The Brancatelli File



September 28, 2006 -- The passenger air-travel system has always sat uneasily at the confluence of commerce and security. This week we also learned that it perches perilously at the intersection of an entrenched government bureaucracy and desperate corporate opportunism.

You cannot have watched the concurrent Kabuki at airport security checkpoints and in back rooms where the phantom Registered Traveler program is being drawn and quartered without laughing. Who'da thunk it? Just five years after 9/11 our in-flight security apparently rests on the size of our resealable plastic bags and our business-travel convenience is a matter of negotiation between government and industry over just how many dollars each can extract from our wallets.

Let's start at the security checkpoint because, well, at least there are security checkpoints.

As you surely know by now, the Grand Wazirs of U.S. and Canadian security once again modified the August 10th ban on liquids, gels and aerosols in our carry-on bags. Now it seems that three ounces--not 3.1 ounces or 3.2 ounces--of toothpaste, shampoos, real poos, cologne, body washes, eyewash, gels, potions and, for all I know, frankincense and myrrh, can be carried aboard flights. But only if you pack it in a clear, one-quart (that's one liter for you Canadians) zippered plastic bag.

The U.S. version of these new rules is linguistically tortured. Desperate not to use the brand name of S.C. Johnson's ZipLoc bags, U.S. regulators resorted to the nomenclature "zip-top." The rules imposed by the no-nonsense Canadians make no more sense, but at least they are more readable and comprehendible. I mean, except that they insist on spelling it "litre."

One more fillip: These bags, the new front line in the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT), must be resealable. Don't you be bringing those cheap, unzippered bags to the security checkpoint. This is the GWOT, after all, not a PB&J sandwich.

And by the way: You must be prepared to separate your zippered bag from your other carry-ons and present it to the security screeners. You know, because you have so many free appendages after taking off your shoes, emptying your pockets of keys and change, taking your laptop out of its case, managing your carry-ons and removing your jacket. My best tip: Use your teeth. I already put my boarding pass and passport between my teeth. If you've got a good dentist, your choppers should be strong enough to carry a toiletries-stuffed one-quart bag.

(Don't forget the generous new policy on beverages. If you buy them after the checkpoint, in the sterile area where the food outlets charge more for bottled water than the pro-rata price of a gallon of gasoline, you can carry them aboard. But don't bring a contraband Coke from the real world. After all, we're in a war here and there are no outside beverages allowed in a war.)

It's taken just 72 hours for all this bureaucratic specificity to descend into at-the-airport chaos, of course. Passengers and security screeners are fighting over the size of toothpaste tubes. And bag size is becoming the burning issue of our time. Some flyers--and I don't question their patriotism, just their judgment--are showing up with gallon-sized bags and obstructing the GWOT at the checkpoint.

The situation is already so bad that I don't think it will be long before we see plastic-bag sizers at the security checkpoints. You know, contraptions like those carry-on luggage sizers we see at the gate. Only these new Security Sizers will allow you to put your zippered bag in to see if it meets the new security requirements.

And how long will it be before entrepreneurs show up in front of the checkpoints offering to sell you pre-packed, quart-sized zippered bags of toiletries? These hawkers will be drawn from that same inexhaustible army of vacant-eyed immigrants who try to eke out a living selling cheap umbrellas on street corners. At $5 or $6 a bagful, toiletries might be more profitable than umbrellas. You can hear them already: "Toiletries, $6. Who needs toiletries? Legal-size toiletries. $6. We got 'em! We got 'em!"

(As if to prove that truth is stranger than any fantasy I can invent, Wal-Mart announced yesterday that it will be handing out free plastic bags at US Airways check-in counters in several major cities. Leave it to Wal-Mart to undercut umbrella-selling urchins…)

Which somehow leads us to Registered Traveler, the much-discussed but still non-existent program that promises to…well, come to think about it, we don't know what Registered Traveler promises, do we? That's part of the comedic Kabuki.

Five years after 9/11, there is just one airport, Orlando, with an actual Registered Traveler program. And the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) hasn't even said yet whether it meets the standards of the as-yet undefined and unknown national system. It is clear from its bureaucratic body language that the TSA doesn't want a Registered Traveler program, but it is being pushed by a gaggle of private companies that see profit in our pain. So the TSA has been responding as all bureaucracies respond: With a never-ending series of regulatory zigs and pricing zags.

In the last two weeks, for example, the TSA has estimated the cost of supporting a private Registered Traveler program at $30 per passenger, then $100 a person, and, after being pressured by the entrepreneurs, $30 a person. But in falling back to the $30 price, the TSA reserved to its bureaucratic self the right to charge more if it feels like it.

Of course, the pricing fight is just the tip of the bureaucratic iceberg. Because regardless of what the TSA might charge and regardless of the additional fees levied by the third-party firms, we still have no idea of what we're paying for if we join a Registered Traveler plan.

Would a Registered Traveler program give us separate express security lines? The TSA doesn't say. Will we be able to keep our shoes on as we pass through security? The TSA won't say. How about keeping our jackets and coats on? Again, the TSA is mum. Would we be allowed to keep our laptops in our carry-on case? The TSA has no comment. Would Registered Travelers be exempt from the zippered-bag rule and permitted to pack profligate amounts of toiletries and 3.2 ounces of toothpaste? No one knows. Would there be free copies of USA Today at security checkpoints designed for Registered Travelers? Cups of TSA-approved carry-on coffee? How about a bottle of water from TSA Springs, Tennessee? Would we get luggage tags emblazoned with a Registered Traveler logo?

And where would a Registered Traveler program operate? The private entrepreneurs who still see a pot of gold at the end of the security checkpoint lines have signed up a handful of airports. And I literally mean a handful. But the ever-elusive TSA won't say if any of those airports will even be chosen in the first tranche of a Registered Traveler program rollout.

In the face of all of this pig-in-the-poke uncertainty, the private companies committed to selling us Registered Traveler have done the only thing they could do: They've started taking applications. Well, not exactly applications. Even that can only be done with TSA approval and the TSA hasn't finalized the application procedures. So several of the private firms are now processing what they call "advance registration."

Clear, which operates the Orlando program and has signed up Cincinnati, Indianapolis and San Jose as well as Terminal 7 at New York/Kennedy, is so desperate to attract flyers that this week it cut its price to $69.95 plus that possible $30 TSA fee. And Flo, which doesn't have a single airport under contract, won't even say what it will charge if we register now.

All kidding aside, fellow travelers, this is the kind of stuff that makes you want to put a bag over your head. But even that is problematic. Unless you're a literal pinhead, you'll need the two-gallon size to fit over your noggin and the TSA says only quart-sized bags may pass.

Copyright © 1993-2006 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.