The Quest for a Refund

November 22, 2010 10:36 am

Jess and I have decided we will travel by land for our Christmas travel in order to not be subjected to the invasive, demeaning, and/or cancer-causing security requirements of flying. Luckily my work schedule is such that we can spend the extra time traveling to and from Texas without cutting into the time we planned to actually be there. Regardless, as part of this decision I've been seeking a refund for the tickets we purchased in September.

My opinion is that when I purchased the tickets on September 25 I did so with the understanding that passing through security was required in order to receive the service I paid for (namely, being flown from A to B). At the time there was a security screening option which I considered tolerable. Therefore I accepted that screening requirement as an implied condition of the transaction.

On October 28, more than a full month after my purchase, the TSA changed the requirements of the security process and all the options became intolerable. To me it seems fair to say that the implied condition of my transaction with the airline changed without my consent. Since the terms of our contract changed without my consent I should be entitled to a refund because I reject the new terms of the agreement.

Of course, the Southwest customer service representative didn't agree with my position. While she agreed that passing through security was a requirement to receiving the service I paid for, her position was that because Southwest doesn't control the TSA I wasn't entitled to a refund from Southwest because of something that the TSA did.

I think this is entirely bogus. Southwest's contract of carriage makes no mention of security screening requirements, however I think it's fairly obvious that they must be included in any discussion of the contract as an implied condition—refusing to comply will result in you being denied boarding, being removed from the airport, and potentially being arrested and fined up to $11,000. I've also checked the contracts of carriage for Delta, American Airlines, and US Airways. None of which make mention of requiring conformity with security screening requirements except to say it is the passenger's responsibility to arrive with enough time to undergo any such requirements. JetBlue's, however, explicitly says "Passengers and their baggage are subject to inspection with or without the Passenger's consent or knowledge." So if you fly JetBlue you should be aware that you've agreed to be inspected without your consent or knowledge. Not cool JetBlue.

In contrast. Amtrak's conditions of transportation explicitly state "Passengers failing to consent to security procedures will be denied access to trains and refused carriage, and a refund will be offered." So it is clearly not unreasonable to suggest that the carrier should refund the ticket when the passenger refuses to comply with security procedures.

After getting nowhere with the Southwest CSR I asked to speak with a supervisor and was told that she was a supervisor. So I told her I'd be pursuing this further, which she, of course, didn't care about.


My next step was to log on to my credit card company (Citi Bank)'s website and file a charge dispute. I explained my position, why I felt I was entitled to a refund, and how Southwest responded to my request. As I was about halfway through the form I got a popup suggesting I could chat with a CSR about my dispute. So I did that which got me nowhere. I know why they have that option because they want to nip disputes in the bud when it's someone making a fruitless claim. But I explained to that CSR what my dispute was about and was directed to submit the online dispute form. And I did so.

I've since received notification that the dispute has been supported by Citi Bank which means that they provided a conditional refund on the charge and have sent the dispute to Southwest. So now I'm waiting to hear Southwest's response.

If Southwest denies the refund I'm planning to send what's known as an Executive Email Carpet Bomb. Which is essentially sending an email of complaint to any and all executives for which an email address can be found. This is a fairly popular move with the website and can be successful when other methods fail.

If that does fail, however, I am fully grumpy enough and ready to take the matter to small claims court. I don't see how anyone could reasonably consider this to amount to anything but a change in the terms of our contract.

The truth of the matter is this:
Southwest: If you buy this ticket, in order to use it you have to be cleared by the TSA.
Me: TSA, what do I have to do to be allowed on the plane?
TSA: You have to do X.
Me: OK.
[33 days later]
TSA: Oh, by the way you now have to do Y to board your plane. We don't allow X anymore.
Me: No way.
Southwest: Too bad, thanks for the money.

So much for the "Southwest Difference."

The Solution

November 19, 2010 3:46 pm

I just realized the solution to all this security stupidity. A solution so simple, rational, and agreeable that it's basically guaranteed to never happen.

Let the people choose. A lot of people, including the TSA head, have claimed that if you let people choose they'd choose the invasive security measures. So let's let people choose. Just not between no security and invasive security. Let people choose between the invasive security and the metal detector + luggage X-ray that we've used for years.

It's quite easy. Allow airlines to fly low-security and high-security flights. Allow the employees of the airline to choose which flights they'd like to fly. Run them out of separate terminals at the airports to keep security areas separate. For small airports designate the far-end as high-security and the closer end as low-security. You pass through low-security first, then high-security passengers continue through the enhanced screening to their gates.

Logically the low-security flights would cost less since all that screening costs a lot of money. Then we'd see how the American people really feel. For $10 more each way you can fly high-security. Problem solved.

If people really don't mind the added cost and hassle of the high-security flights then we can realistically expect the low-security flights to be empty. And if that happens, cancel the flights and reduce their frequency. I doubt that would be the case though. I imagine you'd find many people would be happy to take the cost reduction (and supposed security reduction) and get on the low-security flights while enjoying a greater level of freedom.

Sadly this solution is so simple, logical, and un-divisive that it will probably never happen. I'd happily fly again with such a setup.

Now that the cockpit doors are reinforced and locked from the inside hijacking is not a credible threat. The only remaining risk is almost entirely limited to those on board, so let them choose what level of security they want.

No, you may not put your hands in my pants

11:51 am

From KMOV 4 in St. Louis. Even if you are okay with the X-ray backscatter devices, you're not safe from the groping:

Business traveler, Penny Moroney, was flying home from St. Louis to Chicago. Like all other airline passengers, she had to go through security first. When the metal in her artificial knees set off the detectors, she had to undergo more screening. When Moroney asked if she could go through a body scanner, she was told none were available.

Moroney explains “Her gloved hands touched my breasts...went between them. Then she went into the top of my slacks, inserted her hands between my underwear and my skin... then put her hands up on outside of slacks, and patted my genitals.”

Why are there so many people that think this kind of screening is acceptable in order to board a plane? Why are people so afraid that everyone around them is a terrorist just waiting for an opportunity to kill them? Why do so many people say things like, "Anything that makes the plane safer is OK with me."? Yet these same people will happily walk into a grocery store, or mall, or church without any fear of the supposed terrorist threat. Do they really believe that terrorists only blow up planes and if no planes are available they'll simply stay home and take a nap?

The ability to travel is a Constitutionally guaranteed right. From Wikipedia's article on Freedom of Movement:

As far back as the circuit court ruling in Corfield v. Coryell, 6 Fed. Cas. 546 (1823), the Supreme Court recognized freedom of movement as a fundamental Constitutional right.

It is not a privilege. You shouldn't have to be either rich (private planes have no security) or willing to compromise other rights. We shouldn't have to choose between the right to freedom of movement and the right to be protected from unreasonable search. And yes, freedom of movement applies to all forms of transportation:

For much of American history, the right to travel included the right to travel by the vehicle of one's choice, and courts occasionally struck down regional regulations that required licenses or government permission to travel on public roadways. With the advent of the automobile, however, courts began upholding laws and regulations requiring licenses to operate vehicles on roadways. Constitutional scholar Roger Roots has referred to the forgotten right to travel without license as "the orphaned right."

Don't misunderstand me. I accept requiring driver's licenses as a matter of public safety. I accept requiring a reasonable measure of security for air travel. A metal detector resulted in no invasion of my personal privacy. It's a device which simply detects magnetic substances. I'd be perfectly happy to use a device that somehow detected explosive substances. And we had devices that supposed did exactly that. Remember the chemical sniffer devices that cost millions of dollars? What happened to them? They're gone with no reason or explanation given. Yet now we're spending a few hundred million more dollars on these new machines.

And this leads to another of the many problems with airport security. To use a favorite phrase of one of the CS Department professors: How do you know when you've won? That is, what's your metric for success? How do you know that the actions you've taken made a difference? Without a metric you have no evidence.

So what's the metric used to gauge whether new security procedures are working? The number of successful terrorist attacks carried out against planes? Well, that's been zero since 9/12/2001. So by that metric the security we had last year was perfectly safe. The number of deterred terrorist plots against planes? There's no way to measure that so it can't be used as a metric. The number of terrorists stopped because of airport security? That's also 0. The number of attempted terrorist attacks? This one sounds legitimate but is highly dependent on factors which can't be controlled (a priori efforts of law enforcement, terrorist recruitment levels, etc.) and thus you can't meaningfully compare the value from last year to value for next year.

I'd love to hear an admissible metric. Without one you may as well believe that my terrorist repellent works and just spray each passenger with it before they board the plane. Terrorists will break out in hives! 99.99999% accurate! Prove me wrong!

The American Traveler Dignity Act

November 17, 2010 6:00 pm

Hooray for Ron Paul, Congressman from Texas' 14th District. Today Paul introduced the American Traveler Dignity Act. (I haven't been able to find the text of the bill.)

Some quotes from his speech:

In one recent well-publicized case, a TSA official is recorded during an attempted body search saying, “By buying your ticket you gave up a lot of rights.” I strongly disagree and am sure I am not alone in believing that we Americans should never give up our rights in order to travel. As our Declaration of Independence states, our rights are inalienable. This TSA version of our rights looks more like the “rights” granted in the old Soviet Constitutions, where freedoms were granted to Soviet citizens -- right up to the moment the state decided to remove those freedoms.

My legislation is simple. It establishes that airport security screeners are not immune from any US law regarding physical contact with another person, making images of another person, or causing physical harm through the use of radiation-emitting machinery on another person. It means they are subject to the same laws as the rest of us.

Fly With Dignity

4:27 pm

A new grassroots campaign has started the website to continue to raise awareness on the issue of airport security.

They are collecting "signatures" in their online petition. Now, I'm not naive. I don't expect the online petition to be used for anything particularly meaningful. However, they do verify email addresses and it at least represents a set of unique email addresses that have at least cared enough to voice their opinion on the matter. At a minimum it stands to contradict the news sources that claim very few people actually care about this problem.

In other news, the TSA head, John Pistole, was in front of a Senate Oversight committee today. From the Consumerist website:

He used the analogy that if passengers had the option of getting on two planes to the same destination -- one which had been fully screened but which took a little longer and required scanners or pat-downs, and the other with no screening -- "I think everyone will want to opt for the screening with the assurance that everything is safe and secure."

I'd like to point out how he carefully constructs a false dichotomy and uses that to defend the invasive screening procedures. In reality our choices are not limited to invasive screening or no security. I'd be perfectly happy to invoke choice C, returning to the level of security we had 9 months ago. Total number of successful terrorist attacks involving planes from October 2001 to 2010 before the new procedures: 0.