Sunday, December 25, 2011

Happy holidays from

Last year at this time, I was getting ready for a trip to the airport. On a weeklong romp through the Midwest* this site "went viral" and TSA statuses came pouring in. Thanks to you, they haven't stopped. We're on pace for 150 this month, or so. Thanks for submitting. A year ago this site was built on some basic HTML, a home server that kept crashing and a moderately ugly, but usable, design. We've kept the design. The rest is updated. The structure is probably not optimal, but it works. And I can give thanks for that.

So, as we head to the new year, year 2 of TSA status, keep the statuses coming, keep the information up-to-date, keep the notes succinct and keep me laughing as I glance down the page. But, most of all, help your fellow passengers navigate the silliness that is the TSA.



* I spent successive nights leading up to the trip, and then beyond, in Twin Mountain, N.H., Newton, Mass., Hayward, Wis., Duluth, Minn, Saint Paul, Minneapolis and Chicago. Needless to say, by the Windy City I was spent.

Monday, December 5, 2011

How long does it take to get through airport security?

You can help us find out. We've recently added an optional feature where you can enter the time of day you pass through a checkpoint and how many minutes you wait in line. Why? Well, why not! We have a bunch of submissions, and as I was waiting in security the other day, I thought to myself, man, wouldn't it be nice to build a database of how long these lines are? It would. Let's do a quick pro/con analysis:


  • The site becomes a bit more cluttered with entry boxes for these data. 
  • The site wavers from it's core mission.


  • The site can, perhaps, collect data showing that x-ray machines create longer lines (which might themselves be good targets for "evil doers") and more of a headache for all. 
  • We've had people ask us to put in a "time" field so that they can see if security is or is not being used at certain times—this is an included feature (and may show that certain machines are turned on and off at certain times of day. 
  • It will allow people who don't like wasting their time sitting waiting for planes to get a better idea of how early they have to arrive at the airport. 
  • It may attract new site users who will update the checkpoint status (which is required of all posts)
  • It might even be fun!

So, since I think the pros outweigh the cons, and had several hours to mess around with code on the plane (and, thanks to GoGo, test code live), it's in place. It's optional, but we hope you'll use it.

*NB: If you do report wait times, please report only the time from when you first got in line to when you got through the WTMD, but not time spent waiting for a secondary pat-down. If you want to note which line you went through (elite/regular) use the notes column for that.

Update: apparently the TSA used to provide this information, but no longer does (i.e. the links to that page are kaput).

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Not TSA Status related

But our lovely Senators want to pass the Stop Online Piracy Act, which won't stop online piracy but will affect legit websites. Probably not TSA Status. But, still. Jesus. Go here to fight back (since you're already fighting back against the TSA).

Monday, November 28, 2011

An attempt to explain the "turn off your devices" rule

We've all been there. The plane taxis back from the gate. Something important happens on the internet! You scroll down your mobile device when suddenly a stern-looking flight attendant tells you that the device can't be used during take-off and landing, and can only be used with transmission disabled later in the flight. When you've been told it's okay. Because, apparently, it could cause the plane to fall from the sky.

Apparently not. As this Times blog post points out, no plane has ever dropped from the sky due to the use of a mobile device. Ever. Many mobile devices have come in to existence since these rules were put in to place, but all are banned. (And why can you use a cell phone but not a laptop during post-landing taxi when the two technologies are quickly converging?) The best reason anyone can offer that this ban exists is that there is no evidence that electronic gadgets can't interfere with a plane. But, of course, the same study found that there is no evidence that they can. In fact, the FAA doesn't even have (pdf) a set list of devices they ban, but they leave it up to the airlines.

Obviously, this is a large load of horse hockey. I've frequently not only not turned off my device, but actively used it. Here are some examples:

  • In June of 2008, I was on a flight from DEN to MSP which was delayed, allowing me to listen to some of the Celtics-Lakers finals game being played (my father played the radio in to a cell phone which I held to my ear away from the aisle). We finally took off during the fourth quarter, at which point I was able to carry the cell phone call through about 4000 feet. The Celtics won. The fellow next to me appreciated the score updates; the woman across the aisle gave me a stare of death. The airplane flight was without any consequence.
  • The next year, I was flying over a friends' house approaching the airport. I sent a text message to that effect. The plane landed safely.
  • I never power down my computer. I simply put it to sleep.
  • In 2010, I used Google Voice to dial in to a conference call through GoGo inflight, which was forbidden by GoGo but worked like a charm with Google Voice. So there goes the "they don't want people having conversations" argument.
  • I've recently been using an iPhone speedometer app to see how fast planes are traveling when they take off and land. It doesn't work so well at high altitudes. But it hasn't yet crashed a plane.
And every time I fly, I try to think of new ways to subvert this rule. I never take the battery out of my wristwatch (which certainly could crash a plane!). Maybe next time I'll turn on my headlamp to see what happens (probably a plane crash) or bring a transistor radio (crash-tastic). A few years ago I had a pilot dial up the local Boston Red Sox affiliate and play AM radio over the in-flight entertainment system until the signal was lost (Channel 9 on United is quite versatile). And the plane arrived at it's destination unscathed.

A couple new site features

1. We've gotten a flood of submissions in recent days (everyone traveling and standing in lines) and have added a countdown to 2000 submissions ticker on the home page. As of this writing, there are 135 statuses to go!

2. We've added a few more (12, to be precise) major airports to the search page so you can just click and go; no need to type and search. Not a big deal, but better use of screen real estate.

Let us know how you like it!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011


Over on the site there's a new page which charts the "color" of each submission for each month since the site launched. Cool stuff!

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

New filters

A few weeks ago, we noticed some issues with the submissions to the site. For instance, people were writing their entries in ALL CAPS! Or they were forgetting dates, or to submit a status "color" or something else. Or they were using the site to propagate political views. So I put a bunch of new filters in. (Note: if you're not a nerd, you can probably stop reading here.) And I asked people to report if the filters were causing any problems. I tried them, and they worked. But, as we all know, making any changes can create any number of other issues arise.

So I got an email from someone who was unable to submit. They sent me a screenshot:

and were receiving an error message to please TURN OFF THE CAPS LOCK key. I pretty quickly figured out what the problem was, and fixed it. So, before I tell you what it was, take a quick think . I'll put the answer in the comments.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

725 guns!

A friend forwards the following from Blogger Bob via the Economist:

Speaking of good catches, did you know that our officers have found 725 firearms in carry-on luggage since January of 2011? And it’s still only September!

So that's about 1000 firearms per year. (!) There are that many absentminded American gun-owners who totally forget that, oh, whoops, you can't bring a gun on a plane? It mentions a 1-2% failure rate which seems, actually, sort of okay—in other words, a would-be terrorist would be caught 49 times out of 50 trying to sneak stuff on board, which seems like a pretty good deterrent.

Of course, the body scanners do precious little to find the guns. No one here (that I know of) is arguing against WTMDs at airports. You know, because they actually do something.

This one takes the cake (or, don't get the runs airborne on Sept. 11)

So, there was the anniversary of September 11. And on that anniversary, we pretty much forgot about all the freedom we have here in the good ol' US and A. Amongst the stories of particular crazy was the widely-reported DEN-DTW Frontier flight which was delayed on the ground in Detroit because, uh, some brown-ish people were all seated in the same row. Seriously.
Someone shouted for us to place our hands on the seats in front of us, heads down. The cops ran down the aisle, stopped at my row and yelled at the three of us to get up. “Can I bring my phone?” I asked, of course. What a cliffhanger for my Twitter followers! No, one of the cops said, grabbing my arm a little harder than I would have liked. He slapped metal cuffs on my wrists and pushed me off the plane. The three of us, two Indian men living in the Detroit metro area, and me, a half-Arab, half-Jewish housewife living in suburban Ohio, were being detained.
In other words, go and read the whole post.

This is beyond compare for so many reasons. First of all, the terrorists back in the day attacked planes from United and American and flew them in to New York and Washington. There's less bang for your buck hijacking a Frontier plane and flying it in to, what, an abandoned building in downtown Detroit? Aside from that sort of snark, three people who don't look like Norman Rockwell's picture of America sitting in the same row does not a crisis make. Even if two of the guys get up, in succession, to go to the bathroom.

I could see if they were chanting in some foreign language. I mean, sure, it would probably still be an overreaction, and it would be unwarranted, but this does not seem to have been the case. Or if they were trying to light their shoes on fire. In that case, yeah, kick their butts.

But, it wasn't. Apparently someone got spooked, told a flight attendant, and everyone flipped out. The FBI interviewed everyone on the plane. I hope they figure out what numbskull got so spooked of someone who didn't look just like them. I hope the TSA, and airline crews, and even fellow passengers, can use this as a learning experience to not get creeped out when the person next to them doesn't look like a real 'Merkin. And I hope this kind of miscarriage never happens again.

Of course, I think a lot of what we can learn from this instance, and from September 11 itself, is that we need to be more open with our friends and neighbors and, well anyone in out community. This is the United States. This is somewhere where a Saudi Arabian and a Jew get married and no one looks at them funny (well, unless they happen to be seated next to two Indian-looking fellows). This is the melting pot. We need to celebrate diversity, not fear it. Imagine if someone had reached out to talk to these folks. Say, "hi." Ask them about their flight, and their trip. Find out that they are, hey, normal Americans just like everyone else. Diffuse the situation (which, of course, wasn't a situation until it was made a situation). And get everyone off of the plane and in to the terminal and on with their lives.

And once the plane was on the ground, well, all hell seems to have broken loose. Maybe protocol was followed, in which case protocol needs to be changed. In god's (allah's?) holy name, why are you strip searching these people? Why are you handcuffing them? What kind of harm could they do to anyone other than themselves with something they smuggled through security (oh, wait) once the plane is on the ground? Innocent until proven guilty apparently does not apply when you are on an airplane and don't look just like everyone else on the craft. This is another point where a little common sense (talk to the people, run a quick background check, find out that—hey, look!—they're not terrorists) is much better than humiliating them, handcuffing them and leading them in shackles for an interrogation. Lordy, what are they going to tell you about living in suburban Ohio, after all?

If I were a passenger on this plane—and if I had been inconvenienced for hours for no real reason other than a few people getting a little too excited about the Evil Doers—I'd want a full explanation from the airline. Not the FBI's cop out "Due to the anniversary of Sept. 11, all precautions were taken, and any slight inconsistency was taken seriously. The public would rather us err on the side of caution than not." (Apparently some folks on a LA to NY flight also had the shits, and that flight was also escorted in, but they must have been white, so they they avoided the interrogation.) No, I'd want to know why the flight crew, once on the ground, called for the police, taxied away from the gate, and put in motion a long-term interrogation.

This sounds like a JANFU* between Frontier, the local DHS (gosh) and the flight crew. Cooler heads should have prevailed.

* JANFU, in the vein of SNAFU and FUBAR, is a joint Army-Navy foul up, when multiple parties are to blame for a sticky situation. To put it nicely.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Do we have an ethical obligation to correct incompetence

One of my favorite columns (albeit less so with the departure of Randy Cohen) is the Times Magazine's The Ethicist. The most recent column dealt with, guess what, the TSA. Basically, a guy keeps getting the SSSS on his boarding pass which tells the screeners to give him the extra-special grope. (Let's not get in to the argument of how silly it is to be telling people, by means of SSSS on their boarding pass, that they are going to be screened.) In any case, some guy is finding that the SSSS on his pass is not always noticed. Should he point out this incompetence?

The ethicist was pretty non-commital. I say: it's silly to be printing this on your boarding pass. How about printing them at home, photoshopping out the SSSS if necessary, and not having to deal with it anymore. Yeah, that sounds good.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

"Has anyone unknown to you …"

We recently posted about the TSA asking passengers questions in an attempt at using behavior detection. The verdict? Good in theory. In practice: likely not.

Well, it turns out the first airport to implement this is BOS. And guess who is flying out of BOS in the next few weeks? This guy. Maybe. Although, perhaps I should run a little experiment and print out a boarding pass using the Photoshop and go have a little fun. All it might cost me is a couple of subway fares.

In any case, according to the article, the questions are along the lines of "how long have you been here?" and "where are you going?" It seems like what you get asked when you cross the Canadian border (we could talk about the intrusion of privacy, although you can just as easily lie). And the questions seem slightly less inane than what the baggage handlers were mandated to ask until the middle of the last decade: "Has anyone unknown to you asked you to carry anything for them."

The answer to that question was, of course: "If someone had asked me to carry something, then they would be known to me, moron."

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The TSA's behavior detection program

The Times today details the TSA's expansion of behavior detection at airports—basically, informal conversations with travelers to try to see if they are, well, if they can be trusted. On paper, it looks like a good idea. The Israelis do it, and the Israelis have a really good track record when it comes to security. And it's far less invasive (they're not making you strip down, and then having a conversation, after all) and cheaper than $150,000 machines.

Unfortunately, it will probably be implemented like when I recently flew through San Francisco and had this conversation with the TSA agent checking my ID and putting the "TSA squiggle"* on my boarding pass:
TSA agent (holding my ID): What is your name?
Me: Uh, [my name].
TSA agent: Thank you [draws TSA squiggle]
Me: Wait, is that some sort of new security? Does that work?
TSA agent: Yes, it does.
Me: Seriously? People are dumb enough to give the wrong name? You catch terrorists like that?
TSA agent: You'd be surprised.
Me: Yeah, I'd be surprised, if anyone ever fell for it.
I didn't want to insult this fellow's intelligence, but there were two reasons why this was an utter failure of a policy. The first is that anyone who had put a bomb in their underpants or a coke bottle would probably take the time to memorize the name on their fake ID. (Or, in the words of Bruce Schneier: "you're a dumb terrorist and the government will catch you".) Second, the TSA agents, even the creme de la creme out front putting on the terrorist-proof, ever-so-sophisticated squiggles on our nation's boarding passes, are not likely to be highly trained in psychology and able to determine the tics of a nervous potential terrorist.

Hiring some highly-trained psychologists to question travelers might make some sense, but it would still be searching for a needle in a haystack. Some common sense measures like making sure that you couldn't just print out a copy of a boarding pass with a new name on it and use it to board a plane would make a lot of sense. Not having this in place—and, really, some cheap scanners and a database are all we need (I've even seen it used, once in a while)—completely negates the whole reason we have check IDs in the first place. (Hey, remember when the airlines printed our tickets for us? That was much more secure! But it cost them money. Poor guys.)

Case in point: a few months ago I was in a terrible rush to get to the airport; and didn't have time to change out of sweaty running clothes. So when I arrived, I was disheveled, sweaty and looked like a crazy person (more than usual). Did I stick out amongst the rest of the (generally sheveled) travelers? Yes, but not to the TSA. I walked right to the plane.

So if I know the TSA (and I believe I do), I'm sure we'll all be subjected to another round of silly questions every time we fly. At least they won't be strip searching us all.

* The TSA squiggle

This is the most meaningless of all the meaningless security measures. Back in the day (and I mean way back), for about a year after September 11, they checked your boarding pass and ID twice: once at check-in, and once at the gate. The squiggle was, ostensibly, a measure taken to make sure you didn't switch out IDs (and boarding passes) before boarding. This had several flaws: it took a lot of time, it took a lot of personnel, the squiggles were pretty easy to forge (I just imagine the TSA standing in a briefing room every morning saying "okay, today, we're using a blue highlighter, and were underlining the date and making two vertical lines across the destination, okay?") and was rendered obsolete by the "print your own" boarding passes from home—although that happened long after this extra check disappeared. And it has been pointed out that the airlines love this whole name-matching step, because it means that you can't (easily) fly under someone else's name. That's called "revenue protection." I'm glad the government is doing the job of the airlines.

But we still have the squiggle. I've never had my squiggle checked at the gate. Sometimes I print off extra copies of my boarding pass just to see what happens if I go through with a blank one (answer: nothing). It is a completely meaningless layer of security, security theater at it's best. It does nothing to make anyone safer, and even if it did, it could be so easily circumvented that it would be a complete waste of time. And now that we have boarding passes on mobile phones, well, no one is highlighting the screen. (Flyertalk, of course, has a thread with some snarkiness about this.)

Maybe next time when I fly I'll bring along two boarding passes, get the squiggle, and proceed to immediately rip the squiggled pass in to pieces and proceed to the gate. We'll see if that causes any problems. I'm sure it won't.

Monday, June 6, 2011

On a different type of security entirely

I haven't been paying much attention to recently (first I went for an abortive hike of the Pacific Crest Trail, then I traveled around with just an iPhone for a month, and I can tell you that attempting to manage a database and writing code on an iPhone is not fun). While I was "away" the site started getting spam—posts like
I'm happy very good site Free Forbidden Lolita Pics :[ Lolita The Little Girl 256 Nudist Picture Lolita Girls =)) Nude Lolita Model Index xkjxun Lolita Bbs 10 Yo 3160 Preteen Lolitas Non Nude 8PP Nude Lolitas Modeling Toplist mdqoe Www Majic Lolita Com :-))) 3d Lolita Incest Toons tmdh Fotos Lolitas Dildos Machine :-D Young Girls Art Lolitas xpjzsk Small Lolita Sex Pics vozylh Lolita Preteen Pedo Pics %[[ Little Lolitas Russian Naked bhq Nn Preteen Lolita Models 185847 Lolitas Models Sample Videos qqalx Baby Dorki Little Lolitas >:P Hard Lolit Sex Young >:OO Loli Preten Pussy Pics roe Best Lolita Free Pics %-(((
with a lot of links (which I deleted here of course) became quite common. And if you follow the site regularly, you probably didn't notice. Why? Well, spammers (bots) aren't all that smart (although they do seem to read Nabokov), so while they we able to get the posts to post (I have no anti-spam protection whatsoever) they weren't able to get them to populate many (really, hardly any) of the airport specific pages. Why? Well, they didn't know that several of the fields needed rather specific information to show up in any of the queries, namely, they needed a valid 3-digit IATA airport code.

Now, if I knew how to code, and wanted to exclude international airports, I could enter those codes (there are only 382 airports in the country with more than 10,000 passengers annually—or 30 per day) and exclude others. But I don't—especially traveling around with an iPhone and little else. But, instead, the spam was filtered out, because using only the 26 A-Z letters, there are 17,576 possible three-letter codes, and using numbers, too, there are 46,656. So assuming the codes generated were random, one in every 46 to 182 would have been for a valid airport, and many of those would have been a tiny airports which only have a few flights per day. In other words, the spammers weren't flooding the pages for ATL, ORD and SFO.

The all statuses page did have a bunch of junk, but the spammers also didn't understand how to enter a current date, so many of the entries were for January 1, 2010, meaning they wound up at the bottom of the page. So unless you were (like me) obsessively scanning through that page, you didn't notice it.

Of course, once I got around to it, I spent more time logging in to the admin page for the database than it took to look up the MySQL to search for text within a field and delete the offending entries (how did I do it? I searched for any "notes" with the text "<a href"—there's no point in spamming without links) and exorcise them. I'm planning to find some code to disallow any post with html tags embedded (or, at least, anything with a "<" in it), but for now this works as well.

And thanks to everyone who is submitting real entries. Keep 'em coming!

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Very interesting conversation: No one knows if the scanners work

I was flying out of MSP today and had a bit of extra time before my flight to wander around the terminal. I'd come in with a bag of skis (from the Birkie) and was directed to an elite line (yes, I'm a silver elite on Delta, although the BOS-MSP round trip did not yield anything in the way of upgrades) as there were pretty long bag check lines otherwise. Yes, the elite programs have their perks, and work well as customer loyalty programs.

I checked my bag and was I was wandering back and forth in the terminal, the woman (and, note, she was not a TSA agent but a Delta employee) saw me again and helped to direct me to the appropriate line. At heavy travel times, Checkpoint 4 is for "Sky Priority" members only (Gold status or higher on Delta) but there is a silver priority line at Checkpoint 2. I said to her, "but Checkpoint 2 has the scanners, so why would I want to go there?"

Her response was interesting. First, she told me that generally they let you choose whatever line you want, and it's quite rare that they pull people in to the scanners. Then, she said that a lot of people liked the scanners, like anyone who had a metal implant. I'm not sure that's "a lot" of people, but I can see how for some people the MMW scanner might be preferable to a metal detector they are surely going to set off.

This seemed like a good time to raise the question: if these machines are so important, why are they only at some checkpoints? And were they planning to install them at the rest? Her answer was something along the lines of "no one knows if these things actually work, and we might be spending a lot of money on a technology which is really no better than the x-ray machines." She told me that the elite line was no longer at Checkpoint 1 (which used to be the holy grail: no line and no machines) but that it was very unlikely that I'd be selected for a scan/pat down. (Oh, she also said the scanners were faster than metal detectors. Uh, no.)

I was set to go through checkpoint 1 until I spied the line. A line like that is a terrorist's dream: a bunch of people all packed together. That and the fact that I don't enjoy waiting in such queues. So, I got in the elite line, the MMW on the elite side was turned off (and elites were being put through the metal detector) and popped out the other side, unscathed by any radiation or invasive TSA maneuvers.

So, MSP is still "safe" from scanners if you know where to wait, and may be for some time. From the airport employees' point of view, the advantage is not one of security as much as it is comfort for certain passengers. It seems like a costly way to accommodate passengers with metallic implants, but right now MSP has spent about a million dollars (six machines, $150k each) so that folks with plates and rods can avoid pat downs. Otherwise, they're not actually serving any security purpose.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

We're wasting our money

I just don't get it. The TSA says that body scanners are important to catch terrorists. They cost $150k each (!) and with close to 2000 planned for deployment, that's a bill of $300m. Nevermind that they are ineffective or that they are being pushed by industry lobbyists. If they were so bloody important, you'd think that, where they are deployed, the TSA would actually be using them!

But they're not. When metal detectors and x-rays went in to place a long time back, they started putting everyone through them. And they still do. You can beat a metal detector, but you can't avoid them. When someone walks in to an airport without passing through security, they evacuate the whole place. And you know what? That might be a bit overblown, but it's consistent, and it's security.

The scanners? You can opt out, although the pat downs are pretty thorough. But in so many cases, even where the scanner have been installed, it is so easy to just, well, get around them and go through the old-fashioned metal detectors. I just flew from BOS to MSP. In BOS, one of the three lanes open had an imaging machine in use. Now, if they were randomly selecting people for the machines, that would be one thing. But it's so easy to avoid the machines, it makes you wonder if they're actually that important or a possibly-dangerous, definitely invasive money sink?

At MSP, it was worse. In December, they had the scanners at some of their checkpoints, and not at others. Two months later, it's the same deal. And at 8 p.m. none of the scanner machine checkpoints were open. Not only is it easy to avoid the machines, but they are doing their best to not put people through them.

Maybe the TSA is still testing them. But if they were so important, they could be spread out, and at least put some element of chance in to whether you'd be put through. As it stands now, if you wanted to get on to an airline without passing through one of the scanners, your options are almost unlimited.

Monday, February 7, 2011

New UI, new TSA nonsense

First of all, new UI! I learned just enough php and mysql to copy and paste (read: steal from the Internets) enough code to make a page which automatically updates and can be searched by airport and such. So much more better than the old one. And easier for the webmaster, too, who doesn't have to rejigger Google Docs in to excel and then in to code each time an update is in order. Huzzah!

Also, my daily read of TSA nonsense: soon we can pay a nice fee to the government (I'm a big government liberal and I think this is ludicrous) to maybe get through security faster. Here's an idea: how about make security work better so that no one pays any fees and we actually know who is who.


Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Five colors going, going, gone?

Yes! After nearly ten years, word on the street is that the inane color scheme will be replaced. With what, no one knows. Maybe nothing. That would be fitting. By April 27, which we'll declare as a holiday if it happens.
One of the most notable changes to come: The public will no longer hear automated recordings at U.S. airports stating that the threat level is orange.
That's a relief. Since those messages mean nothing, as it's been orange out for years. Or maybe that's John Boehner's face.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Turn and cough

Conor Friedersdorf writes about security and gender at the Daily Beast. Somewhat satirical, but not completely. Anyway, the first person to send in evidence that, during a security pat down, they said "turn and cough" to the TSA guy wins, well, we don't have anything to give away, actually.