Will TSA’s new senior exemption make air travel safer?

Nothing makes you forget bad news faster than a little manufactured good news, a PR secret the TSA seems to have stumbled upon last week.

The agency charged with protecting us from airborne terrorists revealed it would allow wedding dresses to be carried on the plane as luggage. Seriously, the TSA says yes to the dress!

Never mind that there’s no evidence jihadists ever have or ever will try to blow up a plane with a bridal gown.

In a second, more significant announcement, the TSA said it would begin testing “modified” screening procedures for passengers 75 and older next Monday. Senior citizens will now be allowed to leave their shoes and light outerwear on, and will be allowed an extra pass through the full-body scanners before having to undergo a pat-down.

Both these changes were timed to offset the unfortunate news earlier this month that those scanners are easily foiled, a fact the government desperately wants you to forget.

We are not so easily fooled, and it probably isn’t a matter of if, but when, all that “advanced” imaging technology will go the way of the failed puffer machines. Remember them? Carving out two new screening exemptions is hardly enough to sway public opinion or the votes of their elected representatives, who will likely soon end funding for the controversial machines.

But it’s worth asking if the TSA, in its haste to make air travelers forget about its technological shortcomings, just made flying a little more dangerous.

Reaction to the over-75 rule was predictable. Most travelers said it made perfect sense. Grandma is about as likely to blow up a plane as a 12-year-old, who incidentally is also subjected to a new “modified” screening procedure. Stephen Colbert mocked it. And Joy Behar worried about 90-year-old terrorists on The View.

I’m not joking. Here’s the clip.

Even though Behar is obviously paranoid, her question points to a valid concern: Has TSA — in a misguided effort to create a more “risk-based” screening system or to placate an increasingly angry flying public — just added one exemption too many?

In the recent past, TSA agents have done a thorough job (perhaps too thorough) of giving older passengers a once-over.

But most successful terrorist are young and male. The oldest of the 9/11 hijackers, Mohammed Atta, was 33 and the rest were in their 20s.

But not all of them fit the profile. Consider Lalihan Akbay, who at the age of 102 holds the distinction of being the world’s oldest terrorist.

Akbay is reportedly being investigated for “making propaganda for a terrorist organization.” Speaking in her defense, her son Tevfik says she can’t understand, speak or hear properly, and can’t remember what she has just said.

And yet Akbay would qualify for the TSA’s new “modified” screening procedures. I feel much safer now.

It goes the other way, too. This 11-year-old holy warrior, believed to be the world’s youngest terrorist, would also get to keep his explosive shoes on when he goes through airport security in the United States. If he ever made it here.

There has to be better way.

Maybe the TSA is going about this all wrong. Maybe instead of a foolish process of elimination, which still leaves a small but not insignificant risk, the government should reverse its approach.

Instead of thinking of air travelers as guilty of terrorism until proven innocent, why not think of us as innocent until proven guilty? (There’s something so American about that, isn’t there?)

The TSA is busy creating special groups that it believes don’t present a threat, including high-level government officials, members of the armed services and their families, airport workers, children, senior citizens and frequent fliers with their special little FastPasses.

But why not spent all that money trying to identify the bad guys before they board? You know, like the law enforcement officers they like to think of themselves as.

Flashing an AARP card shouldn’t exempt anyone from being carefully screened, or probably more to the point, pre-screened. (OK, technically you qualify for an AARP card at 50, but you get the point.) Offering all senior citizens a waiver makes about as much sense as giving wedding dresses and the women carrying them a pass.

After all, what kind of threat could a bride present? She has her whole life ahead of her, and so much to lose. She couldn’t possibly be carrying a bomb — could she?

(To those of you who have pointed out that the poll question is absurd as the TSA’s actions — thank you. Exactly my point.)

(Photo: calvinistguy/Flickr)

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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  • Raven_Altosk

    I recently emailed the TSA looking for an answer to my question. Here’s what happened:

    Last week at IAH, my GF and I were traveling to see her family. We were in the “elite access” security line on C & E. The wait was over 40 minutes there and 60 minutes at the regular line. (Spring Break travelers…)

    As we approached the checkpoint, the young man directing people asked if we had any “children under 10″ with us. Everyone who answered “yes” was sent through the metal detector.

    I said no, but that my GF was 5.5 months pregnant. He waved us towards the pornoscanner and said “it works on radio waves and your cell phone makes more.” I asked why kids weren’t being sent through it and he said, “It’s policy.”

    My GF said she wanted a pat down instead of the pornoscanner. The woman working it said, “We’re really backed up! Are you serious!?”

    We were indeed serious. With a lot of huffing and puffing from annoyed agents, one just said, “Just go through the metal detector. I don’t have time for this.”

    So my questions to the TSA were:
    1. If the pornoscanner isn’t used on kids, why is it okay for pregnant women?

    2. If the SOP is to pat down anyone who refuses the pornoscanner does that mean during super-peak travel, they just won’t bother?

    3. Everywhere around the checkpoint it states “this technology (pornoscan) is optional” and yet when someone opts out, they are treated like an inconveinence. Why is this acceptable?

    I sent the email via their website on Wednesday. I have heard nothing back.

  • http://elliott.org Christopher Elliott

    Interesting. Please let me know how TSA responds to your email — if it does at all.

  • ClareClare

    !!! So what happened?  Did your pregnant friend go through the pornoscanner?!  Or did she insist on exercising her right to a pat-down? (One of the only rights left to us law-abiding citizens at TSA-points…)

    Did you get the names of the TSA people involved, or are the goons still conveniently failing to wear name-tags? 

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/SJ7Z4IL5YX75U3SX2RVLY5GSDM granana

    You ask the wrong question. It should be will the new rule make us less safe, The answer would probably be the same.

  • Extramail

    So, if I’m 74 years and 11 months old, I have to strip but on my birthday, I can wear layers of clothing and go smoothly through security? Guess I’ll have to make sure and time my air travel just right . . . I still say,and will continue to say, passengers have proven that we will take care of any unruly fellow passengers and that is our best prevention.

  • Ann Lamoy

    Per Raven “We were indeed serious. With a lot of huffing and puffing from annoyed
    agents, one just said, “Just go through the metal detector. I don’t have
    time for this.””

    So the girl friend didn’t go through the pornoscanner or get the pat down-she went through the regular old metal detector.

    Good thing she left all those terrorist things home

    Raven-I too would be interested to know what TSA has to say-if they ever reply.

  • Ann Lamoy

    Once again the TSA makes zero sense. This is broad based “well if you are a certain age/race/ethnicity/citizenship style of profiling” that make absolutely NO sense at all. Like Chris pointed out, there are terrorists as young as 11, as old as 102. We’ve had home grown terrorists that are white (hello Timothy McVeigh and what about all of the groups that have sprung up in the past four years? You don’t think that some of them are not extreme enough to think of taking out an airplane, train, bus, Federal or State building or other target? I would love to live in your reality).

    The reality is, the TSA is a big boondoggle. They aren’t fully cooperating with other Federal agencies to identify real and credible threats to airport security because finding a way to truly work with other agencies and come up with a workable way to screen passengers without all of the theatre would mean a reduction in the budget. And like almost all of the Washington bureaucracy, heaven forbid that EVER happen. SOMEBODY might be out of a job. *eyeroll*

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    Whenever I hear about seniors and air travel, I think of two things:

    1) Current procedures are not based on common sense nor courtesy.  Both of things are more highly valued by the generation before mine; when they are lacking, they become very upset.  My generation becomes annoyed.  My son’s generation doesn’t see what the problem is.  I’m overgeneralizing, I know.  Many of the TSOs are of my son’s generation.  Put them in a position of authority, with a set of inflexible rules, and then have them interact with the other generations . . .  well, that’s why those well-publicized incidents occur.

    2)  I’m a political/action thriller reader.  I haven’t seen the Bourne movies, but I’ve read the books by Robert Ludlum.  Carlos the Jackal (a terrorist) makes use of his “army of old men” to carry out his orders, sometimes resulting in their deaths.  I’m sorry, I really can’t get that thought out of my mind when I read about exemptions for seniors.

    Carving out an exemption for seniors really doesn’t make sense, when I put my two thoughts together.  There shouldn’t be a reason in the *first place* to create an exemption, if only common sense and courtesy prevailed.  I know, not particularly realistic.  There have been a number of posts here on TSA-related topics that do provide realistic solutions and I thank them for offering them. 

  • Rose Arnold

     Of course you are correct.  Asking if giving seniors a pass would make us safer makes no sense.

  • TonyA_says

    During our recent [Christmas] trip to a beach in Southeast Asia (Boracay to be exact), there was a very long line at the airport security screening in the small airport. A female guard tapped me in the shoulder and politely told me to take my mid-80 year old parents  and cut to the front of line because that country does not make elderly people wait while standing up.

    Strangely enough that area of the world does not need a “security theater”, as terrorism there is very real.

    The beach was awesome and the peoples’ hospitality even better.

  • Meebo

    For a group that straps bombs to kids, this development just reads, “Hey another door is open.”

  • LeeAnneClark

    If they respond at all, it will be nothing but a worthless form letter giving their typical non-apology:  “We’re sorry you were less than satisfied with your screening experience”.

  • LeeAnneClark

    Actually it does.  The reality is that it makes SENIOR CITIZENS safer – safe from the prying hands, abusive gropes, and insensitive medical-device screenings.  So if we include senior citizens in “us”, then this just made “us” safer.

  • LeeAnneClark

    Paranoid much?  Name one instance – ONE (that’s not in a novel) in which an elderly person blew up an American plane.  Name one.  Here’s a clue – it’s NEVER HAPPENED.  OH, but it COULD happen, right?  Yeah, and aliens might fly out of Pistole’s arse and strap a bomb to a monkey who secretly climbs up into the luggage compartment and blows up the plane.

    It makes so much sense to spend billions of dollars trying to prevent something that has NEVER HAPPENED because there’s a 1-in-30-million chance it might happen, in someone’s warped imagination.

    Such logic.

  • LeeAnneClark

    I voted yes – it makes us safer.  How?  Because it protects the senior citizens among us from forced stripping, abusive molestations, and insensitive medical-device screenings.  Our senior citizens are now safer as they will not be subjected to such abuse by the uneducated, ill-trained, power-mad Walmart rejects who make up the majority of our “professional” ::snort:: TSA workforce.

    Unfortunately, the rest of us are still subjected to this useless, horrific abuse (which we pay for with 8 BILLION of our tax dollars every year).

    So while it makes some of us safer, it leaves the rest of us still at risk of sexual assault, physical abuse, and public humiliation for the “crime” of wanting to board an aircraft for which we’ve legally purchased a ticket.

  • Rose Arnold

     From that perspective, I’d have to agree with you.

  • Linda

    Seems to me there was a book by Tom Clancy way before 9/11 where a plane was flown into the US Capitol. So… it could happen and it did happen. Well, not the Capitol but you get the idea.

  • bodega3

    I traveled with my 90 plus year old father until he died and he was always treated well.  The biggest issue he had was with his shoes.  Getting them off and then back on took a lot of time and TSA was always considerate.  He took on a Jed Clampet look with a rope for a belt as he had no hips and didn’t wish to embarrass anyone by removing a belt which would make his pants fall down.  He learned to place all his pocket items in a small ziplock bag.  He was never, ever hassled by the TSA.

    Having worked around seniors, they are as sneaky as any teenager.  They will bring in illegal items, go where they are suppose to go and use their age as an excuse.  I have no problems with TSA watching this age group any more that they do any other.   

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Iam-Wendy/100002138363206 Iam Wendy

    Chris, with all due respect,you are asking the wrong question. The question to be asked is “how large is the terrorist threat?” The answer is, negligible. In fact, even John Pistole remarked “one in a billion.”. If we are so terrified of 11-year-old and 102-year-old terrorists, there’s no reason to suspect that their one and only target would be an aircraft. Over the last ten years, comparing “protected” venues (airplanes) against “unprotected” venues (pretty much everywhere else), one will find that the incidents of successful terrorist attacks is identical between them – namely, zero. Of, you could cite the show bomber and the underwear bomber, true: but even without passenger intervention, I’ve read that their attempts were ineffective.

    You and your family would be just as dead being bombed in a church as being bombed in an airplane.

  • Kevkev12

    If we want to be safer, America should mind own business, do not create enemy. Let America take care their own people and makes them prosper rather than throws billions dollar into war that never ends.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Iam-Wendy/100002138363206 Iam Wendy

    Meebo, over the past ten years there have been so many other open doors that it is laughable (venues that have been subjected to terrorist attack overseas: hotels, airports, trains, shopping centers/malls, churches). Please note that these “unprotected” domestic venues experienced zero terrorist incidents. Doesn’t matter if a door is open if it’s in the middle of the desert…

  • AAmerican1

    I agree and when YOUR country where ever it may be is destroyed by a natural disaster or invaded by a disctorial regime do not I repeat DO NOT cry out WHERE ARE THE AMERICANS! Cuz we gonna take your advice and mind our own business and take care our our OWN PEIOPLE and stop providing foreigners with our hard earned money to throw away. GOD BLESS AMERICA! 

  • Chasmosaur

    I’m actually laughing about the wedding dress thing.  If TSA had tried to unpack and handle my sister’s wedding dress (made in NYC by a family member who was a costumer), there would have been an international incident.  My Mom was already annoyed enough the airline wouldn’t let her buy a second seat for the oversized box (don’t ask why, we never figured it out).  It took a really nice baggage handler supervisor who also thought it was stupid and made it his personal mission the box would be handed to my mother in DC without a ding or a scratch.

  • LeeAnneClark

    There was also a book that an alien civilization came down to earth and secretly inhabited the bodies of citizens in order to take over the planet.  I guess we should start spending billions to prevent THAT from happening too, huh?

  • LeeAnneClark

    And my mother was physically assaulted when an aggressive TSO manhandled her breasts right after her breast cancer surgery, rubbing right on the tender incision area until she cried in pain…even though she kept telling the brute that she’d just had surgery there. 

    And yet another time, she was publicly humiliated when she was forced to wait 90 minutes in a line, then was not allowed to go to the restroom before her brutal groping (after her metal hip set off the detector), which caused her to urinate on herself…upon which the TSO started loudly screaming “DID YOU PISS ON ME???” when she shoved her hand between my mother’s legs and found her trousers damp. 

    Oh, and then there was the OTHER time when a TSO loudly shouted out “Whatchoo got in your pants?” after shoving her hand between my mother’s legs and feeling the adult diaper there, which Mom started wearing every time she flies due to the forced-to-urinate-on-herself incident.

    I’m glad your pop has never been abused.  He’s lucky – it truly sucks to stand there and watch your elderly, disabled mother be assaulted, molested, and humiliated…and there’s not a damn thing you can do about it.

    By the way, I just gotta ask…do you think any of these “sneaky” seniors plan blowing up planes with their “illegal items”?

  • LeeAnneClark

    After years of reading Christopher’s blog and seeing the absurd responses to his frequent TSA articles, I’ve come to the conclusion that you are wasting your time. Your logic makes way too much sense to be comprehended by the insanely-paranoid American citizenry. 

    They would rather give up all of their freedom, dignity and civil rights so that the government can pretend to protect them from non-existent threats…because, ya know, Tom Clancy once predicted in a novel that something bad might happen.

  • bodega3

    Sorry you are so bitter.

  • LeeAnneClark

    I’m not bitter.  Just realistic, and experienced in what happens when you complain to the TSA. 

    And since I do not believe we are personally acquainted, I would appreciate it if you would kindly refrain from stating that I “am” a certain way when you have never met me and have no idea what I “am. 

    Typical ad-hominem response by someone who is incapable of intelligent debate:  rather than attack the idea, you attack and label the person.

  • bodega3

    I think you are one who finds an experience different than others.  I am please to say that I have never seen anything like what you say you have seen and experienced. I am sure if someone I loved was placed in an difficult place as what you descibe, I would be upset.  I have watched my pregnant DIL, my grandkids, my elderly parents all be treated well….so far!  I have been pulled over for extra screening and was understanding and was treated well.  The only one who has had an issue is my son and he brought it on with the way he was dressed and he even admitted that.  He dresses better now when he travels and that pleases me in more ways than one!

    Everyone feels sorry for seniors and wants to give them a pass but they can’t be trusted anymore than anyother group.  I have seen, heard and watched and even got called on the table for kicking a senior lady out of a fundraise because she didn’t want to pay and went around back and came it that way.  The next year the man in charge, who called me on the table, apologzied as he had several do it to him.  I love seniors, going to be one myself I hope, but I dont’ trust them anymore than I trust teens!

  • bodega3

    Sorry but I call them as I read them.

  • streamerstoo

    Unfortunately, 75 is ridiculous. If you are a crippled 65 year old you have to endure the disgraceful pat down or pornoscan. 

  • streamerstoo

    Unfortunately, if you are a crippled 60-75 year old (or any age for that matter) you still have to endure the disgraceful pat down or porno scan.  

  • Miami510

    I recall reading a story emanating from Great Britain concerning a pregnant Irish national caught with a bomb.  It was given to her by her Arabic boyfriend.  It turned out that she was completely unaware of the lethal potential of the device.
    Terrorists do not have our sense or degree of morality and would exploit any perceived weakness.  Palestinian terrorists executed an elderly man, a victim of two strokes, by throwing the victim in his wheelchair overboard. We shouldn’t think for a moment they wouldn’t attach a bomb to a wheelchair-bound person if they knew there would be no screening.
    It is not my intention to politicize this discussion, but I wonder how many people vociferously object to physical pat-downs by TSA, are perfectly willing to vote for candidates who want to subject women seeking an abortion, to greater indignities and embarrassment in doctor’s offices.  My guess is they are mostly the same group.

  • Annapolis2

     (A) Opposition to TSA’s sexually abusive treatment of passengers is completely non-partisan.  Many compassionate people on both sides or neither side of the R/D distinction feel that lining innocent travelers up for the government inspection of their genitals is disgusting.

    (B) Stop being paranoid about terrorism.  You’re handing the bad guys the ultimate win when you let them infect your mind this way.

  • DavidYoung2

    Really?  You care so much that you e-mailed the TSA this stuff?  Too funny.  I guess I have too much other (more important and fun) stuff to do with my time. 


  • DavidYoung2

    Really?  You’re ‘experienced’ in complaining to the TSA?  OMG that’s funny.  You and Raven must just fill their mailbag with delight.

  • DavidYoung2

    Yes, yes, everybody applies to be a TSA agent just so they can grope 75-year olds.  Drat that now all their fun is spoiled  :-)

  • Annapolis2

     When I complained through my Congressional representatives about having been raped by a TSA agent who inserted a foreign object inside my body, the TSA sent a letter saying we’re sort of sorry we raped you but we don’t intend to change any of our procedures to make sure it doesn’t happen again.  The TSA essentially said I should really not be so upset about being vaginally probed by surprise by a complete stranger, as it was “not intentional”.

  • Annapolis2

    LeeAnneClark didn’t say there was any sexual motivation to the groping and abuse.  Really, when a stranger shoves their hands down your pants, is your first thought “are they turned on?” or is your first thought “Get the F away from me you abusive thug?”  It doesn’t matter whether my abuser is heavy breathing or not – creeps I don’t know forcing themselves on me, rubbing their hands all over my genitalia, are sick lowlifes any way you slice it.

  • Annapolis2

     I’m happy for you, I honestly am, that these villanous thugs haven’t hurt you or your loved ones yet.  But if you continue flying, it’s just a matter of time.  As blogger Jessamyn said, apropos of yet another TSA atrocity, “If they could stop themselves from abusing passengers, they would have already done it.” 


  • Annapolis2

    Reducing screening for vulnerable seniors will make seniors safer.  It always frightens me to see travelers with obviously compromised balance being forced into stress positions for patdowns without their canes, being dragged out of their wheelchairs and deprived of their walkers to totter through scanners without assistance, or painfully falling against tables while trying to half-undress in response to barked harassment from the blue-shirts.   I’m shocked, I really am, that this kind of mistreatment hasn’t already caused seniors to break their hips. 

    However, this announcement doesn’t seem to have any good news for the TSA’s favorite victims: passengers of any age who are wheelchair users or have implanted medical devices.  They’ll still get the full sexual assault and maybe the backroom strip search.

  • Raven_Altosk

    This is the first time I’ve ever complained to the TSA.

    And it’s a legit question: If kids are too fragile to go through the backscatter machines, why aren’t pregnant women?

  • Raven_Altosk

    Maybe you do, but I wonder about the health of my child. If you’re cool with letting your unborn baby be exposed to a machine they are specifically directing CHILDREN around, then…well…awesome for you, pal.

  • Raven_Altosk

    Will do. 

  • Raven_Altosk

    That’s pretty awesome, Tony. Hmm…Boracay…that’s on my bucket list. :)

  • TonyA_says

    If you dive, the beaches in Palawan are better.
    Boracay is a “live” community white sand beach (island) that allows one to escape from it all yet be with people. There are other beaches and islands (since the country is composed of 7,100+ islands). Some are very secluded. Amanpulo is one of the most upscale.

    The  new Survivor season will be in Caramoan Island. The new Bourne Legacy has parts filmed in Manila and Palawan, I believe.

  • http://profiles.google.com/bmgraham Barry Graham

    If they are going to exempt someone based on age, then they should also be exemptions for people who are a member of a religion that posed a low threat of terror, also people that have top security clearances should be exempt.

  • Raven_Altosk

    I have not been mistreated, either. However, I think the question about why kids are made to avoid the scanner and pregnant women are not is a valid one.

    The time I saw agents mistreat someone, it was a stranger. She was pulled for secondary screening at IAH and the the TSO came out of the “private area” screaming, “OH MY GOD!!! She’s got boy parts!!!! I just touched a man!!!” The other TSOs started laughing.

    I personally don’t think there’s anything hysterical about someone who is a pre-op transsexual being humiliated. I don’t know what happened after that, but I hope someone issued an apology to the woman.

    (Using female pronouns b/c I think that’s the polite thing to do if one presents as their preferred gender? Please correct me if I’m wrong)

  • Daisiemae

    Had your glasses checked recently?

  • Raven_Altosk

    Sharing this for laughs…it aired earlier this week.
    South Park takes on the TSA.

    ***Not Safe for Work***