What to do when the TSA makes up its own rules

By | August 21st, 2016

Does a container of juice for a toddler really pose a security threat to U.S. air travel? Whether it does or not, you can’t blame Kristin Rausch for wondering after a recent bad experience with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).

Rausch’s case suggests that the TSA is protecting us from persons and objects that don’t pose a security threat, and that its agents subject passengers to punishment for holding the TSA to its own rules.

Rausch and her four-year-old daughter had to go through the security area at George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston to board a flight. Rausch wanted to make sure that she could bring some juice on board the flight to help her daughter cope with the change in cabin pressure during takeoff and landing. She called the TSA’s “special procedures” line, where a TSA agent assured her that she could bring the juice aboard the plane and merely needed to pack the juice in a separate clear plastic bag.

She also checked out the TSA website, which indicates that “Formula, breast milk and juice in quantities greater than 3.4 ounces or 100 milliliters are allowed in carry-on baggage and do need to not fit within a quart-sized bag. Separate formula, breast milk and juice from other liquids, gels and aerosols [are] limited to 3.4 ounces.”

When she reached the TSA checkpoint at Bush Airport, a TSA agent told her that it was fine to take the juice in her carry-on bag, but to put it in a separate bin for screening. So far, so good.

Then Rausch walked through the body scanner. As she emerged, another TSA agent pulled the juice out of the bin and asked Rausch, “How old is your daughter?” Rausch answered that her daughter was four years old.

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Here’s Rausch on what happened next:

The agent unprofessionally shouted to another, “Four’s too old for juice, right?”

The other answered, “I think it’s three and under.”

The agent then turned to me and told me to take my daughter out of the checkpoint and go check the juice in my luggage. I told her I had called the special traveler line and they said it would be fine, because she needed it on the plane, but subject to special screening.

The agent got annoyed and took the juice out of my view to another agent. I heard her say, “I told her no but now she’s saying it’s medical.”

The agent came back and said, “Well, if you’re going to make a medical issue out of it, you have to have a pat-down.”

I consented to the pat-down, and then tweeted to @AskTSA about the age limit on juice. The reply I received was a non-answer.

The TSA website contains the following instructions regarding liquids for small children:

Inform the TSA officer if you do not want the formula, breast milk and/or juice to be X-rayed or opened. Additional steps will be taken to clear the liquid and you or the traveling guardian will undergo additional screening procedures, to include a pat-down and screening of other carry-on property.

The website offers no guarantee that passengers traveling with these items won’t be subjected to a pat-down — in fact, it indicates that the passenger should expect a pat-down. It also doesn’t list an age limit for these liquids.

That said, the agent’s hostile attitude was uncalled for. While Rausch would have been subjected to the pat-down simply for bringing juice for a small child onto her flight, the agent’s annoyance and claiming that Rausch was “making a medical issue out of it” were unnecessarily aggressive and led Rausch to believe that the pat-down was retaliation for insisting that she was allowed to bring the juice on board the flight.

Passengers such as Rausch with complaints against TSA agents can use this form on the TSA website to file complaints against the TSA. The TSA website also contains email and telephone contact information for its Contact Center for passengers with questions about TSA operations.

Sadly, interactions like these between the TSA’s agents and travelers suggest that the TSA needs to take a hard look at its screening procedures — and its personnel who conduct screenings. There is a fine line between strict enforcement of rules and aggressive attitudes towards passengers over issues like juice for toddlers, and the latter doesn’t do anything to protect the American public from terrorists.

Do the TSA's screening procedures need overhauling?

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