamed al-Qahtani, whom U.S. authorities stopped at Florida’s Orlando International Airport on Aug. 4, 2001, was put back on a plane out of the country. U.S. officials would later come to believe that al-Qahtani may have planned to be the 20th Sept. 11 hijacker. “

I know of someone from the Ukraine who came here on a tourist visa, romanced some naive woman from West Virginia, and they travelled around the country. They went into Mexico, and on trying to return they found out his visa did not allow for re-entry. But it was Christmas Eve, so the border control agent cut him some slack and let him in.

The lesson I learned is if you're trying to cross the border into the U.S. and your papers aren't quite in order, do it on Christmas Eve.

...from Mexico, and accompanied by a woman from West Virginia.

I've long held the view that the more ornate/militaristic the uniform of the border agents in any given country the more difficult that country is to operate in.

To my mind , post 9-11 US security is the single biggest impediment to increasing trade with the USA. From their perspective inside the country most Americans cannot see the friction this creates in their economy.

Peter D
Canada

Many Americans are embarrassingly insular. When you live in a border state, in particular, one that does significant trade with Canada, the security burden is viewed with disdain.

@Peter D,

I cross international borders (including the USA) with some frequency. Long lines? Yes. Hassles? Near zero. The Russians gave me some grief for attempting to smuggle a matchbook (souvenir). They explained 'your government requires us to do this'. They were right of course. Took all of two minutes to resolve (they kept the matches).

The only exception was leaving Columbia at the height of the drug wars. Security was overwhelming. Planes had been bombed recently and the entire country was in a state of siege.

@Peter D,

More on Columbia and the USA. After finally leaving Columbia I flew to Miami. To say the least, the Customs folks in Miami were suspicious of my trip to Columbia. I was singled out (very overtly) for additional screen. An agent talked to me for five minutes (less actually). That was it. No searches. No drug dogs. Nothing but a few questions about where I went to school (backup for my occupation).

Milwaukee's airport is a treat - the "recombobulation area" after the xray machines never fails to make me smile

Your son is smart. They have ruined more lives than they've saved. That's not hard, though, they've saved zero.

@Andrew'

@Andrew’

Zero is an awfully small number.

“Ressam says that on the morning of Dec. 14, he called Meskini and told him he would be in Seattle that evening. That afternoon, he took a ferry from Victoria, B.C., to Port Angeles, Wash., with more than 100 pounds of explosives stashed in the wheelbed of the trunk of his rental car. His accomplice, Dahoumane, did not travel with him.

At Victoria, U.S. immigration pre-clearance agents were mildly suspicious of Ressam. They made him open his trunk, but saw nothing. He presented his fake Canadian passport, and the computer check turned up no previous convictions or warrants in the name of Benni Noris. Ressam drove his rental car, with its concealed bomb, onto the ferry heading for Washington state. Upon his arrival at Port Angeles, a U.S. customs agent became suspicious of his hesitant answers to her questions, and she asked for identification. Agents began searching the car. As they discovered the explosive materials — which they at first took to be drugs — in the trunk of the car, Ressam tried to run away. He was caught and arrested.”

"So now I am thinking of raising my long-run growth forecasts for Poland…"

I was totally hoping for "So now I am thinking of raising my family in Poland."

Not buying that it's that bad. I've flown internationally several times in the past two years and had no difficulties beyond long lines and moderate disorganization. I'm sure it's much more difficult for non-citizens but on the list of things that cripple American entrepreneurship I'd put airport security very far down the list. I also spent 2 years crossing the US-Canada border a minimum of once a month (in grad. school at McGill, fiance in Mass.) - it was fine nearly every time. Same sort of 30 second interaction, except when I tried to bring over too much beer (Quebec's beer taxes are remarkably high - I suspect it is a tax designed to target Anglophones and Americans).

The TSA have issues with waste, laziness and incompetence but I've seldom found them to be hostile. They will become hostile if you go into the process determined to be surly and hate them - their jobs are boring and pointless and they deal with a lot of crap all the time; just be friendly, follow instructions, make their jobs easy and things will go smoothly.

There is the little thing about how they have not a snowball's chance of stopping what they exist to stop.

But, your advice is good because unlike terrorists, the TSA can really ruin your life and it's better to work through the political process than through civil disobedience at this time.

One can argue that the TSA is useless, but to claim that terrorists are harmless is kind of fatuous. I think some people at the Boston Marathon had their lives ruined.

Odds?

Recently someone did some numbers that the cost of airport security in terms of miles travel diverted to driving have cost in the thousands of lives.

A real tradeoff equation would be if the TSA were reducing terrorist attacks. They aren't.

http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2012-11-18/how-airport-security-is-killing-us

You won't be hurt by a terrorist. You will be hurt by the TSA.

@Andrew'

"There is the little thing about how they have not a snowball’s chance of stopping what they exist to stop"

Do your homework. Some snowballs are luckier than others. Some thrive in hell.

"Ressam says that on the morning of Dec. 14, he called Meskini and told him he would be in Seattle that evening. That afternoon, he took a ferry from Victoria, B.C., to Port Angeles, Wash., with more than 100 pounds of explosives stashed in the wheelbed of the trunk of his rental car. His accomplice, Dahoumane, did not travel with him.

At Victoria, U.S. immigration pre-clearance agents were mildly suspicious of Ressam. They made him open his trunk, but saw nothing. He presented his fake Canadian passport, and the computer check turned up no previous convictions or warrants in the name of Benni Noris. Ressam drove his rental car, with its concealed bomb, onto the ferry heading for Washington state. Upon his arrival at Port Angeles, a U.S. customs agent became suspicious of his hesitant answers to her questions, and she asked for identification. Agents began searching the car. As they discovered the explosive materials -- which they at first took to be drugs -- in the trunk of the car, Ressam tried to run away. He was caught and arrested."

In real life, Customs routinely turns back people ineligible to enter the U.S. One famous example follows

"Orlando airport officer honored for turning back 20th hijacker
WASHINGTON (AP) — Inconsistent answers. No return plane ticket. Those were some of the things that made immigration officer Jose Melendez-Perez feel that "something was not right" one August day 2 1/2 years ago as he questioned a man traveling from Dubai, who just arrived in the United States.

The man, Mohamed al-Qahtani, whom U.S. authorities stopped at Florida's Orlando International Airport on Aug. 4, 2001, was put back on a plane out of the country. U.S. officials would later come to believe that al-Qahtani may have planned to be the 20th Sept. 11 hijacker. "

How many times do you want to post that? And what does Customs enforcement at a ferry terminal in Washington have to do with airport security?

The argument is not that the TSA cripple's American entrepreneurship, the argument is that the border process is a signal about the rest of the government.

That's what the argument would be about, if there were any argument presented, but in fact there isn't. No data, nothing that could even be called careful observation, just a cute story and a meaningless prediction that the author of the prediction has no intention of acting on. It's perfect fodder for a blog post, but not anything you could gain any real insight from.

Then feel free to simply use this as another opportunity to make fun of a candy-ass country filled with douchebags who are willing to kill people in order to feel falsely safe.

My first thought was the current IRS scandal. Border agents and tax collectors and regulators generally have enormous power over the narrow field in which they have jurisdiction. A government who figures that the populace are it's enemies will use these blunt instruments. If you don't think this is an indication of whether you would like to do business you should go into business to find out how real these issues are. Almost every rule has a term that leaves the final details up to the inspector. If they don't want to be satisfied for some reason or other you are further ahead turning around and doing business in another country which is more hospitable, or better put, has a sense of reality. Government exists on the results of business being conducted.

I think there are a couple of factors which in my experience really affect the quality of the interaction:

1. Your trips were for very clear and understandable purposes; trips to visit a friend of a friend, or where you're going to stay with a couchsurfing host, or with more complicated itineraries are treated with much more suspicion.

2. Travelers with passports not issued by the origin or destination country of the border crossing get much more suspicion.

3. Travelers who do not speak English well are often treated very rudely.

4. Bus travelers are treated much less well than train, air, and car travelers.

In general, I think a heightened index of suspicion may be reasonable in all these cases, for various reasons, but I don't understand why rudeness invariably accompanies additional suspicion. Additional questions or documentation can be requested, and are in many countries, without the rude and belittling tone often assumed by U.S. ICE officers.

@Ryan Miller,

That all makes sense. Just standard police procedure. Check if the suspects have a story that makes any sense at all. They usually don't. You would think that criminals / terrorists would always be careful enough to have a plausible story (and that all of the stories for criminals / terrorists in a group would match). That's not the real world. Obviously fake stories are much more the norm.

Police routinely split up criminals traveling together to see if their stories match. Typically they don't. Same rules apply to terrorists

“Orlando airport officer honored for turning back 20th hijacker WASHINGTON (AP) — Inconsistent answers. No return plane ticket. Those were some of the things that made immigration officer Jose Melendez-Perez feel that “something was not right” one August day 2 1/2 years ago as he questioned a man traveling from Dubai, who just arrived in the United States.

The man, Mohamed al-Qahtani, whom U.S. authorities stopped at Florida’s Orlando International Airport on Aug. 4, 2001, was put back on a plane out of the country. U.S. officials would later come to believe that al-Qahtani may have planned to be the 20th Sept. 11 hijacker. “

http://www.rifters.com/crawl/?p=932

Peter Watts runs into border "security" at what I hope is its worst when returning to the US.

I'm puzzled - foreign visitors wouldn't encounter the TSA until after they've been in the United States and are returning home or going on domestic flights. Their first official interactions would be with customs and immigration people.

Not anymore.

"U.S. Security Expands Presence at Foreign Airports"
http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/14/world/europe/us-security-has-beachhead-at-foreign-airports.html

"Airports in 14 countries are participating in the programs, which have been expanded over the last several years and have required substantial concessions from foreign leaders. In many cases they have agreed to allow American officers to be placed in the heart of their airports and to give them the authority to carry weapons, detain passengers and pull them off flights. "

This article is about CBP, not TSA. CBP pre-clearance -- where you get interviewed by an American immigration inspector in a foreign airport and have your passport stamped right there -- has existed for years in some Canadian and Irish airports. Peter is correct. People flying to the United States do not interact with TSA agents at either their departure airport nor upon arrival.

You know what the funny thing is? A foreign airport's security officer who possess first-hand knowledge of the common profiles of local travelers, speaks local language, uses common sense, and gets paid less than 1/5 of a TSA overseas officer's salary probably has more chance of ever thwarting a terrorist plot. What are we doing really?

I'm a huge TSA hater, but I've actually always had really painless experiences with the customs/immigration parts of getting back into the country (other than lines that were longer than I would have liked).

I've never had a problem with an immigration officer, and my beef with the immigration system is that it's excessive, unnecessary and more inconvenient for returning Americans than any other system I've observed in the world. Europeans returning to Europe don't have to stand in long lines to have their passports swiped and their movements tracked. Only Americans, as far as I can tell, do.

But customs, I've had issues with. They seem to have very little regard for traveler's time and can be gruff an accusatory. Standing around waiting for 20 minutes for a random inspection should be unacceptable. If they don't have the capacity to do better than that, they should be randomly screening at lower rates.

Anyway, my TSA issues are more with the system and design, which is wasteful and useless, than with the individual TSA agents, whose demeanor and efficacy vary greatly.

Completely agree with everything you said.

I have an NZ friend who will not fly to or from London by way of LA anymore. He goes the other way thro' Singapore. He tells me that many others feel the same way.

Unlike almost every other country, the USA insists that all travelers go through the process of entering the USA, even if they continuing on to another country. So, where making an international connection in most countries involves getting off one plane and getting on another, making such a connection in the USA involves getting off one plane, waiting in a line for several hours, getting your retina scanned and your picture taken if you are not an American, having your bags inspected, and then and only then being allowed to get on your next flight. It makes no sense.

I think the "process everyone" issue has more to do with flights departing from more than one terminal at most US airports. When I've changed at Narita or Manchester (UK in any case) it seems that there was a dedicated terminal that served both the arriving and departing international flights. In contrast at Philly and Charlotte for example, all foreign flights arrive at a single terminal but the departing flights leave from all over the place. I don't see any good way of sorting people who are staying in the terminal from those who are not and doubt it would be cost efficient to redesign the airports to do so.

Except in this instance, all of the eastbound Auckland flights to London stop in LAX, which is perfectly suited to keeping transit passengers separate. I am told the experience is not as brutal as it has been, but the physical violation continues. So westbound we shall go.

Some people claim we need TSA to prevent another 911.

What's the point of building a whole industry of security theater across major airports, making life hell for tens of millions of travelers, wasting billions of dollar on hiring illiterate thugs and putting uniforms on them, when the only thing terrorists need to do to "replicate" 911 is to spend something like $100,000 to hire a private charter flight with only them and two unarmed pilots on an empty 767? You can even load anything you want, choose when and where you want to take off.

@Mike H,

"What’s the point of building a whole industry of security theater across major airports, making life hell for tens of millions of travelers, wasting billions of dollar on hiring illiterate thugs and putting uniforms on them, when the only thing terrorists need to do to “replicate” 911 is to spend something like $100,000 to hire a private charter flight with only them and two unarmed pilots on an empty 767? You can even load anything you want, choose when and where you want to take off."

Won't work. The Feds are more than smart enough for that one. Various mechanisms exist to prevent that attack mode. Of course, others exist... and might someday be used.

Charter flights operate on a very difference security standard and procedure than scheduled commercial flights. If you hire a jet you can choose which airport to take off from (thereby evading airports that have TSA screening), when to take off, what to load on that plane, who to fly with you. You can hire your own crews or even fly the plane personally as long as the company lending that plane lets you. Even if TSA starts forcing naked strip search on all commercial flight passengers, it will not have an effect on private jet travelers and charter operators. The only thing to close this loophole is to shut down the whole general aviation industry and ban private airstrips.

Oh and, I believe the terrorists do know perfectly well about this loophole. The reasons they stopped trying 911-style attack have more to do with their change in strategies and focuses. The Feds and the TSA have little to do with it.

Yes, the point is that the vibe of the security is a sign of the vibe of the government bureaucracy.

That's why Scott's advice, while largely accurate (" just be friendly, follow instructions, make their jobs easy and things will go smoothly"), demonstrates why the U.S. is becoming a difficult nation to do business in. I should be able to get onto a plane without trouble even if I'm feeling grumpy that day -- I should only be stopped from boarding if I'm dangerous, not unfriendly. A government (and a culture) that finds it acceptable that someone should not be able to use the product they have purchased (airline ticket) unless they are nice to government agents is antithetical to the free flow of the market.

So, you're suggesting that TSA, and by implication the US government bureaucracy in general, is particularly egregious in this respect? Has anybody tested this hypothesis in a country with supposedly "nice" police and/or bureaucrats? If you go to, say, Canada, and you're surly to a police officer to the point of impeding him from doing his job (and in my observation it takes at least that much to get the TSA to hassle you in any serious way), is he really going to pat you on the head and offer his thanks for making his job more difficult? I'm sekptical.

No, I'm not suggesting the current U.S. is more egregious than other nations.

I compare our expectations and ideals to our previously held ones.

It's nothing new that being discourteous will get you worse service than courtesy will, of course. You know the rule, if you're going to be rude to your waitress, make sure you do it after the meal is on the table.

But this isn't about service, this is about being able to detain, search, separate, confiscate -- huge powers in the hands of folks who are not prevented from using that power to punish anyone not showing deference.

I wouldn't make a comparison with police officers because police normally confront only those individuals under suspicion of a specific crime that has been already committed -- TSA confronts every person traveling by air. There should be different policies. But even if I accept the comparison, police routinely take huge amounts of verbal abuse, surliness, angry outbursts, argument, name calling from folks they are questioning or arresting. Surly is not illegal. I wouldn't expect a police officer to do any head patting, but officers that detain or search someone to get back at them for being surly are subject to discipline.

Immigration and customs people at US airports are the face of country that is afraid of everything. I lived there for 8 years, got my Ph.D and work at an Ivy League school just before 9-11. Those guys were not nice then, but today they are nasty. In fact, despite how harmful is for my career and the fact that I like many things about the "american way", I avoid as much as I could to travel to the USA. I have had horrible experiences even when I have taken my kids there (bear in mind that one of my kids is American). I do not know if what you see at the airports there discourages business, but it clearly discourages cultural exchange broadly defined, something that the US should be promoting as well as any other globalized country.

This theory has one little bitty problem: The security personnel in Spain and Italy are utterly pleasant.

Many little problems. I've found Hong Kong to be pretty serious an unfriendly. Shanghai too (maybe China's unfriendly to business, but it's certainly growing).

And really, I don't find TSA to the uniformly bad.

Yup, I was going to make similar observations. TSA varies; the personnel at LAX are fairly stiff and unhelpful but the ones at PDX (Portland, OR) are quite friendly and humorous.

I found that the customs experience at Shanghai varied also: lots of people in military-looking uniforms with not a single smile. But on the other hand, it was probably the fastest and easiest entry I've had into any country: no questions, no bag inspection, they simply stamped my passport. There was a big x-ray machine with guys in uniform standing by it; I wasn't sure if I was supposed to put my baggage there but the guy just shook his head so I just kept walking.

However I think the experience for a Chinese citizen was quite different. I saw yards and yards of counters for processing Chinese citizens who wished to fly out of Shanghai -- it looked like much of the processing involved listing what articles and objects they had with them. I suspect (but I didn't actually witness this) that Chinese citizens upon re-entering get closely inspected for smuggled objects, and need to prove that the stuff they're bringing in was stuff that they already owned when they departed.

At least in the scientific community, people just seem to be finding it too much unpleasant to go to the US. It's very clear international scientific conferences are moving away from the US - many have gone from 'usually US, occasionally somewhere else' to 'occasionally US, usually elsewhere, often Canada'. Someone should do a proper statistical study across various fields, the data would be trivial (though tedious) to look up.

Maybe in business, it's less flexible, but IIRC at one point recently the IETF had held 7 or 8 consecutive meetings outside the US (having previously held one out of every 3 or 4 meetings outside the US). I can't imagine that internet engineering is so different from other international standardization bodies.

Maybe it has something to do with the growing American science denial movement... Not that I wanted to comment on a silly post about airport agents' friendliness being an indicator for economic forecasting, but I liked this comment.

Having flown a dog from the US to the UK and back again (3 years apart, 4 airports), the Americans were scum and the Scots/English delightful.

"Sir, you've been randomly selected for additional security screening."

"Really? What a remarkable coincidence, because you've been randomly selected to kiss my ass."

The TSA, like the government education system and most other government bureaucracies, is an employment program for ZMP people. Hiring people who are not human garbage would defeat the purpose of the program.

Why can't we put them where they can't kill people?

I didn't find the customs people in Toronto's YYZ airport to be as friendly as the rest of Canada -- lots of questions about "why are you here on business, why is this being done by an American company and not a Canadian one..."

But of course they were no where near as brash and rude as the American customs officers.

Singapore customs, despite the country's terrible laws about drug trafficking, chewing gum, and gay rights pretty much went like this: *stamp* "Enjoy your visit!"

@Dave T,

Perhaps Singapore has easy customs precisely because internal enforcement (immigration, drugs and chewing gum) are so strict and toughly enforced.

Perhaps the U.S. has tougher customs precisely because we have so little internal enforcement. Note that internal enforcement of U.S. immigration law really is around zero. That makes the border all the more important. There is internal enforcement of our drug laws (depending on the locale and the drug). However, it's obvious that the U.S. is using the border to stop (try to stop) drugs that we aren't willing to effectively control in the U.S.

+1.

As has been pointed out, the TSA is a government jobs program, a self-justifying entity created to address the problems that the government itself created. Like choosing sides in overseas inter-tribal conflicts and inviting the protagonists from all sides here.

Singapore's founding father, Lee Kuan Yew, is a wise man with some astute observations about multiculturalism.

@TAG,

I have followed Lee Kuan Yew's career for many decades now and read all of his memoirs. He was/is more tolerant of multiculturalism (in some respects) than you might guess. One of my favorite stories from his biography was how he staffed Singapore's police force with Malays because the Chinese tended to be communists.

Where Lee Yuan Yew was dead right, is that a successful multiracial, multiethnic society can not be liberal. Singapore under Lee was certainly multiracial and multicultural (privately). However, identity politics was fiercely prohibited. In American terms, Lee would have never tolerated La Raza or the Council of Conservative Citizens. Perhaps more relevantly Lee never accepted underclass behavior at all. Serious criminals were hanged with some frequency (not as many of late).

Singapore was and is a high immigration state. However, only legal, high-skill immigration is tolerated. Illegal immigration is punished by canning and deportation. Singapore also runs an extremely strict 'guest worker' scheme that provides no residency rights to the workers. Supposedly, female 'guest workers' are deported if they become pregnant. That may be an urban legend.

I regularly cross the border between VT and QC. Lots of rude, unpleasant border agents in both directions, but most often from the Americans.

I definitely agree with this--I've been travelling internationally for over 12 years and I can state that entering the US has always been more difficult that entering any of the Northern European countries I've flown into. You always have to fill out a customs sheet to go into the US--in Europe, if you have something to declare, go to the declare line, if you don't, just go through the regular line! Passport controls go faster in Europe than they do in the US and I go through the citizens' line here, and the non-EU citizens line there, or just the general line if I enter in Iceland. In the US they ask a ton of questions, only once traveling through Iceland were they overtly unfriendly.

Try travelling with a beard!

It seems the job of American border security folks is more to intimidate and demand people than anything. Take off your shoes. Tkae off your belt. Next thing you know they will make us strip down, oh, already do that with a body scan. What I hear from these actions is f-you, f-you and f-you. Flying is the safest mode of travel, yet irrational paranoia drives too many Americans to put up with nonsensical, expensive and ineffective security measures which, by the way alienate people.

If you're worried about public safety, try some publicity on tasty foods that are healthy, or sensible precautions regarding antibiotic resistance.

Curious whether there's any evidence at all to support this "theory." Scotswoman Isabella Bird contrasted her experience with customs in New York in the 1850s/1870s and Yokohama in the 1870s. Officials in NY were horribly rude, officious, and overbearing. Those in Yokohama, exceedingly polite and efficient. It seems likely that we Americans have never done governed provision of services particularly well, so I'm puzzled as to why this would now be an indication of our unfriendliness to entrepreneurs (which I tend to agree is an increasing problem).

Comments for this post are closed