The Insider: How to complain to the TSA

Editor’s Note: This is the final installment of the Insider series on managing the TSA when you travel. Here’s part one, part two and part three. As always, please send me any suggestions on topics or content I may have overlooked.

If you have a problem with the TSA, what’s your next step?

Ideally, the resolution would happen in real time. Wait until you get home, and like other travel-related grievances, you may never get a fix. And I know what I’m talking about; I’m still waiting for the TSA to respond to my documents request under the Freedom of Information Act I filed back in 2010. I’m sure I’ll get an answer before I retire.

If something goes wrong with your screening and you ask for a supervisor, you should probably know a thing or two about the TSA hierarchy:

Transportation Security Officer (TSO) – These are the people who are screening you, sometimes also called “one-stripers” because they have a single stripe on their shoulderboard.

Lead Transportation Security Officer (LTSO) – Also called a “two-striper,” the LTSO has direct oversight in the screening area, and is most likely the first supervisor who will arrive if there’s a complaint.

Supervisory Transportation Security Officer (STSO) – The “three-striper” usually oversees the entire screening area. He or she will be called to the scene if things get serious.

Above them, there are other TSA managers you should be aware of, including the Transportation Security Manager (TSM), the Assistant Federal Security Director (AFSD) and the highest-ranking TSA employee at the airport, the Federal Security Director (FSD). They don’t wear uniforms and you are unlikely to ever see them.

Once you’re away from the airport, there are several layers of Area Directors (AD), several flavors of Administrator (Deputy Assistant Administrator, Assistant Administrator and Deputy Administrator) followed by the Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security for the Transportation Security Administration, also referred to as the TSA Administrator, and last but not least, the Deputy Secretary and the Secretary of Homeland Security. The TSA is nothing if not bureaucratic!

But it helps to know this chain of command if something should go wrong. So, for example, if you’ve been patted down and a “three-striper” is telling you to move along, you can ask for the TSM. Remember to always be polite; it’s actually your secret weapon when you’re trying to resolve a grievance in real time. No one has ever been arrested for being too polite.

What kinds of grievances should I wait for?
It’s not an issue of waiting, necessarily. If you’re still at the airport, and there’s a chance a screener can address your problem, you should say something. It’s more a question of whether any additional paperwork is required to get your problem resolved. For example, allegations of serious screener misconduct like assault or theft need to be documented, so you’ll want to create a paper trail regardless of the outcome of your initial complaint. You’ll also need to file a form for lost or damaged property or a civil rights complaint. More on that in a sec.

A note about lost, damaged or stolen property: The TSA has earned a reputation for having agents that pilfer items from checked luggage. Although it says it has tried to curb the thefts with a “zero tolerance” policy, it has only been moderately successful at stopping their employees’ criminal behavior. The takeaway for you? Don’t ever check anything valuable, and take reasonable steps to secure your luggage by closing all latches and making it difficult to access your belongings. That way, if they decide to go after your bag, they’ll have to work for it and they won’t get anything of value if they do.

What do I need to know about the claims process?
Beyond what’s explained on the TSA site, there are a few things they won’t tell you. The claims process can take a long time (two months or more) and I hear from lots of travelers who are unsuccessful at it. One of the problems is that the appeals process seems to be something of a loop. The denials seem arbitrary, and often lead to more denials, regardless of whether your case has any merit. The reason you don’t hear more passengers griping about the system isn’t that the agency is quickly replacing the items it damaged or stole during screening; it’s that they simply fail to file a claim when they have one, believing it will never be processed.

Is there an appeal process for damage claims?
Yes. You can either send an appeal, along with more information that might persuade the TSA to change its mind, to the following address:

TSA Claims Management Branch (TSA-9)
601 South 12th Street
Arlington, VA 20598-6009

Or you can sue the agency. No, seriously — that’s what the TSA recommends.

Can I shortcut the process on social media?
No. The TSA’s two main Twitter accounts, @TSABlogTeam and @TSA, are used for messaging, and generally don’t interact with passengers. But it would be inaccurate to say TSA doesn’t pay attention to the online chatter. It does, but mostly for PR reasons. I haven’t seen it reverse a claim denial because of something a passenger said via social media.

What about other complaints?
The other major type of grievance is the civil rights complaint. You’ll find instructions for how to file one on the TSA site. What won’t they tell you? That’s difficult to say. I’ve never actually heard from anyone who has filed a successful civil rights complaint with the TSA. If the process is anything like its luggage claims, then it is slow and for many, absolutely pointless.

With any luck, you’ll never end up at the end of your appeals process. Instead, you’ll avoid having to file a complaint — or better yet, you’ll avoid the TSA entirely.

(Photo: b.frahm)

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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  • DavidYoung2

    How to complain?  Really, do we need a primer on whining and sniveling.  They’re gonna come out of the woodwork now….

  • Chasmosaur

    Oh stop it.  This isn’t about griping or whining or sniveling or whimpering or whatever you want to call it.  This is about making an official complaint up the chain of command for when something bad goes down.  Like theft of property, abuse/threats from TSA employees if you try to take pictures or video, or an enhanced pat-down that goes too far.  These things do merit official complaint.

    There is an art form to creating a complaint that actually gets some form of positive response.  The six levels of TSA employee alone is a nice chunk of information to have if you want to get someone’s attention at the airport.

    Now, I’m not saying TSA actually gives a flying !#$%^&* in space about consumer complaints. But knowing how to craft the correct paper trail helps if they try and give you the run around.  Or if you, say, want to contact a consumer advocate with a blog, giving him a detailed account of your problem and the follow-up (or lack thereof) from TSA. ;)

  • Lisa Simeone

    Ah, yes, follow the Kafkaesque paper trail. It’s worth a laugh or two if nothing else.  And we can always use more laughs in life!

    There are lots of people at Travel Underground who’ve filed claims for theft and assault.  Of course, they’re still waiting.

    As for “No one has ever been arrested for being too polite,” tell that to Phil Mocek, Aaron Tobey, Claire Hirschkind, Sam Wolanyk, Nadine Hays, Andrea Fornella Abbott, Retired Air Force Colonel T. P. Alexanders, as well as all the other people who’ve been threatened with arrest merely for asking a question.

    Here’s a news report from 2011 on victims being “quietly reimbursed” or rejected:

    TSA receiving fewer theft claims, rejecting more
    By Jason Whitely, WFAA, Posted on May 30, 2011 at 9:55 PM

    DALLAS — As the summer travel season gets under way, the Transportation Security Administration is turning down more claims in its little-known reimbursement program for travelers who have items stolen at checkpoints or during baggage screening.

    The TSA said it’s currently reviewing 2,300 claims.

    But over the last five years, the TSA began rejecting more claims — from about half of all submitted in 2005 to three-quarters of them in 2009.
    . . . Lowe said that’s when someone must have snatched his wallet from a bin by the X-ray machine while he was separated from it.

    “At this moment, the only people I can hold responsible is the TSA,” Lowe concluded.

    The thief got away with his identification, credit cards, and $500 in cash.

    What he didn’t know until now is that the TSA has quietly reimbursed tens of thousands of travelers who have experienced similar thefts.

    In 2010 alone, the TSA paid out $582,721 to resolve 2,737 claims . . . .

  • Drontil

    Chris, there is always the DHS OIG:

    DHSOIGHotline at as well as:  Transportation Security Administration
    Office of Inspection
    701 12 Street – 9th Floor W. Tower
    Arlington, VA 22202

  • Sommer Gentry

    The best way to complain to the TSA is to send your complaint directly to your Senators’ and Representative’s local offices and cc: the TSA.  TSA barely bothers to even placate Congress anymore, but your Representative or Senator has far more power to compel at least some pathetic show of a response from TSA than you have.  All members of Congress have local staff dedicated to these “constituent service” functions of wringing action out of immovable government agencies (this is called casework).  The letters also serve to put your representatives on notice that TSA is a failure, a joke, and an insult to America.  Don’t forget to tell your Congressperson exactly what you think of these thieving, bullying, molesting, pants-invaders.

    Find your representatives’ addresses here:

  • CelticWhisper

    I’d add to this to also complain to the airlines and, wherever possible, STOP FLYING in response to TSA procedures.  TSA can ignore complaints if they want, but once the airlines get the message loud and clear that their customers are pissed off about security theater, and once they see Amtrak eating their lunch, they’re going to have to wake up the lobbyists and send them out to do their thing.

    Money talks – let’s make it talk for us.

  • CelticWhisper

    “Really, do we need a primer on whining and sniveling.”

    If it helps to destroy the TSA, then yes.
    If it helps to put thousands of TS”O”s out of work, then yes.
    If it helps contribute to ruining the standard of living of these blue-shirted cretins, to seeing them forced to feed their children out of dumpsters, then yes.

    If it’s bad for TSA, then it must be shared and publicized far and wide.  Anything detrimental to TSA is beneficial to freedom.

  • Jim Jacobs

    Over the past few years, I’ve avoided flying for comparatively short trips like Tampa to Ft. Lauderdale, Boston to New York. or Los Angeles to Las Vegas. My reason for doing so is to avoid the dehumanizing experience of dealing with TSA procedures and personnel. Sorry Southwest, Delta and US Airways. I would have loved to have given you some of my money, but the security agency that controls entry to your airport gates makes the flying experience intolerable. When possible, I choose to do business with Amtrak, bus companies and car rental agencies.

  • y_p_w

    Don’t look now.  Rand Paul, the junior US Senator from Kentucky just got a little extra attention from the TSA at Nashville Airport.

    The article says that his dad (Congressman Ron Paul) is trying to eliminate the TSA.

  • Jeremiah Johnson

    I’m afraid to say that I have only had negative experiences when filing a claim or complaint against the TSA. I either get some sort om generic response that has no significant meaning or I get no response at all.  The majority of the time the latter is true.

  • Sommer Gentry

    Write to your airlines and congresspeople.  Do it today.  Tell the airlines that these experiences will reduce your flying in the future, and tell your congresspeople that you hold Congress responsible for the stealing and abuse that TSA engages in.

  • Jeremiah Johnson

     Thanks Sommer.  That’s a great idea.  I will definitely begin following your advise.

  • boo

    First time travel to usa. Baggage damaged becase they open it forcefully. no one wants to take responsibility. Not going back. No reason to simulate their economy when tourists like us are treated like crap.

  • James Freeman

    Quit your bitchen,
    There are many of us that have no sympathy for those comercial airplane passengers that complain about the TSA, then keep buying tickets to fly. All I have to say is “you must really enjoy having your privacy invaded by perverts”.
    What would happen if not a single comercial flight passenger ticket was sold for at least two weeks?