It’s time to tell the TSA what you really think of it — and for it to listen

Oleg/Shutterstock
Oleg/Shutterstock
Travelers love to complain about the TSA, and even though the agency assigned to protect America’s transportation systems claims to listen, most of us know better.

Don’t believe me? Try sending the agency an email, complaining about your last pat-down. Do you hear the sound of crickets? Me too.

But now a court has ordered the TSA to listen, and to pay attention — and maybe, if we’re lucky, to do something about it.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit has ordered the TSA to engage in something known as notice-and-comment rulemaking on its screening procedures, and specifically its use of full-body scanners. You can leave your comment at the Federal Register website until June 24th.

The TSA hopes the public it’s assigned to protect will approve of the scanners and the way they’re used. But it promises to “review and analyze” the comments to develop a final rule related to the use of airport scanners.

What could they do? That isn’t entirely clear. The lengthy document seems to suggest that four options are on the table:

1. Metal detectors and pat-downs. Under this scenario, the passenger screening environment “remains the same as it was prior to 2008.” Which is to say, metal detectors, not scanners, are used as the primary passenger screening technology. Any alarms are “resolved” with a pat-down.

What if it were adopted? That system worked before 2008, and it could work again. But it wouldn’t address the problems many passengers have with “enhanced” pat-downs as a method of “resolving” an alarm. Those pat-downs are sometimes said to be abusive and punitive.

2. Metal detectors and random pat-downs. Under this alternative, TSA continues to use metal detectors as the primary passenger screening technology, but it “supplements” the screening with random pat-downs.

What if it were adopted? Chaos, probably. Those selected for a pat-down would complain, there would be allegations that the randomness wasn’t so random, and at the end of the day, the airport wouldn’t be any safer.

3. Metal detectors and explosive trace detection screening. This option would see the TSA return to metal detectors but conduct explosive trace detection screening on random passengers. ETD screening is fairly non-invasive, and usually involves swabbing luggage.

What if it were adopted? This would eliminate the difficult choice passengers are often asked to make between a scan and pat-down, and would replace it with proven technologies that could identify most threats. It’s the alternative preferred by TSA-watchers and privacy advocates.

4. Full-body scans or pat-downs. The final option would be to leave things exactly as they are: Using the scanners, which have already cost American taxpayers roughly $1 billion, and resolving any alarms with an “enhanced” pat-down.

What if it were adopted? This would be an unfortunate choice, because it would mean the TSA didn’t bother reading any of the public comments and doesn’t care what the American public thinks about the way it screens them. The current system costs too much, both financially and in terms of the constitutional rights we surrender at the airport, say critics. We can do better.

So what do travelers have to say about the TSA’s rulemaking so far? Plenty.

• From Matthew Richard Glucksberg: “Please remove the charade of security provided by full body microwave and backscatter X-ray facilities.”

• Sabina Gasper writes: “Nothing is going to make flying risk-free, but the TSA is arbitrary, rude and unprofessional in how it deals with the public — scanners or no scanners.”

• Patrick Pascal comments: “My visits to the airport bring back a childhood memory of the ordeal of crossing the Iron Curtain during the Cold War. After earning the respect of my community, my industry and my church, I deeply resent the unwarranted suspicion and lack of respect I regularly receive from the TSA.”

To be fair, there are a few comments supporting the body scanners and the way they’re being used. They fall into two general categories: The “if you don’t like it don’t fly” contingent and the “I work for the TSA and am commenting anonymously” crowd. Both deserve to be heard, of course, but they represent a very small minority.

What will happen?

After June 24, will anything change? Not immediately, and maybe not for a long time. The Department of Homeland Security will consider the comments in final rule, which could be months or years in the future.

Given that the life cycle of the scanners, from deployment to disposal, is eight years, it’s possible the TSA may decide to decommission its scanner program at about the same time the scanners have become obsolete. One way or the other, it seems the scanners are going to go away at some point in the future.

You can help make the policy change happen faster by leaving a comment on the Federal Register site now and urging the TSA to embrace option three immediately. It is the only reasonable choice.

But the entire scan-versus-pat-down era, which historians will surely come to recognize as one of the darkest moments in our democracy, begs a bigger question: At what point is it acceptable to shortcut the regulatory process and not be forthcoming with the public when it comes to keeping America safe? Is it ever acceptable?

I would like to say “no.” You probably do, too. But no one knows what tomorrow will bring.

Which rulemaking option do you prefer?

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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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  • TestJeff Pierce

    I applaud the 3D printing guns, and although the Fed govt is examining if they violate ITAR regulations, it appears to me the plans are legal to distribute within the United States.

    PETN was used in the early 1900s, yet we have no epidemic today of suicidal airline passengers with working non-metallic bombs. There really is no threat that the scanners and patdowns stop.

    It has been 51 years now for safe US domestic flights. Passengers are a very, very, very , very low risk. The TSA agents routinely smuggle stuff so that threat overwhelms anything from passengers.

    The plastic guns still require a metal firing pin, FYI. I doubt metal detectors will detect that small amount of metal. But, I don’t worry about these low risk things.

  • TestJeff Pierce

    Think back to pre-scanners and when they used metal wands. There is a way to treat medically disabled commensurate with risk profile.

    If they can do PreCheck – without any justification for why that makes these people less of a terrorist than any other US citizen (hint: The risk is the same) – then they should be able to do “PreMedical” program and stop assaulting those with medical issues.

  • TestJeff Pierce

    It is EXTREMELY difficult to make a liquid bomb. The only one used was left by a passengers (the subsequent mastermind behind the 1993 WTC attack) on a Philipine airliner in 1994. The bomb exploded, killed 1 passenger…..the plane landed safely.

    So, in the one known instance over the past couple of decades, liquid bombs have proved ineffective.

    There is one very easy way to bring a non-metallic bomb on a flight today, but I won’t mention it here.

    The fact these events have not happened on a US flight for over 51 years shows why you shouldn’t worry too much.

  • TestJeff Pierce

    They should treat you as they did before with metal wands and on your way.

    NOTE: People with medical metal are PROFILED and it is probably contrary to the Americans with Disability Act. A class-action lawsuit of sympathetic people like your husband – or Army amputees – might change this…..maybe.

  • cahdot

    cannot wait to see the long term effects of the tsa being constantly exposed to the radiation scanners sounds like workers comp disaster esp for the taxpayers the future will tell

  • Travelnut

    I’m sorry, but I have to disagree. I’m not a prude (nor am I a TSA agent), but seriously, what’s wrong with “genitalia”, “private parts”, or other such terms? I’ll concede that my last TSA experience (a couple of weeks ago) was much too gropy. But some of these comments make me feel equally violated. Ewww.

  • LeeAnneClark

    At least you have the option of not reading these comments. Unlike at the TSA checkpoint, where we do NOT have the option of avoiding having our genitals groped.

    As for your feeling “violated,” (a rather strong word for a completely voluntary activity such as reading comments in a blog), I’d sure love to know what words in here made you feel violated. There’s not a single obscenity or vulgar term to be found. Do you really have such a problem with anatomically correct terms? I certainly hope you are not in any kind of medical field. Can you imagine a doctor, nurse or paramedic who felt “violated” by using the correct names for body parts?

    Using vague words does not convey the reality of what actually happens at the checkpoint. Saying “a stranger “touched my private parts” does not exactly express the horror, compared to saying “a stranger rammed her thumb up into my crotch so hard that it went between my labia and penetrated my vagina through my leggings”. If that’s too graphic for you…well, sorry…that’s what happened. And that’s what continues to happen at airports across the nation.

    Of course, we’re all aware that there are many people who simply don’t want to know the reality, and would rather continue to be in denial. If you are one of them, you are reading the wrong blog. We speak the truth in here.

  • http://homewoodsuitesmiami.com/near-marlins-park-great-event-venues/ Hotels Near Marlins Park

    If they want to swipe my panties (which has also happened to me) let
    ‘em. But they won’t be getting any of my important stuff anymore.

  • Daisiemae

    So I guess the next person who encounters a rapist should treat the rapist the way they want to be treated and it will work?

    The next person who encounters a murderer should treat them the way they want to be treated and it will work?

    The next person who encounters a thief should treat them the way they want to be treated and it will work?

    The next person who encounters a bully should treat them the way they want to be treated and it will work?

    I guess we can close all the jails and prisons right now….just treat criminals the way we want to be treated and it will work.

  • Daisiemae

    Well, I guess you never watch TV, do you? Or movies…just too offensive and violating. Or the Internet, that’s just chock full of offensive things that will make you feel violated…Oh, wait…..you are on the Internet now, aren’t you?

    Hmmmmm…..methinks the lady doth protest too much.

  • http://homewoodsuitesneworleans.com/featured/family-friendly-new-orleans-attractions/ Aquariums In New Orleans

    It has been 51 years now for safe US domestic flights. Passengers are a
    very, very, very , very low risk. The TSA agents routinely smuggle stuff
    so that threat overwhelms anything from passengers

  • Daisiemae

    You should address your complaints to TSA. When TSA ceases to search for weapons of mass destruction within the folds of women’s labia, there will no longer be any need to protest said search and therefore no need to mention labia.

    BTW, why is labia more offensive to you than scrotum? Is there some reason that a woman’s body is more repulsive than a man’s? Is there some reason that protesting the abuse of a woman’s body is more unacceptable than protesting the abuse of a man’s body?

    I don’t think it says much about the character of a man when he is more offended about the use of a word than he is about the sexual abuse of innocent women.

  • Daisiemae

    Now, now…you know there is a lot of explosive potential in those scrotums. Why, they have the potential to end mankind!

    Oh, wait…I think maybe I have that backwards. OMG, They could cause a population explosion. For God’s sake, check those scrotums now!

  • Guest

    +1000000000 to that.

  • backprop

    I didn’t see a complaint. Are you replying to the correct user?

  • emanon256

    Translation:

    I traveled one time, maybe two, in the last two years by commercial air and I wasn’t molested, so no body else possibly could have been unless they did it to themselves. And I hate being surrounded by all these normal people, eww. I am better than all of them and hate that they are on a plane with me wearing the cheap clothing they got at Good Will and almost touching my $10,000 suit.

    Elitist much?

  • emanon256

    I just don’t understand how using the anatomically correct term to describe their anatomy could be equally as violating as someone physically molesting your labia or scrotum? Have you gone to Web MD? It does not use terms like “Private Parts” neither does my Dr. and neither do my children. We use the correct and proper name.

  • LeeAnneClark

    LOL Daisiemae, methinks what “finance tony” was looking for was a more detailed description of labia searches, for his salacious pleasure.

    He must be a TSA screener. We all know how obsessed they are with womens’ labia.

  • Bill___A

    The feeling I get when I go through the TSA is that something is going to get stolen from me…not that the flight has been made safe. This sentence pretty much sums it up.

    I think that the people who review the TSA should be required to go through security at a couple of airports in Canada and a couple of airports in the UK – as well as maybe Rome or Munich and then Israeli security.
    They could get some good insights.
    They should also have to go through security at LAX, New Orleans, etc.
    I’m sure the differences will be quite obvious.
    I’m not sure if it is the TSA agents who act as if they have the mentality of a 6 year old, or the passengers who act like it – but in these other countries, it is an adult style experience without people chanting things over and over again and acting like you’re a child. Instead, they do a realistic scan, checking things that need additional checking.

  • http://elliott.org Christopher Elliott

    These labia comments are being flagged multiple times. Could we just move on, please?

  • LeeAnneClark

    Christopher, wouldn’t it be wonderful if we didn’t HAVE to mention that body part as something that the TSA routinely touches?

    Until then, honestly I think you are giving the flagging too much credit. They are likely just flagging it because they don’t like what we are saying about the TSA, not because they actually have problems with the body part names.

    There is absolutely nothing wrong with using anatomically correct terminology in a discussion about body parts (which is what any discussion about the TSA is going to involve). If you have readers who literally can’t handle hearing that word, they should probably avoid all forms of electronic communication (radio, TV, internet) as that is not even considered a vulgar terms, and they will hear way more shocking words out there in the real world. It’s no different than saying “breast”.

    I’m not going to change my message, or dilute it with vague, non-specific terms, because some pearl-clutcher can’t handle accurate medical terms.

    One must wonder what they say when they go to the doctor. “Oh Dr. Kildare, I have a painful bump on my…um…my…um…”

  • Dane Carpenter

    I want to go back to the days when the airport security was privatized and the airport was held accountable for issues with security. I want to go back to the times when a kid or spouse could go to the terminal and wait with their special someone to board the plane and then watch it taxi out to the runway. Then wait at the terminal for their return.

    I still remember the days of waiting with my dad in the terminal for his departure. I wish it was something I could share with my children.

  • Daisiemae

    I’m replying to finance_tony. Read his comment again. It’s a sarcastic complaint about Lee Anne’s previous remark.

    However, I’m curious why a moderator is involving himself/herself in whether or not I am replying to the correct poster. I can’t possibly see how that violates any rules of this blog.

  • EdB

    If the message being flagged is not in violation of the posting rules, then that flag should be ignored. Just because a message gets flagged a lot doesn’t mean it should be moderated. The flagging is becoming the new way to stop discussion because of this.

  • EdB

    I miss those days. I used to love to pick people up at the airport. I would get there an hour or two early. Get something to eat and find a window where I could just sit and watch the planes.

  • EdB

    There is an example of why moderators need separate accounts. Was backprop’s message a moderation or just another reader trying to clear up something for their understanding.

  • backprop

    This is the user ID I’ve had on Disqus for years, long before moderating. I’m not replying as a moderator nor did I make even the faintest suggestion at your violating rules, just asked a very straightforward question about how that particular post didn’t make sense in the flow of the discussion. No need to get touchy.

  • http://twitter.com/sciamachy Sciamachy

    Option 5 – Tel Aviv airport style security. Use people who are experts at body language & facial tells, to make pleasant conversation with travellers. Nervous travellers to be taken into a blast-shielded room & given the current treatment (though politely – maybe they’re just a nervous flier or terrified of authority figures), everyone else, i.e. everyone who looks ok, can just go on with their journey.

  • http://twitter.com/sciamachy Sciamachy

    You never know when you’re gonna run into the guy with the EXPLODING BALLS!! ;-D

    It’s sexual assault dressed up as security theater. None of it is particularly effective – it just checks for things that have been previously detected. A terrorist won’t seriously do anything that’s been known to fail or use a method the security people already are aware of. That’d be stupid.

  • Gumilyov Enu

    Agree with Alan, dont see any problems with screening, even double if it would prevent any violence.

  • Bill___A

    That was mainly an American thing, that, while convenient, dramatically increased the number of people in the departure/arrivals area. Many modern airports are structured so the arrivals people come straight through a separate path and there isn’t a “gate area” to congregate in. Admittedly, I liked it too, but I got over it.

  • Daisiemae

    And I’m just asking a straightforward question too. Both of your posts are identified as a moderator. Moderators on this site are usually strictly enforcing rules.

    So asking why a moderator is involving himself/herself is a legitimate question. Especially considering the fact that some moderators (not all) have a history of abusing their powers on this blog.

  • Susan Richart

    “The current ETD testing has never found one passenger with an explosive, to your point. There is no need for current ETD testing. I could support the machines that actually work to detect PETN explosives and related types. But, the need for them is not really justified.”

    Do you also support the private hut full-on grope that happens after one tests positive for “explosives” with the current system?

    It’s my belief that that private room grope exceeds the standard for an administrative search as it is not being done in public. Further, the “positive” reading then makes any further search a probable cause search which the TSA is not allowed to do as they are not law enforcement.

  • Daisiemae

    And apparently that flagging has been very successful at stopping discussion since the discussion will stop here on June 1.

  • Daisiemae

    How does committing violent acts prevent violence?

    Forced touching of breasts, buttocks, and genitals is a violent act. Ramming a thumb or a wand into a woman’s vagina is a violent act. Whacking a man in the testicles is a violent act. Ripping a girl’s dress off and exposing her breasts in public is a violent act. Forcing a dying 95 year old woman to remove her adult diaper is a violent act. Strip searching elderly women is a violent act.

    Sexual violence is a particularly heinous form of violence. It has been employed by criminal dictator regimes and invading armies throughout history. It is extremely effective at terrorizing and controlling the populace.

    I abhor ALL violence, even when it is committed by a government employee with a fake badge pinned to his/her shirt. ESPECIALLY when it is committed by a government employee with a fake badge pinned to his/her shirt.

  • http://tsanewsblog.com/214/news/history-repeats-itself-with-tsas-strip-search-tactics/ Lisa Simeone

    Sciamachy, we’ve addressed this countless times at this blog. Isreali security is also abusive — unless you’re the “right” type. If you’re the “wrong” type, you’ll be harassed, even roughed up. And if you’re a peace activist, forget it — you’ll be cavity-searched in a back room. Just ask Holocaust survivor Hedy Epstein, who has written publicly about her experience.

    There is no such thing as 100% security, anywhere. Life entails risk. You’re still more likely — far, far more likely — to be killed in a car accident than in a terrorist attack. Or to be killed by choking on a sandwich, or struck by lightning. These are facts.

    But as we already know, facts don’t matter. People will cling to their fear-fueled fantasies no matter what. Sigh.

  • http://twitter.com/sciamachy Sciamachy

    Indeed – more Americans got crushed by over-sized TVs than killed by terrorists according to one infographic I read recently – and you’re way, way more likely to meet a violent end at the hands of a cop than any terrorist, which is probably a good reason not to have routinely armed cops. In the UK there have been 1433 people killed while in police custody or following police contact since 1990, and we’re a pretty small country as they go.

  • Gumilyov Enu

    Forcing a dying 95 year old woman to remove her adult diaper ???? its just over Exaggerating…

  • Guest

    If it wasn’t true, but it is.

  • Daisiemae

    Over exaggerating what? That it happened? Or that forcing a dying 95 year old woman to remove her adult diaper is a violent act?

    Hopefully, you are expressing disbelief that it happened. I don’t want to believe there is any decent human being on the planet who would say forcing an elderly woman to remove her adult diaper is not a violent act.

    So, giving you the benefit of the doubt….Meet Jean Webber’s mother…a 95 year old woman, dying of leukemia, on her way to spend her final days with family. Jean’s mother was forced to remove her Depends so that TSA could perform “a more thorough examination” in a private room from which Jean was excluded.

    http://www.cnn.com/2011/TRAVEL/06/27/florida.tsa.incident/index.html

    At first TSA denied that Jean’s mother was forced to remove her Depends (see above article).

    Later, TSA back pedaled and defended their actions in forcing Jean’s mother to remove her Depends. TSA said they did indeed force Jean’s mother to remove her Depends, and there is nothing wrong with doing that.

    http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/tsa-defends-decision-95-year-old-cancer-patient-remove-adult-diaper-security-screening-article-1.131903

    Yes, I agree with you. Forcing a dying 95 year old woman to remove her adult diaper is overly exaggerated…overly exaggerated security theatre…overly exaggerated abuse of an innocent American citizen by an out of control government agency.

  • http://twitter.com/sciamachy Sciamachy

    You could treat them the way you would hope you would be treated if you were guilty of doing what they’re doing. I dunno about you but I’d hope that if it were me, I would be prevented from doing the crime & pulled up by a group of my fellows who would work with me to fix the attitudes that led to me deciding on such a destructive course, and help me find some way to make restitution to anyone I had hurt. It’s called transformative justice, & it’s (so far, where it’s been implemented) worked way, way better than prison in terms of preventing recidivism.

  • Daisiemae

    It’s pretty hard to do all that with a knife to your throat or a gun to your head. But hey! Anyone who can’t talk a rapist or a murderer down has a moral flaw, right? If only those victims would perform some simple transformative justice, they wouldn’t get raped or murdered, would they?

    So going back to the original topic using this same analogy, the next time a TSA clerk shoves his hands down your pants, whacks you in the testicles, or snatches your dress down and exposes your breasts to the entire airport, it’s your own fault for not being able to perform transformative justice.

    One last question: When are you going to begin teaching classes on how we can perform transformative justice when we are confronted by a rapist, murderer, thief, or bully? I’d like to learn that quick so I can be prepared if it happens to me.

    Maybe you can get other people qualified to teach as well, so we can spread this technique to the world and stop all the raping, murdering, robbing, and bullying. Then you’d win the Nobel prize. I’ll be happy to assist with the effort, and I’ll let you have all the credit.