TSA, the $1,022.95 Pocketknife, and Why Your Flight is Delayed

A rancher* friend of ours—fancying himself a free man, self-sufficient, and disinclined to outsiders’ meddling—was stopped in airport security not too long ago, caught carrying a fancy pocketknife: the Mini Leatherman at right, in fact, a handy all-in-one tool just right for a working man. Not taking kindly to the suggestion that he give up his property, our friend John failed to cooperate meekly as we citizens of the former land of the free are now expected to. Fortunately, he was able to enlist the help of the local sheriff’s deputy, who took possession of the contraband (over the protests of the TSA agent: “You can’t transfer a dangerous weapon here!” Deputy: “Get serious!”), and saw that it was later returned to John.

One might think that would have been the end of it, but, no, the TSA doesn’t take kindly to “resistance.” John received a registered letter from the feds offering him a choice: appear in federal court, which could result in a $10,000 fine and/or one year in a federal pen, or pay a $1,000 fine.

Consequently, John is now the proud owner of this $1,022.95 Mini Leatherman.

Those like John who had subsequently celebrated TSA’s announcement last month that the ban on small pocketknives (with blades less than 2.36″—which the Leatherman’s 1 1/2″ would have easily met) would be lifted effective tomorrow instead face disappointment:

Facing a huge backlash from the public and the Flight Attendants Union, the US Transportation Security yesterday postponed its controversial plan to allow knives on US flights beginning on Thursday.

Reading further, however, we see the “backlash” wasn’t exactly from “the public:”

A group of 133 Congressmen had signed a letter urging TSA to withdraw the plan, and the Flight Attendants Union has been a vocal opponent.

A number of airline unions are working with Congressmen Ed Markey (D-MA) and Michael Grimm (R-NY), and Senators Charles Schumer (D-NY) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), to propose legislation to permanently keep knives off planes.

Providing yet further evidence—if any were needed—that the TSA is all about providing security theater while actually catering solely to the politically connected—with the costs and consequences of this arbitrary and officious agency carried by the voiceless traveling public.

And just in case the ticket-buyers actually footing the bills for airline travel remained under any illusion that their interests matter, the extensive delays imposed this week by furloughs of traffic controllers—ostensibly resulting from the “sequester”—must surely lay that to rest.

As the Wall Street Journal details, flyers directly fund two-thirds of the FAA’s budget through 17 airline taxes and fees—about 20% of the cost of a $300 domestic ticket, up from 7% in the 1970s—yet the FAA is using the 4% cut from the sequester to produce delays in 40% of flights.

Meanwhile, the Department of Transportation (FAA’s papa) seems to have all the money in the world, including funding a $474 million discretionary TIGER grant to “make communities more livable and sustainable,” as well as a “Women in Transportation History” online exhibit.

In case anyone had any doubts that these furloughs have been scheduled to produce maximum pain on travelers to produce maximum political gain for the pork barrel crowd, the FAA is making a handy tool available on its website to find out in real time just how delayed your flight will be:

The Federal Aviation Administration claims the sequester spending cuts are forcing it to delay some 6,700 flights a day, but rarely has a bureaucracy taken such joy in inconveniencing the public.

Though the FAA says it is strapped for cash, the air traffic control agency managed to find the dollars to update its interactive “command center” tool on its website so passengers can check if their airports are behind schedule due to what it calls sequester-related “staffing” problems. Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn noticed this rare case of FAA technological entrepreneurship and fired off a letter Wednesday protesting what he called the agency’s “full blown media rollout” to hype the flight delays.

Confirming the senator’s charges, an FAA whistleblower emailed:

the FAA management has stated in meetings that they need to make the furloughs as hard as possible for the public so that they understand how serious it is.

Poor babies: how unfathomable to be asked to scale down one’s spending by 4%!

With median American household incomes 8% lower than they were in pre-crash 2007, perhaps it’s time for our pals in Washington and those who feed at their trough to understand how serious we really are.

*Full disclosure: John Baden is a rancher in addition to being founder and chairman of the Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment (FREE).

Mary L. G. Theroux is Senior Vice President of the Independent Institute. Having received her A.B. in economics from Stanford University, she is Managing Director of Lightning Ventures, L.P., a San Francisco Bay Area investment firm, former Chairman of the Board of Advisors for the Salvation Army of both San Francisco and Alameda County, and Vice President of the C.S. Lewis Society of California.
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