Friday, 27 October 2006

TSA says their press releases are secret

Since being detained by police at Dulles Airport outside Washington, DC, in May of this year, I’ve been going through channels to find out what happened, why, and who the people were who demanded my papers, ordered me around, and called the police on me for questioning their authority.

I’ve gotten a second batch of documents from the USA Transportation Security Administration (TSA) under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). As is often the case with FOIA requests, the most interesting thing is what was withheld, and the reasons given by the agency for why it was exempt from release under FOIA:

The TSA has withheld from release, in its entirety, my e-mail correspondence to and from their Public Affairs Office — written statements to a journalist by the TSA’s official staff spokesperson, on the record, for publication, already quoted from in my original article.

The TSA FOIA Officer says that:

33 pages of emails responsive to item 2 of your request are being withheld in full…. Disclosure of those records would injure the quality of future agency decisions by creating public confusion resulting from disclosure of the reasons and rationales that were not in fact ultimately the grounds for agency action.

Portions of my correspondence with the TSA’s Privacy Officer were similarly withheld, although he confirmed that they had been received. “I got your e-mail. I don’t think arguing with you on these points is productive”, he said.

So if the TSA tells you something — even in a press release or an official policy statement — and you want to rely on it, it’s up to you to keep your own record of what they said. They think it “would injure the quality of future agency decisions” if they admitted what they had previously said.

Since the TSA won’t say, no one knows what the rules are, or whether those who reverse engineer them or point out their absurdity will be congratulated, investigated , put on the no-fly list, or put on the “rendition” must-fly list for a torture destination to be named (or not) later.

Ironically, I’d have more rights to see these USA government documents if I were a citizen of the European Union, rather than of the USA.

If any FOIA experts can recommend whether it would be worthwhile to appeal the TSA’s decision withholding their press statements, please let me know by e-mail or in a comment.

[Addendum, 29 October 2006: More in several stories from Ryan Singel and BoingBoing on the travails of University of Indiana computer security graduate student and researcher Chris Soghoian, whose “fake boarding pass generator” (based on trivially modifying the HTML of a print-it-yourself-at-home airline boarding pass) I mentioned in my original article. The FBI search warrant for Soghoian’s computers, data, and airline reservation records was based on a USA Federal law that would seem to be violated only if the boarding pass were a “record” being kept by the Federal government (but the TSA claims not to keep records, yet, of domestic travels within the USA), if the boarding pass were a Federally-required “identification medium” (but the TSA has claimed to Federal courts that they don’t require any ID from airline passengers) or possibly if the ID and boarding-pass checkers were actually Federal employees operating a Federal security program — as the third-party contractors who barred me from getting to the checkpoint unless I showed them my passport falsely claimed before getting the TSA to call the police to detain me and demand my passport earlier this year. Soghoian’s legal case thus might depend on precisely the issue I’m still trying to investigate: Who are these guys, who do they work for, and what (if any) authority do they have for their demands?]

Link | Posted by Edward on Friday, 27 October 2006, 17:55 ( 5:55 PM)

I'm very concerned about the state of travel in the USA that I am considering moving out to a nicer country. Until that time, I intend to only travel where I can drive. If you have time, please review the following story that I just posted to Chris Elliott's message board, as I would really like to get your opinion on it. Thanks for listening.


Alaska Airlines is hands down the worst, by a landslide. I have never had any unforgiveable trouble on any other airline, and I have flown most of the domestic ones. It amazes me all the different ways Alaska Airlines comes up with to fail. Without a single exception, every one of the dozens of times I have flown them, they have not only completely failed to provide an average, let alone positive experience, but also astound me at how many times and ways they fail in just one trip. I am a frequent business traveler, I favor Delta, and unfortunately Alaska is one of their partners that I can't avoid as I live in the Portland Oregon area.

Let me share just one, my most recent trip flying back from Anchorage, Alaska on the 1am flight, July 23 2007.
First, and this is the very least of it, they waited until they had loaded a completely full flight, to inspect their fire extinguishers and discover a holder had a broken clip. We sat for an hour with screaming babies and stinky humans waiting for the dang clip. We could have waited comfortably inside the terminal if they did their little inspection before they loaded us. Total butterfly effect, it gets worse.

So because they fly their pilots so close to their maximum fly time (a dangerous arrangement to begin with), they could not accommodate a simple one hour maintenance delay. So, when we started descending and thought we were landing in Portland, they announced we are landing in Seattle so we can change pilots. They further announced they made this decision in Anchorage, and our only other option was to wait in Anchorage all day. They failed to tell us this while we were on the ground in Anchorage and could therefore call our rides who would be getting up at 5am to pick us up (!!!) Their website also significantly misreported our actual arrival time to Portland, according to the person who was intending to pick me up. Only Alaska Airlines could land us in the wrong city on a nonstop flight...

Because they failed to explain the situation, many of the passengers wondered if there was terrorism or something, we asked the attendants why exactly we were landing 200 miles away from our intended destination. Many of the attendants were snippy, especially the one who answered my inquiry. She just yelled "BECAUSE OUR PILOT ARE ILLEGAL!" She did not offer any further explanation, and it was not until much later I found out how exactly they were illegal. Apparently they were already over their maximum fly time before we landed in Seattle.

Once we landed in Seattle, I went back to the restroom. This was ok because we were advised to stay on the plane and it would continue to Portland after they had switched pilots, so everyone was staying seated. I opened the bathroom door and the floor of the bathroom was covered in trash. As I went to tiptoe into this closet of a bathroom, a miniature wine bottle (the kind they serve on the flight) rolled out into the isle (!) (Would a passenger be drinking in the bathroom, when they could enjoy it at their seat, or is that where the attendants went to drink??) As I continued to step into the restroom, the same attendant who had been snippy and rude earlier, accused me of "kicking the bottle at her." (!) I wasn't even facing her, and she was a distance away in the back of the galley, I didn't even know she was there until she yelled at me. I was very taken aback, and nicely turned and said, oh no, the bottle just rolled out as I practically stepped on top of it and almost fell. She said something to the degree of "don't you argue with me" (seemed a little out of control and red in the face, maybe she had been drinking?) At that point I looked to see if I could read her name on her badge, and she covered it with her hand. (!!!) I told her I needed to get her name, and that she is required to allow me to obtain that information. She asked why I needed it, and I said that I might need to call customer service. She then told me she was kicking me off the plane and calling the cops (!!!).
Was she trying to distract from and cover for the wine bottles and other trash on the bathroom floor? I asked her why she would do such a thing and she said "because I threatened her." I asked "how exactly did I threaten you?" and she said "You said you were going to report me." (!!!) I went to the bathroom and returned to my seat.

They called me off the plane, I disputed the call calmly and politely, but they insisted. I whipped around and caught the bad attendant's name tag before she could cover it up for a 4th time. Her name tag said "Melissa H.", she was a tallish, early-middle-aged bottle blonde. After speaking briefly with the police, they could see that she was clearly the one with a problem, but they said that if they don't want you on the plane, the police can't force them to let you back on. At the gate counter, I asked if I could get a refund and simply drive back to Portland. Of course not. But they got me another flight within the hour.

In Portland, I went straight to the baggage office, as they had said they would not allow me to pull my luggage off the plane, or do anything special for me. I asked, "so it's going to go round and round on the belt for over an hour and possibly get stolen" and the ticket agent in Seattle had said "yes." Of course, once I got to the baggage office, they did not have my bags. Although the plane was simply continuing on to Portland, they pulled everyone's bags off in Seattle, and it would take an entire day of adding the baggage on to whatever flights had extra space, before everyone would have their bags. I missed all my appointments that day, had to pay a huge taxi tab because it was too late for my ride to be able to pick me up, and spent all day between calling customer service, who is only open 8-5, and the Portland baggage office, who didn't pick up the phone but maybe once every couple of hours.

As I had to drive to another city 3 hours away that night for my next 3 days of work, I finally gave up around 11pm and went home to pack another suitcase. I pulled up to load my suitcase (in a condo complex) and my car got towed, although I was not blocking anyone and not in a fire zone etc...of course that is not directly Alaska's fault, but certainly indirectly. Not only because they lost my bag in Seattle, but I discovered on the way to get my car out of the pound around midnight...they had been sitting on my suitcase in Portland since 5.15pm! I asked, and the clerk confirmed yes there was a note to call me asap because I had to travel to another city right away, and I had even called in 3 times since 5.15 and they said
No they didn't have it yet. (!!!)

I went to pick up my bag after losing $250 to get my car back, and at this point, was actually amazed it truly was there. Total butterfly effect, gotta love how a broken clip turns into a $250 bill and a 90 minute drive to go get your car.

I of course filed a complaint with Alaska Customer Service. When I didn't hear back for over a week, I filed a complaint with the Better Business Bureau. Nearly a month went by and they finally replied to my original complaint stating something to the effect they were sorry and try to do their best. No offer of any kind of compensation for the inconvenience, hardship, suffering, embarrassment, or loss of business!

Replying through the BBB online system, they had offered me a whopping $100! Wow. I declined the offer with a note that I found it insulting. You would seriously have to pay me at least a $grand cash on top of a free ticket to get me to even think about flying Alaska again. I have told all my friends, business associates, and posted to several online blogs. I even complained to the FAA, the TSA, and even the FTC and am getting some interested responses, as well as from the press & local news channels.

Next time I have to go to Alaska for business, I will pay several hundred more for a flight with stops and fly all the way through Salt Lake City on Delta, as that is the only other feasible alternative to Alaska.

Posted by: Melody, 22 August 2007, 18:25 ( 6:25 PM)

I have had a very similar experience with Alaska Airlines--apparently Alaska Airlines and their employees feel that abuse of power is perfectly acceptable....

I recently flew on Alaska. It was a 5.5 hour one way flight. As I'm 6'3" and it was a long flight, I very much wanted to get an exit row seat. I arrived at 5:30 am--3.5 hours before my scheduled departure. As I checked in, I asked for an exit row seat, but was told that they we all taken. I was disappointed, but hey, that's how it goes.

When boarding, I walked past the exit rows in the middle of the aircraft. Two entire exit rows (6 seats total) were being occupied by two women. Although not wearing AA uniforms, they did have AA ID badges hanging from their necks and they were both reading Alaska Airlines Flight Attendant's Manuals. I asked one of them if I could join her in "her" aisle as it was a long flight--she said "no, these seats are all taken."

It was pretty obvious to me that they were dead-heading crew (AA employees going from one location to another but not actually working the flight) and that they had each been given an entire exit row for their comfort during the flight.

I was upset about this, and when a working flight attendant walked by, I asked her if the 2 women seated in the 6 exit row seats were Alaska Airlines employees, she said "No, they're not."

I waited until we were up in the air and the captain had turned off the "fasten seat belt" sign and he announced that we could " move about the cabin." I went up to the closest exit row and asked the woman if I could sit in the same row as there were obviously 2 empty seats. She got quite huffy, grabbed her things, and moved up to the next exit row to join her friend--they then began to converse back and forth (relatively loudly) about what a "jerk" I was for "making her move." I leaned forward and politely asked, "excuse me, but are you Alaska Airlines employees?" Neither one would answer, they just glared at me.

When another flight attendant walked by, I asked if I could please speak with the head stewardess when she had a moment. She said that she was busy and it would probably be an hour or so before she had time--unless it was really urgent. I told her that that was, fine, it was not urgent, and that I'd be happy to wait.

Two hours went by, and the head stew then came to talk to me. I explained that I had arrived 2 hours early to get an exit row seat only to be told that there were none available for this flight, yet when I boarded I found 6 exit row seats being occupied by what appeared to be AA employees. I asked her if it was AA policy to give preferential seating to AA employees over their paying customers. She said that whenever possible, exit row seats are given to airline employees to "ensure passenger safety as we're fully trained in how to operate the emergency exits." I asked her if it was AA policy to reserve an entire exit row for AA employees and not allow any paying customers to sit in the remaining seats, and, if we could be considered "safe" in the event of an emergency when no AA employees were seated in the exit rows. She hemmed and hawed but did not answer my questions.

I told her that I was upset that Alaska Airlines would give preferential seating to their employees over their paying customers, and I asked if she had a AA customer service complaint form that I could fill out. She said yes, she would get me one.

She came back about 15 mins later with a form and a pen, and asked me to fill out my name and address and she would turn in the report--then she walked away. As I read the form I was shocked when I saw that it said "In-flight Incident Report" and at the bottom in bold type it said "Your further failure to comply with the requests of flight attendants and/or crew will result in your immediate arrest upon completion of this flight, and/or immediate detention by the Air Marshall."

I couldn't believe it! I thought for a moment that maybe she ad just made a mistake, so when she came back and asked me if I had filled out the form I said "I think you made a mistake--I asked for a customer complaint form and this is an in-flight incident report."

She said, "it's no mistake--you were intimidating our flight crew and I'm reporting you to the airline and the FAA for your behavior. Now fill out the form now."

I asked her politely if I was required by law to fill out the form, she thought about it for a bit and said "no." I told her that I'd be happy to comply with any legal order or request, but that I would respectfully decline to fill out this form without the advice and consent of my attorney. She took the form from me said "fine, we have your info anyway."

The message was quite clear--dare to complain about the service (or lack thereof) that we are providing to you and you WILL be reported and possibly put on the No-fly list!!

This is IMHO a CLEAR abuse of power, and that senior stew should not only be terminated immediately, but she should be charged criminally with intimidation, coercion, and abuse of power.

Slowly but surely, the sad events of 9/11 are being abused for profit and/or intimidation, all under the guise of "fighting terrorism."

Posted by: Loren, 12 February 2008, 09:58 ( 9:58 AM)
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