What’s the TSA’s policy? Search me!

By | November 21st, 2010

Just a few days before the busy holiday travel period, the Transportation Security Administration has decided to change the rules of flying – again.

At the beginning of this month, the agency began enforcing its name-matching requirements for airline tickets. Passengers must now provide their full names as they appear on a government-issued ID, their date of birth and their gender when they book a flight.

After a terrorism scare involving explosive devices shipped by cargo, the government banned printer cartridges from luggage.

And the TSA started implementing several new screening measures, including an enhanced “pat-down” protocol for air travelers who opt out of a full-body scan.

The agency appears to be phasing in these new procedures unevenly, leading to frequent confrontations with air travelers. At some airports, passengers are being randomly asked to go through the scanners, while at others, they must all be screened by the machines or by hand. At one airport last week, passengers were both scanned and frisked.

As a result, air travelers aren’t sure what to expect when they fly. In a Consumer Travel Alliance poll conducted last weekend, more than half the respondents – 56 percent – said they were more confused than ever about the TSA’s new rules. About 41 percent said they were about as confused as before, and only 3 percent said they were less confused.

Pat-downs are by far the biggest problem. When I first reported on these aggressive screening techniques in the spring, the TSA insisted that it hadn’t changed the way it checks passengers and that it wasn’t punishing air travelers who refused the scans. But it turns out that the agency was testing the controversial frisking procedures at several airports, after all.

Related story:   Is the TSA’s PreCheck program ready for what comes next?

The pat-downs, which are being introduced nationwide this fall, have been widely interpreted by passengers as retribution for refusing to walk through the new full-body scanners. One of them is Meg McLain, a graphic designer and activist from New Hampshire, who declined both the scan and an enhanced pat-down in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., last week. McLain told an Internet radio show that she was yelled at and handcuffed to a chair. In response, the TSA released video surveillance footage that called her account into question.

A few weeks ago, Michael Roberts, a pilot for ExpressJet, a regional carrier for United Airlines, also balked when he was asked to submit to a full-body scan at Memphis International Airport. He refused a manual screening and was not allowed to go to work. Roberts sued the TSA, and late last week, the agency announced it would drop some of the screening requirements for working pilots.

TSA officers have even threatened to fine passengers who protest the new pat-downs. The agency can fine passengers up to $11,000 for behaving in a manner that is so uncooperative and disruptive that it physically interferes with the screening process, according to the agency. However, in his testimony to Congress last week, TSA Administrator John Pistole said it was unlikely anyone would be fined for questioning the screening procedures.