How the rich took over airport security

Security checks were one of America's most democratic places -- until rich passengers got their own speedy lines

Topics: Transportation Security Administration, Air Travel,

How the rich took over airport security (Credit: Reuters/Salon)

The other day at Bergstrom Airport in Austin, Texas, I witnessed a striking manifestation of the new American plutocracy. Along with getting a photo at the Department of Motor Vehicles and sitting in a jury pool, standing in line at airport security with a mob of other people, miserable though it is, remains one of the few examples of civic equality in our increasingly oligarchic republic. Much airport security, of course, is theater, designed to provide alibis for bureaucrats and politicians in the event of a terrorist attack. But while we can debate what a rational airport security system would look like, no rational system would discriminate among passengers on the basis of ability to pay.

That is what makes the policy of Delta Airlines so shockingly un-American.  In Austin, Delta had not one but two lines that fed into the Transportation Security Administration checkpoint area. One line was mixed race, mixed class and mixed age. The other line was usually empty. Now and then a white, middle-aged man would appear in the second line and the first line would be halted as he went directly into the TSA checkpoint.

“Who are those guys?” I asked a TSA officer, when I reached the front of the second-class citizen line.

“Delta has total control over the passenger line all the way up to here,” the officer answered. “They’ve decided to let priority passengers as well as pilots and steward staff go through ahead of others.”

“So that’s the rich white guy line?” I asked.

The TSA officer laughed. “On our side of the line, everybody is equal.”

Now I would be the first to concede that what Delta and other airlines do beyond the government security checkpoint at the gates that lead to airplanes is their business. At the moment, the model of America’s pathetic, predatory, deteriorating airline industry seems to be eking out nickels and dimes by playing crudely on the snobbery of their customers, with the use of two separate lines at the terminal gates, one for priority passengers — labelled, by various airlines, Gold, Platinum, Elite and so on.

The priority line, needless to say, goes to exactly the same door and entry ramp and does not get the “elite” to its destination one second earlier. Neither de Toqueville, who commented on the contrast between the status obsessions of Americans and their professed democratic egalitarianism, nor Veblen, who coined the term “conspicuous consumption,” would have been surprised by this method of showing off. Such silliness is a matter for satire, not lawsuits or protest marches.



But going through airline security is different. It is not a choice, like belonging to an airline’s frequent flier points club. Security screening is an onerous civic duty. Like other civic duties, it should be shared equally by rich and poor alike. Remember the motto of Jacksonian populism? “Equal rights for all, special privileges for none.”

Nearly all the airlines now allow well-heeled passengers to pay for the privilege of cutting ahead of the rest of us at the TSA checkpoint. At many airline checkpoints there are two lines. The long line looks like America; the short line is made up mostly of affluent white men.

Is this the future we Americans want: two lines at all airline security checkpoints, one for the privileged 1 percent and the other for the 99 percent, who have to stand aside to let the people with lots of money pass?  Alas, it appears that making economic apartheid formal in U.S. civil aviation is a bad idea whose time has come. The TSA is experimenting with a “precheck” program with built-in class discrimination, including the government’s crony-capitalist invitation of frequent fliers from private U.S. airline programs, but not other American citizens, to participate:

If you are a United States citizen and are currently a member of CBP’s eligible Trusted Traveler programs (Global Entry, SENTRI, NEXUS), you are automatically qualified to participate in the TSA Pre ™ pilot as long as you are flying on a participating airline at a participating airport. (If you’re a more frequent flyer with Delta or American, you must opt in to the program by responding to the communication sent to you, which is why it’s important to find that email and follow the directions in it.)

In other words, if you do not fly frequently — and most low-income and middle-income Americans cannot afford to — you would not be allowed to take part in this public government program.  In true crony capitalist fashion, the precheck program blurs the line between the government’s security function and the airlines’ purely commercial frequent flier programs.

The precheck program is advertised as an experimental program, holding out the possibility that after a period in which they are subject to more scrutiny than affluent business travelers, low-income grandmothers traveling to visit their grandchildren at last will be able to take part.  More likely, the precheck program would never be extended to the masses rather than the classes.  It would simply become another permanent perk of the elite, whose members would have no incentive to lobby for democratizing the program — rather the contrary.

But wouldn’t it help an overburdened airport security system to reduce the number of people to be rigorously screened by TSA?  Not if it means more screening for low-income grandmothers and less for frequent business travelers.  Indeed, as anti-terrorist measures, trusted traveler programs allowing affluent people who are frequent international travelers to be subjected to fewer security procedures might well backfire. Osama bin Laden and Mohamad Atta were members of the affluent social and educational elites in their countries who lived abroad and traveled frequently.

These “trusted traveler” systems will not make America safer. Their unacknowledged purpose is to create yet another area of American society that is privatized and segregated by class, to the benefit of the mostly white economic overclass.

Very well then. Why don’t we just make the new class-based discrimination official? Instead of leaving it to airlines and other corporations to construct the new apartheid piecemeal and informally, let the government issue a Premium Elite Citizen Card, valid for multiple purposes. For the right price, a price carefully calculated to be unaffordable by the majority of Americans, those willing and able to pay would be allowed to cut in line, not only at airports, but everywhere: at taxi stands, movie theaters, restaurants. All they would have to do is flash their Premium Elite Citizen Card to force the rabble to step aside and make way.  The degeneration of America’s democracy into a banana republic would be complete, once the Land of the Free became the Land of the Free Points With Membership.

Michael Lind is the author of Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States and co-founder of the New America Foundation.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>