He clutched a red passport and a boarding pass and wore a confused expression, the kind you slip into when no one speaks your language. The passenger was Japanese, and by my guess, English wasn’t his first — or his second — language.
“Wha -, wha-, wha -,” he stammered, facing a woman who he seemed to believe could help him.
“Wha -, wha -, what – ” the woman mocked. And then added, disgustedly, “I’m going on break.”
The passenger had every reason to think she could answer his question: She was wearing a TSA uniform.
On a recent morning at the Houston Intercontinental Airport screening area, I stood there with my two kids, transfixed and horrified.
And as quickly as the incident began, it was over. The agent stormed off. The passenger took his place in the screening line, question unanswered.
It wasn’t just bad manners, and it wasn’t just a clash of cultures. It was downright cruel. And if you’ve ever witnessed unprofessional behavior by a person in uniform, you might have wondered if there is anything you can do about it.
But in the moment, I didn’t have the answer.
The TSA is not exactly known for its good manners. Notorious for their up close and personal pat-downs, TSA agents bark orders at ordinary passengers like prison wardens, all in the name of security. But, TSA — why you gotta be so rude? When even members of Congress say you’re lacking in manners, you know you’ve crossed a line.
The exchange between the TSA agent and the passenger left me so uncomfortable that I made eye contact with other strangers as if to ask, “You heard that too, right?” I was embarrassed on a human level and felt horrible that any person, especially a visitor to our country, would get this kind of treatment.
And even though I knew it was wrong, I wasn’t brave enough under the jurisdiction of TSA to speak up and demand her name.
What to do?
More than a week passed, and I still kept thinking about that passenger, and how I should have stood up for the right thing. But I didn’t know the agent’s name, and even if I did, would anyone care?
Ten days later, I reported the incident via TSA’s complaint site, figuring I would never hear a thing.
Wouldn’t you know, within 24 hours of filing the complaint, I was contacted three times by the TSA. With each contact, they pressed me for more detail about the incident.
The first response assured me that they had received my complaint, including boilerplate language that “TSA monitors the nature of inquiries we receive to track trends and spot areas of concern that may require special attention.”
When I received a second email from Screening Management, asking for supplemental information about the incident, I wrote:
The TSA agent was passing through the queue because she was leaving for her lunch break. The passenger began to ask her a question in broken English. She interrupted him and started mocking how he was talking, very loudly, and stammering, as if to mock his lack of English proficiency.