TSA Chronicles, Cream Cheese Edition

Alan Pisarski, a transportation scholar featured in our podcast about the disappearance of hitchhiking, writes in to say:

My niece was back home in Milwaukee visiting family and stocked up on bagels, lox, and cream cheese to take home to Kentucky (forget for our purposes the madness of thinking that Milwaukee has a clue about bagels etc. – she is right – at least they have heard of them in contrast to KY).  Anyways, the wonderful folk at TSA said she could take the bagels on board and the lox, but the cream cheese was out! But being proud civil servants – an oxymoron if ever there was one — they agreed that it would be okay, and she could bring it on board, if the cream cheese was spread on the bagels. Please write this down for future reference.

(Photo: Matthew Mendoza)

I flew the other day with my kids and we discovered that children under 12 no longer have to remove their shoes at the security checkpoint. My daughter was disappointed. To her, going through the line barefoot is one of the highlights of flying.

As someone who flies a lot, I don’t find the security process as onerous as many others do — but that’s probably because I fly a lot and have the drill down. Also: I find that most waits are much shorter than the “endless” lines reported in just about every news report about airport security. (Such reports are also grammatically corrupt, as even very long lines are hardly “endless.”)

What is frustrating, I believe, is a lack of consistency and transparency. Different airports do things differently; different crews at the same airport do things differently; procedures change and change again and change back to the original procedure. Check out, for instance, this cupcake story, with a very good quote:

“The TSA at Logan Airport said the cupcakes looked delicious and told us to have a great trip. But in Las Vegas, they were dangerous. They shouldn’t be delicious in one part of the country and a security threat in the other.”

That said, since the goal of security is to thwart attackers (rather than simply frustrate fliers), minimal consistency and transparency is probably a good thing.

Or, if you’re of the opinion that airport security is actually security theater, you can read the latest version of that argument in Vanity Fair, with Charles Mann taking security dude Bruce Schneier to the airport. Here’s part of the article’s subhead: “As you stand in endless lines this holiday season, here’s a comforting thought: all those security measures accomplish nothing, at enormous cost.”

Eric M. Jones.

...and onion? You've gotta have onion!


Mr. Pisarski, I happen to be a very proud civil servant, in the transportation field no less, and find absolutely no reason not to stand behind my work with pride. Please question the rules, and their sometimes ham-handed application, without painting us all with your scholarly brush [insert derogatory quip about all professional scholars here].

Stephen Vakil

The cream cheese thing happened to us in Madison. Maybe it's a wisconsin thing? It makes about as much sense as the 3 oz rule. Apparently it's ok if the alleged plastic explosives go off right in the TSA line as one spreads it over bagels? I hate to be a conspiracy theorist but this reminds me of the conspiracy theory that TSA's job is to protect airline assets and not people, since apparently no one cares if faux-bagel bombs go off in a crowd.


Even if there were regulations pertaining to all items, we could hardly expect the chair moisteners at the TSA to enforce them uniformly.


This is funny ,sad but most of all True.

Deb Morrissey

I decided the TSA was completely useless the weekend I flew from Virginia to Texas. My first flight was delayed enough that I missed my connecting flight and was put up in a hotel near the Atlanta airport. Once in Texas, I went into my purse for something and discovered my totally forgotten pocketknife - my spring-assisted 3" blade Gerber. Which, mind you, had made it through security in both Virginia and Atlanta at this point.

Of course, now that I knew I had it, I knew it would be found on my way back, so I had to mail it back to myself. But I'm now utterly convinced that security is useless if a knife of that size can make it through.


Same thing happened to me with a boxcutter (A BOXCUTTER!) in Nov. of '03.

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It's true. I knew a guy from Tennessee who, on a visit to us up north, remarked "I'll have another one on them 'hard donuts'"


The story in my family is that, as Jews recently relocated from New England to Tennessee in the '70s, we would have my grandparents bring boxes of supplies - bagels, lox, pickled herring, etc. - from Boston. Once a jar broke in shipping under the plane, and as the box came down the conveyor, every head turned with a "What is that smell?" expression.


Why do first-class passengers get a shorter TSA line?
Are they paying for privileged access to government service?


Yes, we are.

Ross C. Taylor

Since you made a point of criticizing the use of the word "endless" to describe security lines, I will provide a rebuttal. While you are clearly considering the line length, one could just as easily apply the word "end" to the refer to the time at which there is no longer a line. I travel fairly often and can't think of a time that I have approached security to find no line. Thus, the lines at security are "endless."


While I agree that airport security is a major joke, unpredictability should be desired. To the extent we're going to have the onerous measures, they should be construed/interpreted differently to create maximum uncertainty amongst those who would do evil. The fact that it also creates maximum uncertainty amongst the flying public is of no import since we've already decided to foist the charade upon them anyway.


I have wondered often about the liquid and gel rule. Is there some formal definition based on viscosity? Deodorant is okay, but toothpaste is not. Bar soap vs liquid soap? Ice cream vs milk? As the article points out, "minimal consistency and transparency" actually serves a positive role in thwarting attackers, but there really must be a more reasonable way.


I have always wondered and wanted to ask a TSA agent why is a liquid too dangerous to get onto an airplane but not to sit all over the security tables and in the trash cans in the security lines in mass quantity. Also, at the end of the day do they treat the liquid that was confiscated as hazardous material? If they see it as a threat, I would hope they treat it as one. I would expect them to analize and incinerate all liquids to ensure they are no further harm to the public.

Another thought, if I was to bring a truly dangerous item like gasoline or worse that could actually cause damage would they just take it from me and allow me to board without a sceondary screening? If not why do they allow me to board after taking my "dangerous" 12 oz bottle of water? If they were really serious about security they should detain and severely question every single person who tries to bring any liquid through security. I just can't find the logic. Who do they think they are fooling?



I fly a lot and agree with the article that inconsistency is an issue and the lines are not that long. Having said that my BIGGEST gripe is after 10 years of the TSA, they still can't buy metal table that are the same height. Give me a break. You give me a tub to put my things in then I'm supposed to push it along this series of metal tables that are uneven. If I have a couple of carry on bags and a two tubs, it becomes a fight just to push them all.


.. hence the TSA's confused dilema: As a visible government entity, they have to act with the utmost of consistency and transparency. But real securtity applied in a consistent manner is something that the USA can't afford.

Which is why it's reverted to 'security theater' to make people THINK they are safe.


Just try to leave Wisconsin with 8 oz of chese spread and a summer sausage!!