5 things you should never say to a TSA screener

5 things you should never say to a TSA screener

It happened to Ann Holley again last week. As she passed through the security checkpoint at Atlanta’s busy airport, she asked a TSA agent to “opt out” of being screened by a full-body scanner.

Under the agency’s rules, she received an automatic “enhanced” pat-down.

She wishes she hadn’t.

“I was left waiting for an agent to come by and give me a pat-down,” says Holley, who works for the federal government in Hartford, Conn. “I waited 15 minutes.”

She adds, “I’m wondering whether TSA has decided to leave those who opt out hanging so we’ll eventually get tired of waiting and give in, the way nearly everyone else does. I never see anyone else opting out anymore.”

Holley — not her real name because she’s afraid the TSA will make her wait even longer the next time she’s in Atlanta — committed one of the passenger screening “no-nos” that you need to know about before your next flight. They include cracking jokes, mentioning certain laws and sometimes, just asking simple questions.

But to answer her question: Does the TSA intentionally keep passengers waiting? If there is such a policy, it is almost certainly an unofficial one. There’s ample evidence of its existence, including this passenger in Phoenix who had to wait in a glass cage nearly an hour when she balked at TSA screening of her breastmilk (see video, above).

What should you never, ever, say to a TSA agent?

“I demand to opt out!” See example, above. Personally, I avoid those untested scanners just like Holley, but there’s a right way and a wrong way to do it. Taking a loud, principled stand at the airport is likely to end you up in that glass penalty box. Instead, look for the line without a scanner and if you’re sent into the wrong queue, say that you’d prefer not to use the scanner. I suspect that exclaiming, “I opt out!” will force a supervisor over, and good luck making your next flight. (For the record, Holly made her flight — but just barely.)

“May I take your picture?” Although the official TSA policy is that taking snapshots are allowed at a screening area, the truth is, agents don’t like to be photographed at work. I know, because I’ve been at a major airport with a public affairs officer and a professional photographer, and have been told that the policy isn’t worth the HTML it’s coded on. A careful read of the actual rule makes that reasonably clear: “Taking photographs may also prompt airport police or a TSA official to ask what your purpose is,” it says. Who in their right mind would want to be subject to a police interrogation?

My advice: Unless you see abusive behavior that must be documented, don’t provoke the agents by pointing a camera at them or asking if they’d like to be part of your vacation photo album. (They don’t.)

“Ever heard of the Fourth Amendment?” That would be the one about the right of the people to be secure against unreasonable searches and seizures, in case you were wondering. Aaron Tobey famously posed that question on his chest last year, and was arrested. Of course, we can hope that most TSA agents have heard of the Fourth Amendment, as well as some of the other constitutional questions surrounding the latest screening methods.

Although I agree with the protesters that the TSA is treading on thin ice, constitutionally speaking, I think the best place to bring this up is either in a court of law or at the ballot box this November.

“So a terrorist walks into a bar …” TSA agents aren’t supposed to have a sense of humor (although when they do, it makes the failed comedians of the world sound funny). The agency dryly warns that quips about bombs will not expedite the screening process. No, duh.

The real joke, of course, is that we’re paying $8 billion a year to fund this circus. It’s a joke no one is laughing about, except perhaps the well-connected subcontractors who are building the gadgets and scanners that are supposed to protect us from those funny terrorist bombs that haven’t shown up at the airport yet. And those subcontractors are laughing … all the way to the bank.

“How can you live with yourself?” If you haven’t already guessed it, being a TSA agent can be a thankless job. Many workers disagree with their agency’s policies, but they stay on the job because they need the work. The last thing these federal workers want is an angry confrontation with a passenger who thinks they are all gate rapists operating above the law. (Fact is, what the TSA does is highly questionable, and when they aren’t on the job, I’m sure agents do a great deal of reflection — but there’s a time and place for it.)

Dressing down a TSA agent at the airport, while tempting, serves no useful purpose. These federal employees answered a call to duty printed on the side of a pizza box and are protecting us from airborne jihadists, or so they think. You have decided to fly, and in doing so, to subject yourself to their wrongheaded screening. If you have a problem with that, do something well in advance of your flight, not half an hour before departure.

That said, there are times when you ought to speak up. But that’s a topic for another time.

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at . Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Nunuv-Yurbiz/100002873869882 Nunuv Yurbiz

    We are so screwed.

  • http://tsanewsblog.com/214/news/history-repeats-itself-with-tsas-strip-search-tactics/ Lisa Simeone

    Rand Paul’s bills merely expend lots of verbiage to say we have the 4th Amendment right against unreasonable search and seizure. And his bills are full of might, maybe, perhaps, could, should, if, except, but, and every other qualifier in the book.

    Private security is meaningless. Getting groped by a private sector goon is no better than getting groped by a public sector one. At airports with private security, the TSA still calls the shots. Even if you don’t see them on the front lines, they still set the rules. SFO has private security, and there are just as many horror stories coming out of there as anywhere else.

    As long as people continue to put up with this abuse, it will continue. It’s that simple.

  • http://tsanewsblog.com/214/news/history-repeats-itself-with-tsas-strip-search-tactics/ Lisa Simeone
  • Daisiemae

    Yes, we are slaves bought and owned by the federal government. They control our movements and they own our bodies.

    The 14th amendment ended ownership of slaves by private individuals.
    Perhaps now we need an amendment ending our ownership by the federal government and their corporate masters.

  • http://tsanewsblog.com/214/news/history-repeats-itself-with-tsas-strip-search-tactics/ Lisa Simeone

    danheskett, you’re right. The goons have admitted this outright. Some links:

    Barry Smitherman, chairman of the Public Utility Commission, told KTBC-TV, “FOX 7″ (see raw interview clip below), that he was pulled out of the line to a standard metal detector to inste ad go through a full body scanning machine. This was at the discretion of a TSA worker, he said.
    “The TSA agent goes ‘Opt out, opt out! We’ve got an opt out! — calling everyone’s attention to me,” he said, of the ordeal.
    After what he called an “aggressive” pat-down in public, and a search of his baggage one item at a time (even one asprin pill at a time, he said) he asked why the laborious search.
    “You’re punishing me for opting out, aren’t you? And to her credit she said ‘Yes we are.'”


    Another account, this time from Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic:

    I asked him if he was looking forward to conducting the full-on pat-downs. “Nobody’s going to do it,” he said, “once they find out that we’re going to do.”
    In other words, people, when faced with a choice, will inevitably
    choose the Dick-Measuring Device over molestation? “That’s what we’re hoping for. We’re trying to get everyone into the machine.” He called over a colleague. “Tell him what you call the back-scatter,” he said. “The Dick-Measuring Device,” I said. “That’s the truth,” the other officer responded.


    And more links from what I wrote last year:

    Then again, sometimes the TSA punishes people just for the hell of it, as I discovered, as travel writer Charlie Leocha discovered, as Texas Public Utility Commission chairman Barry Smitherman discovered, as Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic discovered, as this couple discovered.

    And, of course, Stacey Armato’s infamous experience.

  • DavidYoung2

    Oh good Lord, really? Let’s see — I frequent the same restaurant every week and then constantly e-mail the manager about their crappy service and crappy food. That will help me how? I bet if I did that, the chef and waitstaff’s first reaction will be, “Oh goody, Mr. Sniveller is here. Just can’t wait to do my best for him.”

    Too funny – you have time to compose e-mails the TSA. Wish I did…. (too busy replying to hilarious posts :-)

  • emanon256

    I have had my wallet searched at 3 other airports too. But normally its done in front of me the whole time.

  • S E Tammela

    I reckon it’s political… you know, every time a terrorist attack happens, they’ve got AROUND the security measures anyway, no matter how stringent someone makes them. They are largely a big fat waste of time and money intended to convince the public that the govt can somehow protect them from terrorism.

    Most countries, however, prefer prevention rather than cure. If you don’t try to piss off the whole world by promoting wars as an election stunt, then fewer terrorists will care that your country exists.

  • emanon256

    I’m sorry, I don’t follow your analogy. I would simply not go to that restaurant, with the airport I don’t have a choice its TSA weekly or loose my job. Besides, it not like the agents even know my name or who complained. However, I believe in standing up for my rights when they are violated.

  • emanon256

    I have written to my congress person and senators (Not every time, just the first few). In all cases I got a generic form response. I did write one letter to both the the local paper and USA today, neither were ever published.

  • sofar

    Yes, flights originating in a foreign airport heading to the US are the WORST. I just flew Johannesburg to JFK. First, they took all the water we’d bought IN the airport terminal. Then they asked for receipts for our duty free chocolates, and then confiscated them when we couldn’t find the receipts. The best was when they told me the tiny bag holding my travel-sized toothpaste, toothbrush and mouthwash was “not acceptable.” It was the self-same little plastic ziplock “goodie” bag that we’d gotten on our flight INTO Johannesburg the previous week. Why was it not acceptable? Because it wasn’t fully transparent (it had the South Africa Airways logo and design on it). I wanted to hand the agent the mouthwash and tell her she needed it more than I did, but didn’t fancy an overnight stay in an interrogation room abroad.

  • emanon256

    They arrested a guy for ejaculating during a pat-down, I wouldn’t be surprised of they arrested someone for farting next.
    And please be considerate of the other passengers on the plane.

  • cjr001

    Worse, TSA employees treat their checkpoints as their own little fiefdoms, where they can do whatever they want without repercussion, to whomever they want, for as long as they want, and they do it on a whim.

    Failure to speak out and speak out will not spare you, but using your 1st Amendment rights at them will incur their wrath.

    They are GOVERNMENT employees, who use fear and intimidation to keep you from speaking out. That is the very definition of censorship.

  • Chasmosaur

    Write to the local state representatives and senators where the airport authority lies, as well as the airport authority. Point out that you are considering changing airports to a different district or not flying at all.

    You have to make this about the finances. Realistically, there will never be a full flight embargo, but targeting on a local level – where they’re not all acquainted with someone in DHS or TSA – might get a better response.

  • cjr001

    I think Edward was being a bit sarcastic.

    Suffice it to say, NEVER let TSA paw through your wallet, and never let them take anything out of your sight if it can be helped.

    Because who knows what they’re likely to walk off with.

  • cjr001

    David has a history of giving a thumbs up to just about everything TSA does. After all, he’s had no problems, therefore problems do not exist.

  • http://tsanewsblog.com/214/news/history-repeats-itself-with-tsas-strip-search-tactics/ Lisa Simeone

    Sorry, it’s so hard to tell anymore. People write the most outrageous things and are dead serious. If you were being sarcastic, Edward, I apologize.

  • M Sarkar

    Mostly agree with Mr. Elliott here.
    I doubt the average American really has much of a choice (re: changing the TSA’s methods) at the “ballot box this November”.
    A lot, of course, depends on the agent as a person and even the general population of the area that you are flying out of. The agents at my local airport in Iowa are usually nice and cheerful. That’s Iowa, though :-)

    Waging wars are profitable for the well-connected folks, but they draw too much public scrutiny. Protecting the nation’s flyers is a much better slogan/idea to pour billions of taxapyer $$ into, and then share in the profits with well-connected companies. For that sadly-practical reason, I don’t see any downsizing in the TSA, or a mitigation of its policies, until the next decade.

  • M Sarkar

    I like the idea of making it about finances. Thanks.

  • http://gspirits.com/ Zod

    I don’t carry a wallet anymore…so there’s nothing for them to go through!

  • M Sarkar

    You could start a line of luggage (suitcases etc) where these tips are embossed into the sides of the luggage. Seriously, as long as you do not mention the TSA/govt anywhere, I think this could be a nice business idea!
    3sarkar on Twitter

  • flutiefan

    that may be so, but holding you for only 15 minutes should NEVER make you nearly miss your flight. i mean, come on, 15 MINUTES? you need to give yourself much more time than that in a buffer.

  • anc1entmar1ner

    It’s a science. I can complain to the TSA, my congressman, both my senators, the White House AND the airport administration while waiting to board my flight. Almost all airports have free WiFi these days, so why not take advantage of it?

  • http://tsanewsblog.com/214/news/history-repeats-itself-with-tsas-strip-search-tactics/ Lisa Simeone

    Good luck, Julie. No matter what the TSA says publicly and what they post on their website and tell you on their “help line,” they have absolute power and wield it capriciously. Many people have documentation from their physicians — even TSA-approved documentation — about their medical conditions, only to be told by the little power-trippers at the checkpoint, “That information is out of date” or “Those rules have changed” or “We don’t do things that way here.”

    You might not get hassled, you might not get scanned, you might not get groped, you might not get robbed, you might not get detained. Might, might, might. But whatever happens, the TSA Is Always Right!

  • kerpow69

    This article and the people who are willing to shrivel up like a beaten dog make me sick. Every reason you cite not to say anything to the TSA is exactly why everyone should. This is the most cowardly thing I’ve read in a long time.

  • Edward Boston

    Guess I should have put the *sarcastic* tag with that. Thought it would be obvious but I guess some people just take everything said serious. Did you just stop reading after that line you quoted? If you had kept reading, you would have seen I wasn’t being serious.

  • Food for thought!

    We have to use common sense and be fair…just like your job everyone at your job does not do a good job nor do they actually know it…ur always going to meet officers that may have just harassed by some one or had a bad day or maybe there on there last strike… Another thing that most people do not know is that TSA still has a lot of people that worked there from before 9-11 (R.I.P) it need to be refined ………TSA has a look to learn and our ignorance of the military and spy tactics the US uses to keep us living the best lives on this planet is going stunt their growth!

  • Gabby

    Just get to the airport early. Sometimes the screeners are really busy checking bags, etc. Even small airports can be really busy. They’ll get to you. No one is deliberately making you wait. They have other responsibilities. I’ve also noticed that one opt-out seems to prompt several. I’ve had some officers confess to me that they would opt-out as well.


    Can i just remind everyone that flying is a PRIVILEGE and not a right so if you feel your rights are being trapled on then do a little brainstorming and lets see, take a bus maybe a train or if you really want to relax and time is not to important a nice long 5 day cruise. “Oh but those are all too impractical!” Well then drive your own damn car ohhhh but wait if you do 72 in a 70 you might get pulled over oh yea driving is a PRIVILEGE also but i don’t hear anyone b****ing about that eyyy?