Is anyone really listening to your TSA complaints?

Champion Studio/Shutterstock
Champion Studio/Shutterstock
With only a few weeks left to leave your comments about the TSA’s controversial passenger screening methods, here’s a question worth asking: Is anyone listening?

If you said, “not really,” then maybe you know Theresa Putkey, a consultant from Vancouver. She had a run-in with a TSA agent recently after trying to opt out of a full-body scan, and sent a complaint letter to the agency assigned to protect America’s transportation systems.

Here’s the form response from the TSA:

Thank you for your e-mail regarding the rude behavior you experienced from a Transportation Security Officer (TSO).

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) regrets any unprofessional treatment you may have experienced.

TSA seeks to provide a high level of security and customer service to all passengers who pass through our screening checkpoints. Every person and item must be screened before entering the secured area, and the way the screening is conducted is important.

Our policies and procedures focus on ensuring that all passengers are treated with dignity, respect, and courtesy.

Please be advised that a passenger can always request to speak with the Supervisory Transportation Security Officer at the checkpoint to address any complaint regarding screening procedures.

Because your complaint concerns an incident that occurred at a specific airport, we have forwarded a copy of your letter to the appropriate Customer Service Manager.

We hope this information is helpful.

TSA Contact Center

Actually, it wasn’t. The form response failed to acknowledge her complaint, and she hasn’t heard anything from the agency since then.

Now, don’t get me wrong: Form letters can be a helpful way for a company or agency to send the same information to many people with the identical question. But Putkey had a specific complaint, and she was hoping for a specific response — if not an apology, then a promise to investigate.

“I’m still waiting, ” she says.

“I’m writing my congressman”

If you think contacting your member of Congress will get better results, then talk to Craig Szwed, a photographer based in Hartford, Conn. He recently complained to his representative about the constitutional violations committed by TSA screeners and received the following boilerplate response:

Thank you for contacting me regarding Transportation Security Administration (TSA). I appreciate your comments and having the benefit of your views. As a frequent flyer myself, I understand your frustration with the security screening process.

After the tragic events of September 11, 2001, our nation began a much needed overhaul of the security procedures involved in air travel. Included among these necessary reforms were increased screening of passengers, cargo and aircraft personnel. Additionally, precautions including the securing of the cockpit were undertaken to further ensure the safety of the aircraft and those on board. In order to ensure the safety and security of both passengers, crew and others, the US Congress passed the Aviation and Transportation Security Act (PL 107-71), which was signed into law by President George W. Bush. Among the provisions in this legislation was the creation of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) within the Department of Transportation. Oversight of the TSA was then transferred to the Department of Homeland Security in March 2003 after the Passage of the Homeland Security Act of 2002 (PL 107-296).

TSA is responsible for the security screening of approximately 1.8 million air travelers that pass through more than 450 airports each day. TSA officers are charged with ensuring passengers do not carry prohibited items. As a result, TSA employees are required by law to check both passengers and luggage for banned items. In order to prepare customers for the security screening process, a list of banned items is provided by both airlines and TSA in a variety of ways: on their websites, in announcements over public address systems at airports, and in posted signs throughout the security screening area. These items include weapons, lighters, and certain liquids. Passengers must comply with these rules in order to gain access to airport terminals and aircraft. While these rules are strict and often inconvenient, they help to ensure that our transportation systems are safe and secure.

In your letter you voiced concern that this screening process was a violation of your constitutional rights. But the Fourth Amendment, along with most of the Constitution, does not apply in the airport the same way it does in most public spaces. The courts have found that airline passengers also consent to be searched when they choose to fly. Federal law requires commercial airline passengers to be searched prior to boarding a plane and airlines cannot transport any passenger who refuses. Over the past 40 years, the courts have upheld the constitutionality of airport security screenings as part of an overall regulatory effort to prevent hijackings and other terrorist activity.

The Supreme Court has ruled that blanket suspicionless searches are allowed in the airport as long as terrorism poses a risk to public safety. Of course, it is worth noting that the government’s right to search citizens in an airport is not unlimited. The government must show a clear need or immediate danger to justify the level of intrusion imposed on passengers. According to the Ninth Circuit, airport searches must be no more extensive or intensive than necessary, in light of current technology, to detect the presence of weapons or explosives.

Oversight steps have also been taken in order to prevent overreach by an individual screener or the agency itself. TSA has an independent mechanism for passengers to file complaints. The independence of this mechanism is then periodically audited and reported on by the US Government Accountability Office (GAO). Congress also has taken steps to increase transparency and serve as an oversight mechanism itself. This is most often done during FAA authorization measures where legislative language is inserted to ensure civil liberties and privacy concerns are adequately addressed.

Again, thank you for sharing your views on this issue with me. Should you have any additional comments or suggestions, please do not hesitate to contact me in the future.

This form letter apparently isn’t unique to one representative. Versions of it have reportedly been sent out by other elected officials.

What’s so telling about the email is the kicker.

“Please do not respond to this email as this mailbox is not monitored,” it says.

In other words, it’s a lecture, not a debate.

As to the form email itself, Szwed calls it “platitudes and excuses” and I can understand why. It suggests no one is paying attention to his complaints, and that even if someone did, it wouldn’t make a difference.

But a debate is exactly what Americans want, and deserve. They never had a chance to sound off on the TSA’s screening practices, which were imposed on them almost five years ago, and now, thanks to a court decision, they will finally get one.

Isn’t it time for the decision-makers in the security process to start listening, too?

Is anyone really listening to your TSA complaints?

View Results

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Note: Effective June 1, I’m moving my TSA coverage to TSA News, a blog I co-edit. I’m returning to this site’s main mission every Wednesday, with more consumer advocacy coverage.

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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  • Susan Richart

    I get the exact same response every time from one of my reps, another doesn’t bother to respond at all and the third, sends a response that says absolutely nothing. Tells me that neither the reps themselves nor their aides even bother to read what we send.

    In the past I have contended and I still do that the TSA write their responses for them and I think this column proves it.

  • Zarkov505

    Understand something.

    Email is WORTHLESS for contacting a Congresscritter. One email means one crank with a webmail account, who may or may not be an actual constituent. There are even Astroturfing ™ services that crank out “custom” emails by the score, that allow people to pick and choose from “talking points” menus. (I was a candidate a few years ago. I got several such. After noticing some similarities, I did a Google search, and found the Astroturf ™ site.)

    U.S Snail mail is the best option. It takes FOREVER, because of the anthrax/ricin/whatever scares, but it is generally accepted (or used to be) that one paper letter means 100 constituents who felt the same way, but only one was ticked off enough to write.

    Phone calls are second best. One phone call means ten ticked-off constituents.

  • James Orth

    I only voted yes because listening to is different from acting on comments.

  • Extra mail

    I am extremely disappointed in my senator, Rand Paul, who, himself, had been subjected to the tyrannical behavior of the TSA, and vowed to “do something about it”, hasn’t done a thing except spout off about how the TSA abuses the public. If a senator such as Mr. Paul won’t do anything about the TSA then how can we expect any of our other elected officials to do anything. Just one more example of all talk and no action.

  • Extra mail

    I’ve done all three and Rand Paul is actually my senator. Zip, zilch, nada! We don’t matter, constituent or not.

  • emanon256

    I voted no. I have gotten the exact same letter as Ms. Putkey about 5 times now. All different incidents, at multiple airports, dating up to five years back. It has not changed, nor has anything come of it.

  • Nigel Appleby

    I firmly believe that no elected representative or member of the judiciary or member of law enforcement will atempt to rein in the TSA because if the TSA were to be reined in and then (heaven forbid) something were to happen the person responsible would be sued and sued. If the TSA is not reined in and something were to happen it would be the fault of the TSA and the agency could be held to blame by the afore mentioned representative etc.
    Having said all that , there is absolutely no reason why any security agency can’t be courteous, even frendly and still be efficient. Now the efficiency of the TSA could be a discussion for another day.

  • EdB

    The TSA could be reigned in and still be able to perform their function.

    There is no reason individual TSA agents shouldn’t be held accountable for their actions like police are. Police can still do their job and be held accountable for when they violate department policy or the law. So why can’t the TSA? How many of the complaints against the TSA the result of an agent violating stated policies? Probably a majority. If individual agents were held accountable for these violations, I’m sure things would be a lot different. But then again, if they were held accountable, there probably wouldn’t be an agents since they would have been fired over all the violations.

  • Raven_Altosk

    Politicians are like diapers.
    They start to stink and need to be changed.

    Vote everyone out, regardless of political party.

  • MarkKelling

    It would be Congress that would be responsible, not a single person, if a change to the TSA is made. What if nothing changes with the TSA and “something” happens? Who will get sued then? The director of Homeland Security would not get sued. Why would anyone get sued if changes are made?

    If “something” happens, no matter what else is done, the TSA will have an excuse to begin even more intrusive and unconstitutional tactics.

  • MarkKelling

    Agreed. The TSA “officers” need to be held to the same level of accountability as a police officer. They should not be able to fade into the woodwork when accused of violating policy under protection of government secrecy.

  • MarkKelling

    This is the most disconcerting statemnt I have ever heard from a politician:

    “[T]he Fourth Amendment, along with most of the Constitution, does not apply in the airport …”

    Where else, when it becomes convenient for the government, will “most of the Constitution” no longer apply?

  • TonyA_says

    Great analogy. Great solution :)

  • TestJeff Pierce

    There are several legal errors, beginning with the one you identified! Whomever the representative is, they are obviously ignorant or Vichy-like.

    The only court cases were around metal detectors, as far as “least intrusive technology”. No court case has yet tested if a technology (scanners) that has millions of “alerts”, yet can’t identify one dangerous substance is legal. MEtal detectors were deemed reasonable under the 4th amendment. They don’t search your body inch-by-inch, they scientifically IDENTIFY metal about 100% of the time, and AT THE TIME of the court case, they almost never led to someone touching your genitals.

    Scanners can’t identify what an “anomaly is”, they don’t detect plastic explosives for example (unlike blood tests that identify alcohol), they aren’t as specific as ANY OTHER approved legal search because they just identify SOMETHING (maybe) but no narrow, restricted search to identifying a prohibited item, and they lead to criminal acts – coerced genital touching under threat of restriction of travel (by the way, kidnapping has a similar definition).

    Other points are that “least intrusive” is not a relevant doctrine anymore by the courts. Even if it were, then explosives detection via swabs should be done FIRST, before progressing to scanners.

  • DavidYoung2

    You’re right in that they’re flooded with individual e-mails, many of which are auto-generated, cranks or just downright nutty (what are you going to do about the black helicopters buzzing my compound!)

    However, places like are a place to pre-consolidate groups of people concerned about issues. So ONE e-mail coming in from might represent 75,000 pissed off people

  • TestJeff Pierce

    Agree. There are very similar talking points and language across many letters.

    The real issue is the President runs the agency, ultimately, and he approved the most invasive searches ever and a regimen of sexual organ examination upon millions, with special profiling of the medically disabled who are nearly 100% subject to potential criminal pat downs (criminal as they are illegal in all 50 states in any other circumstance).

    The President joked about the criminal pat downs in his 2011 State of the Union speech. That is all you need to know.

    Congress, as a whole, has completely abrogated its responsibility to stop the scanners and the criminal pat downs. No one complained about airline security in Jan, 2010 and everyone still flew quite well prior to November 2010 when the GeTSApo truly implemented the most heinous searches ever by a formerly free society.

    Those who don’t care – I get it. What’s a 10 second violation of your rights for a relatively harmless activity that you think gives you great improvement on ‘security’? Of course, there are those who are profiled 100% of the time that you can think about. If you knew the real increase in security is unmeasurable…..and the implementation of scanners and patdowns doesn’t work when over half the passengers just use metal detectors, and the Newark airport testing recently showed scanner and patdown failed tests…then you might think about the waste of money. The constitutional argument is very strong and goes to the heart of our society.

    When America becomes gutless over ridiculously small and nearly unmeasurable threats, then it is sad. If you don’t do your part to stop this now, I guarantee you they will expand the use of scanners and criminal pat downs….which means the US will have become the country of Homeland.

  • polexia_rogue

    “The courts have found that airline passengers also consent to be searched when they choose to fly”

    this explains it all.

  • FishySounding

    Every cycle we send over 90% of the idiots back to Washington. The other 10% either retire or have seats that rotate back and forth between the same people. $6 BILLION in the last election to get essentially the same government. Why on Earth should they listen to complaints? No one is going to vote “the other party” in, and no one is more aware of it then them.

    The original question is naive at best, ridiculous at worst.

  • FishySounding

    They are. Ever tried to argue a point with a cop?

  • chickadee

    It is entirely devoid of context or nuance, too. I consent to be searched via metal detector when I fly. I do not consent to be searched by a machine that may or may not cause long-term damage to my person. I do not consent to ever-widening intrusive incursions on my person when I choose not to be nudie-scanned, and I do not agree with the idea that draconian security measures are keeping us safe in the air.

  • Susan Richart

    That was from the days before virtual strip searches and genital groping. That was also from the days when one could get a complaint about airport security practices in front of a judge.

    DHS/TSA have made it almost impossible to get a court hearing on their screening practices. And I believe they have made it impossible for a good reason: they know that such searches are unconstitutional.

    Few, if any people, would actually consent to be sexually assaulted at a checkpoint by the TSA. It is coerced consent and that is not consent at all.

  • Susan Richart

    However, WRT police officers, we know the laws under which they work or we can ferret them out.

    The TSA works under secret rules and laws that no one is allowed to know.

  • EdB

    Not all their rules are secret

  • Daisiemae

    And TSA screeners are constantly violating the ones that are not secret. Wonder how many secret rules they violate?

  • MarkKelling

    I learned long ago never to argue with a cop. So I don’t. But, after the incident I can then get a lawyer and take the cop to court if I feel I was done wrong. You apparently can’t do the same with the TSA.

  • Charles B

    I believe the answer to your question is “within 100 miles of any US border.”

  • MeanMeosh

    Actually, they’ll violate the non-secret rules, and then claim that secret rules allow them to violate the non-secret procedures in the interest of “national security” and “making security unpredictable”.

  • AH is just as worthless as any auto-generated email. plus, using it automatically signs you up for all kinds of emails (aka spam) which have nothing to do with the petition you signed. i avoid at all costs.

  • Guest

    That’s interesting. I have signed dozens of petitions on there and I use a special email address for it and haven’t gotten one spam message yet. I do get messages from about other petitions, but that is it.

  • Aquariums In New Orleans

    I have gotten the exact same letter as Ms. Putkey about 5 times now.
    All different incidents, at multiple airports, dating up to five years
    back. It has not changed, nor has anything come of it.

  • Silver Fang

    It’s time to boycott flying. Take the train, take the bus, drive. Let the airlines desiccate and go out of business. Once that starts to happen, they will scream about backing the TSA off so people will start flying again.

  • mwright286

    I hope every TSA agent who rifled through my bag and tossed everything back in unorganized and unprofessional contracts cancer and slowly agonizes. They are never friendly, and most of them look like if you tossed a box of twinkies on the floor they would miss everyone walking through. And could you change gloves after you frisk a person and mover on to the next? I am retired military and a former popo and I cannot stand these examples of fraud, waste, and misuse. 1984 ain’t got s*** on 2013. Guess I am on the watch list now. That’s what I get for venting.

  • Grant

    Gee, I can’t imagine why they’re never friendly to you. :-)

  • Trondheim

    Went through a scanner in Denver recently, and a TSA agent politely asked me to stop, explaining to me that the scanner had picked up “hot spots” on my shorts pockets. He eventually figured out that the problem was caused by metal snaps on the inside of my pocket flaps. I went through another scanner in Boston later that same day, and an agent there yelled at me to “STOP!!!!!” as I exited the scanner. He glared at me, stuck his face in mine, rudely demanded to know if I’d emptied my pockets, glared at me when I said “yes”, locked eyes with me without saying anything (still glaring), gave me a full pat down, and sent me on my way. I tried to explain about the snaps and he would have none of it. Agent # 1 treated me like a person. He did his job well. Agent # 2 treated me like a liar. I hope the pompous ass chokes on his badge. Tried contacting the TSA about this and all I got was a canned response.

  • Rac Pa

    biggest problems in USA, corporations have personhood thru congress they have our rights and their money, lobbyists, electorial college, patent a living plant since 1976, HAARP not commissioned or regulated by anyone in the USA, nano technology, christianity and any patriarcal religions, earmarks, television, government run anything like TSA, healthcare, post office: federal reserve, black ops CIA, cabal (elite) 2 party system, LIES and being in denial, refusing to see the truth.

  • Rac Pa

    may we all learn to meditate so we can develop our lightbodies to protect ourselves and travel anywhere we wish.

  • Andrew

    I served the public as a TSO. I listened to every complaint. Your complaints are heard, but you run off the wrong people.

    A lot of complaints were nonsense. Some of it was verbose. What I looked for was a great lesson or wisdom in what was shared with me and it had to be pithy because, after all, I had a job to do and I was conscientious about my job. I wanted to work, but also hear everyone else; not just you in an ocean of thousands.

    My Conscientiousness was abused. TSA leadership ran me off the job and tried to paint a portrait of me that wasn’t there. I was one of the good ones, but people complained on me too. Just remember the more work a TSO does the more chances that someone will complain on him, this means the more possibility there is that the TSO will make a mistake. The more interaction a TSO has with you then the more they put them self out there to be unfairly associated with your issue and that is bad for them when the hammer falls from all those letters you are writing to Congress. Some body has to answer for those letters and shit has to roll down hill while CYA (Cova yo ash) operations must commence.

    I don’t mean to paint myself totally as a good guy either.

    In the end, I was still the guy who wouldn’t let you carry on your $200, 5.0 ounce bottle of face cream. I was the guy who was blamed for you missing your flight when wait times in security were less than 10 minutes long. Also, I had my conservative politics, the color of my skin, and my baby blue eyes working against me. I reminded every business class passenger of his son and they weren’t going to listen to my instruction. So before you piss on the people who do the grunt work then try to look into the heart and really strike at the over-sized inflated fat cat bureaucracy that our government is becoming. Do I need to tell you that this isn’t a democracy anymore? It is a bureaucracy. Do you wonder if there were any historic fascist regimes had as many bureaus as this?

    It would be an interesting historical research project and since I’m out of a job I have something to do before I’m evicted and thrown on the streets.

  • Moly_Lepke

    I went to Uruguay this May for 3 weeks. Upon returning via Miami International I had the worst experience with border agent/tsa/or whatever the current power is. I was picked out and questioned by an agent for I have no clue what reason. Lots of personal questions like “are you married? how did you make the money for this trip, etc.” Interestingly, in Montevideo I was treated extremely nice, in and out of the country as a foreigner. Arriving in my own country I felt like I wasn’t welcomed and was treated like some sort of criminal. I have no priors, my spouse is in law enforcement, I always obeyed the laws and I like to think of myself as a good citizen. The country really needs to evaluate itself. Things aren’t like used to be.

  • Bonnie Jean Rudolph

    Bonnie Rudolph
    7:38 PM EST
    The Tsa agents are molesters and are consistently abuse the weaker members of our society.
    elderly,. handicapped, and children.This has been happening to me since
    2001.. I have total knee replacements.I also broke my back 1993 and
    walk with a cane slowly. I am searched more and more invasively each
    time. On 10212013 at ft Myers airport I was partially disrobed and an
    agents hand shoved into my breast until she hit my chestbone, running
    into newly healed gall bladder scars{May} I was told she was going to
    put her hands down my pants..I refused..She loudly yelled SUPERVISOR!
    They wanted to isolate me into a private room. I refused.Good grief -who
    knows what they might do to me? Do I feel protected? Absolutely NOT!
    Do I feel unfairly abused ?Yes! Does it only hurt me? No It hurts
    everyone when human dignity and rights are abused and law abiding
    citizens are assaulted. Bonnie Rudolph