My reply from Congresswoman Chellie Pingree on the New TSA Policies:

Reprinted in full: 

Dear Stephen,

Thank you for contacting me to express your concern about full-body scanners at airports. I appreciate hearing from you about this important issue. 

As you may know, under new guidelines established by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), passengers at some airports are subjected to a full-body scan to detect prohibited items that may be concealed under their clothing. Individuals who do not want to go through a full body screening may decline in favor of a pat-down screening. There are more than 300 full body scanners in use at airports with TSA planning to increase that to more than 1,000 devices. Currently, no airport in Maine has a full body scanner. 

I recognize the need for enhanced security guidelines that keep our skies safe for travel and understand that TSA has instituted these new guidelines to protect passengers. However, like you, I think TSA policies need to apply common sense in their approach to provide security. 

Although these new guidelines have been created to enhance security for travelers and combat the threat of terrorism, we must be assured that the constitutional rights of American citizens are not being violated in the process. I have concerns about TSA full body scanners because of the potential invasion of privacy and lack of Congressional direction and oversight.  Additionally, there are reports that the pat-down alternative to full-body scanning can be overly intrusive and time-consuming. 

We need to ensure that these precautionary measures are the most appropriate methods to discover previously undetectable threats or explosives. The House passed H.R. 2200, the Transportation Security Administration Authorization Act on June 4, 2009, with my support. It included an amendment to prohibit the TSA's use of full-body scanners as the primary screening method. This legislation is currently pending consideration in the Senate, and it is my hope that it is considered quickly. 

Fortunately, the House Committee on Homeland Security plans to hold hearings on the body scanning procedures and alternative technologies. Congress must execute its oversight responsibilities, investigate claims of constitutional violations, and produce recommendations for restoring trust between the public and the TSA. 

I will be sure to keep your thoughts in mind as Congress continues its consideration of this issue. Thank you again for being in touch and I hope to see you in Maine soon.

Chellie Pingree
Member of Congress

Trains vs Planes, with numbers:

This isn’t the first time I’ve taken the Acela down to the New York area (Stamford, this trip). It’s the first time, however, that I’ve thought seriously about the deltas in travel time between air and rail. 

I declined to fly this time around because of the TSA’s new policies. If I’d decided to fly from Portland, I would have flown JetBlue into JFK. According to the TSA’s FAQ, however, JFK is one of the airports featuring the new Advanced Imaging Technology full body scanners manufactured by, among other entities, Rapiscan Systems Limited. And no, before you ask, that name is not a typo. I’ve detailed my frustrations with the TSA’s current policy previously. The short version is that the benefits to the TSA’s new approach are marginal – Bruce Schenier calls them “a waste of money and time” – and thus do not justify the violations of my fourth amendment rights. 

Until these rules are changed, then, I will be flying as little as possible. The question is: how little is that?

As much as I long for a future of cross-country high speed rail, the estimated $500+ billion price tag puts that solidly in the realm of “pipedream.” To travel to San Francisco, then, as I need to next week, rail is not, realistically, an option. It would take a combination of trains and buses four days to get me across the country, against a door to door transit time of approximately nine hours by air. And if I wanted to actually sleep for the two nights I’d be in transit, the cost of the fare is $936.00 – one way. 

California, then, is regrettably outside my TSA radius. But what are the numbers for regional travel in the North East. While it’s obvious that even high speed rail such as the Acela is slower than the shuttle in absolute transit time – 2:34 minutes by train, typically, against 1:12 by plane – there are a number of things acting to mitigate that apparent advantage. Here’s a quick look at the numbers I came up with. The route is based on door to door times from the Copley Place in Boston to the Westin in Times Square, New York, a trip I have made in the past. 

There are doubtless variables in the above that can be tweaked, from drive times to arrival times at the airport. But generally, it seems likely that the train will take at least thirty minutes longer in terms of elapsed time versus the shuttle, and the delta will probably be closer to an hour. Weather delays are more likely to delay air travel, of course, but they’re far from unheard of on rail. I’m sitting on an idle Acela as I write this, delayed by a tree that hit one of the powerlines. 

The question for travelers then is whether the extra time can be offset. The answer will vary from person to person, of course, but for me the answer is yes. The reasons for this are many.
  • Trains feature both power and wifi: planes on this route are unlikely to have either
  • Train seats are longer, wider and more comfortable
  • Rail doesn’t have restrictions on device usage, unlike air travel which requires passengers to shut down for takeoff and landing
  • Rail does not have TSA screening, so I do not have to take my shoes and belt off, my laptop out, or be subjected to an “enhanced” pat down
  • Due to the lack of screening, I am not restricted from bringing items like bottled water on board
  • Also due to the lack of screening, I do not have to show up for trains an hour ahead of time to board
  • Train stations are generally located in city, so there is no long cab ride waiting for me upon arrival as when flying
For me, then, rail is a preferred method of travel, and it will be as long as the TSA’s new rules remain in place. Based on JetBlue’s currently available fares, then, the TSA has already cost the carrier $329.40 in fares. Given that just in this calendar year 2010 I’ve made 47 trips to 17 cities, that number is likely to only grow over time.  

Rail is not an option for all or even most of my travel, unfortunately. But whenever it is, I will continue to give it my business. Whatever it gives up in time, it gives back in comfort.