Yesterday morning, I heard a brief interview with 3 members of the United States Travel and Tourism Promotion Advisory Board. The purpose of this board is to come up with ways to encourage international travel to the United States. They have been given a $50 million marketing budget by the President. Members include the heads of regional convention and tourism boards, hotel company executives, airline executives, and Commerce Secretary Don Evans. Some of these men are also members of the World Travel and Tourism Council. Although it does not surprise me that I was not invited to join this prestigious committee, I would like to offer my ideas on the subject. As usual, free advice is often worth what you pay for it.
First, I’d like to point out to the esteemed gentlemen that the majority of travel and tourism in the United States is done by people who already live in the United States. Sure, maybe it doesn’t bring “new” money into the system when someone from Iowa makes a trip to Chicago, but that person does spend money on food, hotel, activities, and collectors spoons that they would not have spent in Iowa. Furthermore, the kinds of things that keep us Americans from traveling are exactly the kinds of things that keep international tourists away.
Next, get the Department of Homeland Security to stop issuing warnings that say nothing more than Look Out! Speaking as an American, I don’t mind legitimate warnings, but most of what we hear is nothing more than vague scary stuff. We don’t want to hear “Orange. That is all.” We want something we can think about and maybe act upon. The few times there have been specific warnings — for example, recent warnings that there might be another hijacking or airliner bomb, or 2002’s warning that banks in the Northeast might be targeted — were met with no change in the terror alert level. To further complicate matters, genuine threats were met with no change; why didn’t the Washington area get an orange or even red alert when they had sniper problems? In short, we need something to “Look Out!” for, even if it’s a little vague, and we need regional alerts. People in other countries really do look at the terror levels before buying plane tickets.
Another thing you could do to encourage tourism is to stop treating everyone at the airport as a potential terrorist. There, I have said it. I don’t think most of us mind going through the metal detector. However, a lot of us are beginning to think that some small minority of screeners like to deliberately humiliate us through invasive searches and gratuitous confiscations. It is apparent that the list of prohibited items for carry-on luggage varies by screener and airport, regardless of what the official Federal list may say. Furthermore, now that it is perfectly legal for the TSA to break into our luggage and search it, have they found so much as a single bomb or vial of anthrax? Guns and ammo don’t count; it’s legal to pack those in checked luggage. Have we done adequate screening of the screeners to make sure they aren’t using this golden opportunity to steal from honest passengers?
Prescreening has been widely sold as an idea that will prevent unnecessary searches and speed up the security line. Nothing could be further from the truth. As long as it is suspected that people will bring weapons onto aircraft, the security line will stay where it is, and everyone will have to go through it. Today, we find out that the proposed prescreening system will color code travelers — color coding worked so well for the DHS — and rate them according to perceived security risk. Green passengers may board immediately; 8% will be rated yellow and get further screening; 1% to 2% will be rated red and not allowed to fly, maybe even get arrested, and there is absolutely nothing they can do about it. Now think about that. A Boeing 747-400 can carry up to 568 passengers. If 1% of passengers are designated code red non-flyers, that is an average of 5 on every single flight. On a busy holiday weekend, Chicago’s O’Hare airport has over 1 million travelers. Do they have room for 10,000-20,000 detained code red non-flyers at the airport? A single terminal at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport accommodates 12.8 million flyers annually, an average of 37,000 every single day. That’s 370 code red non-flyers every single day from a single terminal. Double these numbers if you suspect the number of code red non-flyers will actually be closer to 2%.
That is just the practical consideration. Don’t forget the Civil Liberties considerations. Groups from the American Conservative Union to the ACLU are concerned. The TSA spokesman says “Not only should we keep passengers from sitting next to a terrorist, we should keep them from sitting next to wanted ax murderers.” The ACLU director replies “You could be falsely arrested. You could be delayed. You could lose your ability to travel.” What is the criteria for arrest anyway? Having an outstanding parking ticket? Having the same name as someone who is a criminal? Even victims of identity theft could find themselves spending their vacation not at a resort, but in jail. Is there the possibility this could be used in a politically expedient fashion? Yes.
So then, Secretary Evans, esteemed members of the Board, if you would like foreign tourists to come back to the United States, you had better do something about Americans traveling within our borders. They are not a captive audience.