3 troubling ways the TSA punishes passengers who opt out

Africa Studio/Shutterstock
Africa Studio/Shutterstock
If you don’t want to walk through a poorly tested full-body scanner or have a TSA agent belittle your anatomy before your next flight, then you still have the right to opt out and submit to an “enhanced” pat-down.

That’s exactly what I did on a recent trip from Orlando to Atlanta. Actually, I do it every time I fly.

But as I waited for a male agent — who would ask me to spread my legs, would touch my torso, rub the inside of my legs, and feel the back of my neck and arms — I began to understand what the TSA really means when it says it’s focusing its efforts on “intelligence-driven, risk-based screening procedures.”

It means that when we’re screened at the airport, we’re separate, but we’re not equal.

A new passenger underclass

The TSA likes to talk about the “haves” — the elite-level frequent fliers, the soldiers in uniform, the crewmembers, who can now almost always bypass the scanners, the shoe-removal, and the pat-downs, and get to the gate quickly. It’s received a lot of positive coverage from an unskeptical mainstream media about those programs.

But it doesn’t really say much about the “have-nots” — the passengers with medical conditions and implants that set off the magnetometers, the folks who don’t fly frequently enough to be part of the Pre-Check club, and yeah, the opt-outs.

Actually, opt-outs are arguably the biggest segment of the new passenger underclass. The TSA doesn’t release statistics on air travelers who refuse a full-body scan, but anecdotal evidence suggests their numbers are large and growing.

Let’s take a closer look at how the TSA treats opt-outs as second class citizens.

Intimidation. As I waited for my TSA screener in Orlando, I noticed an attractive young woman standing next to me. “Opting out?” I asked her. She nodded. I made eye contact with her, which is when I saw a look that can be best described as raw terror. It is the anticipation of what may come next, whether it’s a botched pat-down that violates your human dignity or a public humiliation, that stokes those fears. I admit, I experience similar misgivings every time I tell an agent that I’d rather not go through the scanner. My only consolation is that if something goes wrong, I can write about it.

Harassment. As it turns out, our fears are somewhat justified. Last week, I heard from Maura Maia, a flight attendant for a major airline, who says that while she enjoys breezing through the crewmember line when she’s in uniform, the treatment is vastly different when she’s off the clock. She recently flew in civilian clothes and opted out. “The TSA agent started yelling at me when I said I wasn’t going into the full-body scan,” she says. Maia stood her ground, but says “I was humiliated in public.” She adds, “When I came back to the same airport, that time on my uniform, and tried to file a complaint with the TSA supervisor, he waved me away.” The TSA can’t force you through the scanners, but it will try. Yelling at passengers is unacceptable.

Retaliatory wait time. That’s a term believed to be widely used within the TSA, and it means exactly what it says. If you opt out, you could be forced to wait — and possibly miss your flight. But it’s not just the length of the wait, it’s also the place. Passengers are sometimes herded to a secure holding area, which functions like a penalty box in a hockey game. You can see who is in it, and by being in it, you’re assumed to have done something wrong. It’s embarrassing, and the TSA agents keeping you in the box know it. Of course, some would argue that the “enhanced” pat-down is also retaliatory, and in the hands of some screeners, it certainly can be.

But why is this happening? For TSA agents, opt-outs are a pain. They have to explain the pat-down procedure, put on a pair of blue latex gloves, get moved from their duty station, and, worst of all, there’s a pretty good chance the traveler will object to the manual screening in some way. When that happens, a supervisor must be summoned and possibly the airport police, since TSA agents have no law enforcement authority. It can get really messy.

For the TSA as an institution, opt-outs are an easily identifiable group of contrarians who do inconvenient things like vote for candidates who push for more agency oversight, write to their congressional representative when they fail to hold the TSA accountable for its failures, and demand common-sense security instead of the circus we still have today, more than a decade after the 9/11 attacks. Punishing these passengers makes sense on an institutional level, so it’s no surprise that supervisors would look the other way while agents threaten, intimidate, and humiliate the opt-outs, if not encourage it.

The false choice between a dangerous scan and an invasive pat-down must end, and the sooner it happens, the better.

In the meantime, here’s an idea: Why not give anyone who opts-out the same treatment as the folks with Pre-Check clearance? Why not just send them through the metal detector, allowing them to keep their shoes and jackets on?

No self-respecting terrorist would ever ask for a pat-down instead of walking through the easily foiled body scanners.

The opt-outs present no meaningful threat to airport security. The TSA should screen them with the pre-checks and pilots instead of penalizing them for doing what every passenger should be doing in the first place.

Is the TSA discriminating against opt-outs?

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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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  • Dutchess

    You keep talking in the same circles and whether you use Asian as a noun or adjective, in relation to people it’s a description of their race and you can’t separate the two. Therefore, there is no other way to interpret what you said other than Asians carry diseases. The base of the statement is racist regardless of your studies. And yes, I know swine/bird flu in terms of epidemiology originates in asia but that doesn’t mean statistically asians carry more diseases which is the general idea of your statement.

    I will end this by saying the fact that you can’t recognize using the race of an individual in relation to a diseased prone person in general conversation is at the very least a bit inappropriate and at the worst vile and racist than you have more problems than I can assist you with. No amount of semantics can change that. Good luck in life sir and crawl back under the rock from whence you came.

  • $16635417

    Good point, I wonder if any of the 9/11 19 held elite status.

  • Grant Ritchie

    Oh, stop it. :-)

  • Scott

    Please keep this civil; this discussion seemed to have wandered far from that.

  • MarkieA

    Is it really $20 a year? What kind of “in-depth” background check do you suppose they can do for $20?

  • TonyA_says

    Same here (except we were not pregnant). We went through JFK recently.
    We were 5 in line. Me and my 2 other sons went through the magnetometer but for some reason my wife and other son were directed through a scanner.
    Since this was not the x-ray version, they decided NOT to opt out.
    Wow, that machine is HORRENDOUSLY SLOW.
    Plus it is so far away from the carry on x-ray machine.
    An agent grabbed by son’s backpack from the x-ray machine because he left a laptop on the TSA approved part of the backpack.
    Then they started FIGURING OUT WHO OWNED the backpack by asking around. Since I was done and waiting, I told them it was my son’s.
    She opened the backpack (after asking me permission), got the laptop, swabbed the battery section and checked. Then she put the bag back on the belt for one more x-ray without the laptop. When this was all done, my son finally came out of the scanner.

    This body scanning thing is just plain stupidity. Not only is it too slow and causing a traffic nightmare, it is out of pace with the hand carry checking. Besides, it is the hand carry x-ray machine where they catch most of the problematic items. Whoever bought these scanners should be retired together with the scanners. Let’s just go back to magnetometers and common sense.

  • Cybrsk8r

    I’m going to make a t-shirt that says: “BEING PUNISHED FOR OPTING OUT”. Then, when they put me in the penalty box, my shirt will tell everyone I did nothing wrong.

  • http://www.facebook.com/diane.schenker.ak Diane Schenker

    Thank you, Chris. So good to have your articulate voice telling it like it is. Keep it up! We need and appreciate you.

  • Dutchess

    Scott, so you think it’s okay for someone to openly make racist or insinuate that a race of people are disease carriers and should be avoided? Yet I’m being asked to keep it civil?

  • Nigel Appleby

    We flew out of Phoenix a couple of months ago. We were directed through a scanner before we realised it was a scanner, we could probably have opted out but dodn’t. However I did notice that until they were ready for you in the scanner they stopped you putting your luggage into the Xray machine until they were ready for you at the scanner. It meant only one person’s luggage was waiting for collection after the Xray machine and it was very easy to keep an eye on your luggage the whole time. I was impressed by the way they timed the process but not so impressed that it was a scanner not a magnetometer. Plus they were friendly and cheerful.

  • Zorba

    I decided to opt out….of flying. For now.

  • Don Roberts

    I opt out all the time – I despise the TSA and make no pretense otherwise. I don’t pretend to be pleasant or forgiving.

  • Howard

    I agree with this post. I used to opt out, but after reading several of your scary articles about how you might miss your flight, I’ve weighed the risks and benefits and stopped opting out. I fly monthly through major airports and they’ve pretty much stopped using the back scatter machines. I don’t really care about the millimeter wave machines or the metal detectors as they are not dangerous.

  • EdB

    I thought the same thing when I read Scott’s post. Who is less civil, the one making the racist comment or the person explaining how it is racist? I just put it down to Disqus poor threading and figured it was to everyone.

  • Mundane Lustrator

    I’m not asking for me, thanks. I’m fine. :-)

    SBS said it wasn’t about money, but unless one flies for work, there is no way to fly more without paying more out of pocket.

    @ SBS: And the difference between a building a credit record and a “flying record” is that the credit record is for transacting with private businesses and the “flying record” is being used by a GOV’T AGENCY to determine benefits denied other citizens.

  • Mundane Lustrator

    Really? Someone downgraded me for asking a simple question? LOL!!!

  • Mundane Lustrator

    You might ask if they are a medical doctor and mention “practicing medicine without a license” if they try again to force you into a scanner by saying it won’t harm your pacemaker.

    Report any screener who refuses or resists your legit medical opt-out.

    Damn, why does anyone have to reveal private medical info to a low-level, non-medical, civilian gov’t employee in the first place? HIPAA anyone?

  • Mundane Lustrator

    Why should any of our backgrounds be checked to get on a plane?

  • Mundane Lustrator

    And she didn’t have a bomb and wasn’t a terrorist. Just a mentally ill woman.

  • Mundane Lustrator

    How about a paraphrase of something TSA critics have heard for years:

    Don’t like it? Don’t read.

    (said ironically, of course)

  • Mundane Lustrator

    Hmmmm…how many were going to be used by terrorists on a plane? None.

  • Mundane Lustrator

    If the items were in a bag, they were found by x-raying the bag.

  • Mundane Lustrator

    Those scanners cost Americans billions of dollars, all to find one razor blade?

  • Mundane Lustrator

    Isn’t that stupid? Not allowing someone to change their mind on screening method.

  • Daisiemae

    Must have been SBS.

  • Daisiemae

    HIPAA is only for the protection of the medical providers and the government and any other entity that wants to access and use our information. It doesn’t protect our information from anybody but ourselves.

    Notice how they always force you to sign the disclosure like you are the one doing something wrong.

  • Daisiemae

    She did not claim to have a bomb. She claimed to have a surgically implanted device (which presents a wide range of items other than a bomb) and was seeking medical attention in the US.

    Bottom line, she did not have a bomb, and no woman has attacked a plane.

  • Daisiemae

    So a known customer would never commit a crime? Have you ever heard of an inside job?

    A regular customer of any business could commit a crime against that business at any time. People change. Their circumstances change. Their mental status changes.

    To think that frequent flyers are any less likely to commit terrorist acts than the rest of the general public is naive.

    BTW, what is to prevent an al Quaida operative from achieving frequent flyer status? So there goes your theory about how safe all those frequent flyers are.

  • Daisiemae

    Probably as in depth as the one they do on there own employees.

  • Saul B

    Yeah but saying she had a bomb sure ratchets up the fear. And the TSA lives off fear.

  • Saul B

    Recall how several TSOs have been fired for accepting bribes to smuggle drugs. Swap “drugs” with “explosives” and such morally corrupt employees are prime candidates for an inside job.

  • Kristin

    I consider it doing my part, since i have to sit at the airport w/o family (ticketed only past this point!) for hrs anyways, i might as well let TSA wast time searching me and laugh to my self the whole time since they keep wasting time/resources searching me repeatedly because i wont take off my shoes. I’ve got the time, now they’ve got the hassle. The whole security check process is stupid really – esp. considering 1 airport will allow xyz when others wont. No One Wins!

  • JenniferFinger

    Yes, you are. You and everyone else who posts in this thread. The nature of the comment you’re replying to doesn’t exempt you from the responsibility to be civil and polite yourself.

  • bkoehn

    I avoid flying commercial whenever possible. I got my private pilot’s license and joined a flying club and can typically beat the airlines anywhere within about 700 miles of my house. I know it’s not a panacea solution and won’t work for everybody, but flying yourself is rewarding and not as expensive as you might think. (I’m talking about single-engine, piston-powered aircraft, not jets. I’m not a 1 percent-er, just a working guy.)

  • http://www.facebook.com/sommer.gentry Sommer Gentry

    Poorly-tested is a factual declaration, since no evidence of the body scanners’ effectiveness has ever been promulgated by TSA. TSA says “just trust us” while claiming any information about the scanners is Sensitive Security Information (secret). Meanwhile, on German television and again in YouTube sensation form (Jon Corbett) people are documenting left and right that many dangerous items can be easily carried through a body scanner undetected. The guy on German TV set off a rather large explosion with the things he carried undetected through a body scanner. So, yes, poorly tested is a fact not requiring counterpoint.

  • http://www.facebook.com/sommer.gentry Sommer Gentry

    What I want is that the standard for searching me when I get on the plane is exactly the same as when I’m walking down the street – give probable cause or a warrant before you detain me or search me. So, no, Pre-Check is NOT what I’ve been asking for. TSA and the police should only harass people against whom they have an articulable suspicion.

    Global entry costs $100 plus flying to an airport where the program is administered if you aren’t near one. Let’s also remember that fewer than one in 1000 travelers qualifies for Pre-Check, so that leaves the other 999 of us treated like criminal suspects or prison inmates.

  • http://www.facebook.com/sommer.gentry Sommer Gentry

    Thank you for opting out and objecting to these despicable machines on behalf of all of us who oppose them.

  • http://www.facebook.com/sommer.gentry Sommer Gentry

    No, you can’t. The false positive rates on body scanners are quite high, and the TSA can select you for a full patdown at any time for no reason at all whether you go through the machine or not. Every person going through a TSA checkpoint is being threatened with sexual assault.

  • TonyA_says

    Wow get this. I made a comment here about how slow those nudeoscopes were compared to a magnetometer after our recent experience at JFK. After I posted, I asked my son what really happened? Why it was so slow?

    Here is his explanation. As he put his backpack down on the belt of the xray machine and while he was about to remove his belt and put them on a tray, a TSA agent told him to move to another line farther to the right and pass through the nudeoscope. Fearing that he would be separated from us, he did not opt out. So he passed through the scanner. Unfortunately, he did not remove his belt and they asked him to remove it, place it on a tray, and put it on belt on the xray machine. Then he need to walk through the nudeoscope one more time. He did. But during the second time, a T S A agent told him to stay right there and put his hand in between his pants and lower stomach area and felt all around his waist. Because his pants were tight, it took a little while.

    Hmm, isn’t the reason why you do not opt out is because you do not want someone to touch you near your you know what? Well apparently not. My son went through the scanner and still had someone put their hand on his lower area. Disgusting.

  • http://www.facebook.com/sommer.gentry Sommer Gentry

    I am so sorry that your son was assaulted. This disgusting abuse makes me ashamed for all of us. I think it is important for everyone to remember that going through a scanner does NOT mean that a passenger will avoid being sexually assaulted by the TSA. If you buy an airline ticket, your genitals may be inspected by a government thug. It’s dehumanizing, abhorrent, and I will never ever stop fighting to stop it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/sommer.gentry Sommer Gentry

    I don’t cooperate with sexual assault. The TSA’s patdowns are sexual assaults. I will never, ever stop fighting to get these people away from my sex organs and out of the pants of children. The fact that you think I should cooperate with a stranger who wants to rub my labia makes me sick. What kind of a man are you? Protecting people means NOT sexually assaulting them.

  • TonyA_says

    Thanks. It shocked me. I should have asked my 18 yr old son earlier.
    So now even if you go through a nudeoscope, they can still feel you up if they want to. What is the purpose of these machines ???
    Heck, you might as well OPT OUT all the time.

  • Smartone

    The TSA keep the sky safe. If you don’t like it, then don’t fly. I rather be safe and not have any more planes flying into buildings. You should be ashamed of yourself.

  • http://www.facebook.com/sommer.gentry Sommer Gentry

    There will never be another U.S. commercial jet flown into a building, and that’s not because of the TSA, but because the cockpit doors are locked and the government no longer requires flight crews to cooperate with hijackers. The TSA is not making you or anyone else any safer. In fact, by physically assaulting innocent travelers and by concentrating huge groups of people in the unscreened area and by diverting would-be flyers onto the roads, the TSA makes us all very much less safe. I’m not ashamed of myself for fighting back after being sexually assaulted by the TSA, but I am ashamed of you for being ignorant of the facts.

  • shishibeach

    I’m writing this without reading any of the comments yet. Just saying that one recent trip, around about spring break time last year ~ my husband and I were waived through without issue. No need to go thru the x-ray machine or any other investigative invasion. We did have our “stuff” in the plastic trays as required, shoes off, jackets in the bins, of course.

    What I thought was interesting was that the 5 girls in front of us – all lovely, svelt, young women wearing uggs and yoga pants etc…with their “stuff” in the plastic bins, exactly the same as us old fogies – were required to go thru the x-ray machine…and then ALSO thru the pat-down. I couldn’t see any reason for it other than pure tactile stimulation. It was disgusting – but in that environment…and needing to catch our own flight – there was no way other than an email to the airport to complain – because if we had stood up for those girls, we would have risked missing our own flight or worse. It’s a scary world we’ve entered….

  • Mundane Lustrator

    Good point.

  • Mundane Lustrator

    True. Americans in general allow TSA to abuse flyers because of fear.

  • Mundane Lustrator

    Why should anyone feel ashamed for criticizing a gov’t agency and its employees? Isn’t that one reason we love this country?

  • Mundane Lustrator

    Yup. Not all TSA screeners are perverts, but the ones who are take advantage of their alleged power.

  • EdB

    What fantasy world are you living in?