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How the Rich Took Over Airport Secuirty

Security checks were one of America's most democratic places -- until rich passengers got their own speedy lines

Photo Credit: AFP


 The other day at Bergstrom Airport in Austin, Texas, I witnessed a striking manifestation of the new American plutocracy. Along with getting a photo at the Department of Motor Vehicles and sitting in a jury pool, standing in line at airport security with a mob of other people, miserable though it is, remains one of the few examples of civic equality in our increasingly oligarchic republic. Much airport security, of course, is theater, designed to provide alibis for bureaucrats and politicians in the event of a terrorist attack. But while we can debate what a rational airport security system would look like, no rational system would discriminate among passengers on the basis of ability to pay.

That is what makes the policy of Delta Airlines so shockingly un-American. In Austin, Delta had not one but two lines that fed into the Transportation Security Administration checkpoint area. One line was mixed race, mixed class and mixed age. The other line was usually empty. Now and then a white, middle-aged man would appear in the second line and the first line would be halted as he went directly into the TSA checkpoint.

“Who are those guys?” I asked a TSA officer, when I reached the front of the second-class citizen line.

“Delta has total control over the passenger line all the way up to here,” the officer answered. “They’ve decided to let priority passengers as well as pilots and steward staff go through ahead of others.”

“So that’s the rich white guy line?” I asked.

The TSA officer laughed. “On our side of the line, everybody is equal.”

Now I would be the first to concede that what Delta and other airlines do beyond the government security checkpoint at the gates that lead to airplanes is their business. At the moment, the model of America’s pathetic, predatory, deteriorating airline industry seems to be eking out nickels and dimes by playing crudely on the snobbery of their customers, with the use of two separate lines at the terminal gates, one for priority passengers — labelled, by various airlines, Gold, Platinum, Elite and so on.

The priority line, needless to say, goes to exactly the same door and entry ramp and does not get the “elite” to its destination one second earlier. Neither de Toqueville, who commented on the contrast between the status obsessions of Americans and their professed democratic egalitarianism, nor Veblen, who coined the term “conspicuous consumption,” would have been surprised by this method of showing off. Such silliness is a matter for satire, not lawsuits or protest marches.

But going through airline security is different. It is not a choice, like belonging to an airline’s frequent flier points club. Security screening is an onerous civic duty. Like other civic duties, it should be shared equally by rich and poor alike. Remember the motto of Jacksonian populism? “Equal rights for all, special privileges for none.”

Nearly all the airlines now allow well-heeled passengers to pay for the privilege of cutting ahead of the rest of us at the TSA checkpoint. At many airline checkpoints there are two lines. The long line looks like America; the short line is made up mostly of affluent white men.

Is this the future we Americans want: two lines at all airline security checkpoints, one for the privileged 1 percent and the other for the 99 percent, who have to stand aside to let the people with lots of money pass? Alas, it appears that making economic apartheid formal in U.S. civil aviation is a bad idea whose time has come. The TSA is experimenting with a “precheck” program with built-in class discrimination, including the government’s crony-capitalist invitation of frequent fliers from private U.S. airline programs, but not other American citizens, to participate:

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