If You Don’t Fly, The Terrorists TSA Wins

If you want to get on an airplane in the US, you might be subjected to a radiation strip-search or a groping pat-down. Coming back on my recent flight from Vancouver I ended up in the scanner line, but haven’t experienced the pat-down yet. As a frequent traveler, I expect to be subject to this a lot more often, and I’m not happy about it.

There are several alternatives, and one that is constantly tossed about is “don’t fly at all”. The suggestion is that by boycotting air travel entirely, you’ll hurt the system in the one place they care about — the pocketbook. I think that’s wrong, on several levels.

Boycotts are notoriously ineffective unless they can be VERY widespread. Air travel is IMHO not as elastic as most of these boycott proponents suggest. The only people who will forego air travel altogether are the people for which it is a discretionary [i.e. vacation] activity, rather than a business requirement. That is frankly a small subset of the traveling public. Second, only a percentage of discretionary travelers are willing to forego air travel due to TSA procedures, cutting the effect of a boycott substantially. Third, air travel is often an economic necessity for longer trips, as the time and expense of traveling by other methods makes it impractical for anyone who isn’t retired. Fourth (and I’ll cover this later), you’re hurting the WRONG pocketbook.

I’m a perfect example of the type of traveler who’d have a very tough time boycotting air travel. I travel, on average at least once a month for business. These trips are typically from Southern California to areas too far away to drive in a reasonable time (Denver, various Midwestern cities, the Northeast, Canada, etc). My company wouldn’t support me wasting 2+ travel days each way when I can get to the places I need to go in a matter of hours. Sure, some people would say that this is a choice. After all, I don’t have to hold a travel-intensive job. I could easily find something else. And they’re right, it is a choice. I have chosen that the amazing benefits of having the job I have (including actually enjoying traveling to visit customers) are far more important to me than an ineffectual boycott.

Further, my immediate family all live in Texas or further east, so most pleasure or family-related trips would require me to fly or to take too much time off work to be reasonable. If my wife and I aren’t taking the kids with us, we want to get where we’re going without wasting time away from them, and if we ARE taking the kids with us, we don’t want to subject them to 14+ hours each way of driving.

For many trips that I’d want to take, my options are to fly, or to avoid taking the trip altogether. I refuse to let the TSA deter me from living my life, so that means I have to deal with the TSA. I fly a lot more than most people, but at the end of the day, my travel is like a lot of Americans’ — the most expedient way to accomplish what I want to accomplish. Allowing the TSA to stop me from flying hurts me a lot more than it hurts them.

But that doesn’t mean that I like it, or that I don’t have options. Today has been declared is national opt-out day by the We Won’t Fly group. While I obviously disagree with their call to boycott travel altogether, I’m a big fan of opting out of the scanner in favor of the enhanced pat-down. Is it demeaning? Yes, but so is the scanner. Unlike the scanner, though, opting-out has benefits:

  1. It hits the TSA pocketbook, not the airlines. A boycott is difficult to detect (particularly in the volatile and slowly-falling revenues of the airlines), but the cost of increased TSA screening is easily measurable. If a sizeable portion of those shunted to the scanners decide to opt-out, the TSA will naturally select a far smaller portion to go through the scanners to begin with.
  2. It gums up the system. Again, visibility is key. If the lines increase in length, if the wait times increase, it will make everyone angry. The result of the increase in lines will likely be TSA selecting a smaller portion of travelers to enter the scanners.
  3. TSA screeners HATE the enhanced pat-downs. While it might be demeaning to me as a traveler, it’s equally or more demeaning to the guy who has to feel balls all day. One of my long-standing beliefs is that the TSA doesn’t give a shit what we travelers think. Those who suggest a boycott of flying agree, as they think the only way to fix the system is for the airlines to demand the TSA relent. I think a more likely strategy for change is for the TSA to get internal pressure from their own employees. If TSO morale falls and there is internal dissension, it’s more likely to effect change than any howl they hear from outside.

Flying today? Opt-out. Flying next week (as I am)? Opt-out. If you want to make a change, and can mentally handle a physical search without an affront to your modesty, opt-out. It’s my plan from now on if I’m selected for the scanner.

  • http://www.thelibertypapers.org/ Stephen Littau


    As usual, your analysis is right on point – particularly point #3. I was reading this article just yesterday about the TSA union is trying to get the TSA to change some of these policies due to complaints from TSA workers of verbal and/or even physical abuse by travelers (which I do not support; always remember to follow the initiation of force principle). If enough of these employees quit or refuse to implement these procedures, the procedures will change.

  • EscapedWestOfTheBigMuddy

    You may under-estimate the effect that of reduced discretionary travel will have on the airlines’ bottom lines. Yes, business travel is the bulk of their business, but they margin comes from the last few seats they sell.

    Of course, hurting the airlines doesn’t do anything direct to fix the problem, but they at least have some lobbing swing—which civil libertarian groups are perpetually a bit short on.

    Also I worry that a high profile government agency like the TSA won’t feel any budget pressure: they will simple demand money for more screeners and get it.

    In any case, I am unwilling to do any discretionary flying on these terms. It simple isn’t going to happen.

  • http://thelibertypapers.org/ Brad Warbiany


    I will agree that the airlines have more lobbying pull, and that they definitely would push for change if it made a big change to their bottom line. Sadly, though, it looks like “National Opt-Out Day” was enough of a flop that I think the proportion of people that don’t fly at all is probably a small enough number to be lost in the noise. At the very least, opting out is a direct and visible inconvenience to the organization that is trying to be as inconvenient as possible to us travelers.

    I still stand by my assertion that for most of us, choosing to avoid air travel entirely hurts US a lot more than it hurts the TSA. I’m opposed to government roads, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have a driver’s license. I think taxes are theft, but that doesn’t mean I’m taking a 10K/year job as an under-the-table day laborer to avoid paying them. At the end of the day, I’ll do what I can to advocate the end of policies I hate, and when possible (such as an opt-out, or non-compliance with the census, etc) to throw sand in the gears. But I won’t let the stupidity of government stand in the way of living my life.

    You have to ask yourself what you’re missing out on in life by not flying? If the answer is “not much”, then there’s minimal cost to you and the airlines & TSA to your protest. If the answer is “quite a bit”, as is the answer for many of us, then the cost to YOU is high, but the cost is still minimal to the airlines and TSA. When your protest means effectively nothing to them, why are you going to engage in it at high expense to your happiness?

  • Dr. T

    “If you don’t fly, the TSA wins.”

    That’s an illogical statement. It’s like saying that if you avoid a mugger-filled park at night, the criminals win. No, by avoiding the park, I keep my wallet and my life. By avoiding flying, I keep my dignity. I also hurt the airlines. This is useful, because President Obama and top TSA officials have indicated that they will continue the nudies scans and sexual molestation “pat downs” regardless of the wishes of the public. But, if the airlines start losing money, they will exert pressure on the government to stop driving passengers away with their less-than-worthless security procedures. The airlines have much more political and economic clout than I do, and they may help us return to reasonable pre-flight security.

  • EscapedWestOfTheBigMuddy

    @Brad: It’s not about punishing the TSA or the airlines. It’s about my stomach turning at the though of going to an airport.

    I managed to convince myself to suck it up when they took my pocket knife from me, and when they made me take off my shoes, but this is a death of a thousand cuts. Its a frog being slowly boiled.

    I’ve reached my stopping point. This far and no further.

    And I am acutely aware of the cost, but that doesn’t make me feel like I’m doing something wrong, it makes me angry at the people who are doing this to me. Emphasis on the “to me” part.

    And make no mistake: it is both insult and assault, which is why Stephen is wrong about not pushing back against TSA personnel.

  • http://thelibertypapers.org/ Brad Warbiany

    Dr. T:

    The headline is intentionally sensational. The TSA “winning” is when they get more funding and more headcount and further entrench themselves at the federal teat. As federal bureaucracies go, they’re actually young and don’t have the advanced union entrenchment than other Feds have. But they’re on their way.

    In fact, you stopping flying, or you continuing to fly, isn’t a win or loss for the TSA. They frankly don’t care. My point is that to cease flying over this is a loss to you.

    As to your second point, I think a more effective protest of the scanners is the opt-out method, largely because it takes longer, requires more staff, and the screeners themselves hate it. You and I agree that we, as travelers, have very little political clout. The internal TSA employees, however, have considerably more clout, and this is KILLING their morale. I think we’re more likely to see a change to policy by gumming up the screenings than by avoiding air travel. I may be wrong on this point, but that’s my gut feeling.

  • http://thelibertypapers.org/ Brad Warbiany


    I understand your feeling, and if you simply can’t stomach the thought of it, then you shouldn’t do it. There are a lot of people brought up in this debate (sexual assault victims, etc) that certainly can’t stomach the enhanced pat-down. Frankly, I know how I feel, but I’m not sure I’d feel the same about my children going through it — I can see it as a potential teaching experience, but can also see it as something weird and creepy that could have negative effects, so I’m not sold either way.

    I suppose my post was written more for people like myself, who CAN stomach it but still think it’s utter bullshit. For those people, my recommendation is to suck it up and opt-out, because that’s your best way to make an impact on the system.

    I do agree with both you and Stephen regarding pushing back against TSA personnel. Physical violence is going to bite you in the ass AND be counterproductive. Calling them derogatory names probably won’t get you arrested, but probably won’t help the situation and you are demeaning an actual human being. But I’m toying with the idea of calmly and rationally asking the screener giving me a pat-down something along the lines of “Do you like having to do this for your job? How many more weeks of this policy will it take before you simply quit and find other work?” It’s a way of making the screener realize that you think what they’re doing is bullshit, and that the onus is on them to either speak up to their management or find other employment. Berating a screener won’t get you very far, but making them actually question their mandate might.

  • Dina

    My family and I (and we are quite a large extended family) have decided not to fly until the TSA regulations change. We are scared of both, the TSA machine and the groping pat downs, especially because we always travel with small children. We will not subject our children to this kind of procedure and since we have to submit and it seems the pat downs will not change in the near future, we prefer not to fly. We don’t see this decision as the terrorists winning…we see this as not complying to an unreasonable, stupid federal regulation over its citizens.

  • http://www.facebook.com/pages/Boycott-Flying/126801010710392 Mark

    Thankfully, there are plenty of us who disagree with you. More every day.

  • Akston

    For those of us who are not easily embarrassed, I wonder how effective it would be to out-embarrass the TSA agent by making a big deal over the “pat downs”. This would be a variant of Brad’s suggestion to question them during the procedure, but might go something like this:


  • Dr. T

    @Brad Warbury: How many TSA screeners resigned because they felt it was morally wrong to view nudie scans or to grope the genitals, breasts, and buttocks of passengers of all ages? I haven’t heard of a single resignation. Apparently, the TSA screeners with moral objections refuse to quit their relatively high-paying jobs. Therefore, their moral objections are not very strong. Making those TSA screeners grope a higher percentage of passengers isn’t going to change TSA policies.

    Look at what the TSA has done: In 2008, the plan was to buy 150 body scanners for secondary screening at large airports. In early 2010, the plan changed to buying 450 body scanners for PRIMARY screening at all major airports. The current TSA plan is to buy more than ONE THOUSAND body scanners for primary screening at all airports. That’s a two hundred million dollar hardware investment. Do you think the TSA will do a 180-degree turn and decide that body scanning is unneeded? I don’t?

  • J

    Dr. T has a point that we shouldn’t overestimate the moral firmness of TSA screeners, but I think Brad’s right that this is the best option. To be more effective, I think every liberty-loving flier should add the following phrases to his or her arsenal:

    Don’t be shy… Search me thoroughly ;-)

    You missed a spot. :-)

    Mmmm. Thank you.