Transportation Stupid Agency

by , July 08, 2010

Once again, the Transportation Security Agency (TSA) has distinguished itself as guardians of our security for airline travel.  Certainly, in a post-9/11 world we have to expect that there will inevitably be some level of security to guard against terrorism.  But you have to wonder what the "S" in TSA really stands for.  Consider these two news stories from late June.

First, it seems that TSA needs to learn a lesson or two in common courtesy when it comes to airline passengers who are amputees (although some might say that’s true more generally).  According to amputee Peggy Chenoweth who was flying with her 4-year old son:

"I had just been put in the plexiglass screening booth – which I expected.  My 4-year-old son was made to sit across from me, crying because they would not let him touch me. Everyone was looking at us. Then the TSA agent asked for my prosthetic leg. I knew they could wand my leg, but he insisted on taking it from me. And if that wasn’t humiliating enough, he asked for the liner sock that covers my residual limb, saying I had to give it to him. I felt pressured to give him my liner even though it is critical to keep it sanitary. I was embarrassed to have my residual limb exposed in public."

Although TSA claims to have procedures for properly screening disabled passengers and that "under no circumstances is it TSA’s policy to ask a passenger to remove his/her prosthetic during screening," three-fourths of those surveyed (7,300 amputees out of about 1.7 million in the United States) by the Amputee Coalition of America said they were unsatisfied by their most recent airport screening experience.  Among the complaints:

  • Not being screened by a TSA agent of the same gender
  • Not being allowed to have a caregiver accompany them into the screening room
  • Being forced to lift their clothing during random checks for explosives
  • And some amputees have had to submit to an inordinate number of x-rays to get through the screening process:
    • Jeff from Denver: "TSA confiscated my vacuum system required to fit my prosthetic legs. I told them I need those tools to put on my legs. Without them, it can’t be done. They eventually gave them back after I boarded the plane, but it would have been more appropriate to have a conversation with me about it and let me know. Had they not given the tools back, I could not have put on my legs for my entire trip. This was the worst of my many TSA experiences, but because I fly a lot, I am also concerned about the level of radiation to which I am exposed. I have had as many as 20 exposures during one trip."
    • Leslie from Minneapolis: "While I consider myself a seasoned amputee traveler, my situation brought me to tears for the inequity that I experienced because of having a prosthetic leg. I was led to a small room without being told where I was going and my husband wasn’t allowed to accompany me. Ten X-rays were taken of my leg, so I was concerned and inquired about the amount of radiation, but was given no answers. The TSA screeners made me stand on six unsecured, stacked storage bins. I told them it wasn’t safe – I only have one leg."

How hard is it to come up with a standard procedure for passengers with prosthetics?  First and foremost, such screening needs to protect those passengers’ privacy – as well as accommodating their unique situation, such as allowing a caregiver to accompany them.  It would seem that a simple wanding of the prosthetic to detect for suspicious metal would, in most instances, be enough to determine whether a more invasive search (such as running the prosthetic through x-ray) is warranted.  And if for some reason it becomes absolutely necessary to remove a prosthetic, it could be chemically swabbed to detect explosives.

To be fair to TSA employees, a big part of the problem is lack of training – as well as proper supervision to ensure proper procedures are being followed.  Compound that with the fact that being a government employee (or contract employee) largely means following all the rules and regulations without leeway for interpretation or the ability to use judgment.  Or put another way, common sense is often not allowed to prevail.  Indeed, it can be cause for punishment.

Speaking of common sense, how about the fact that 6-year old Alyssa Thomas is on the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) infamous no-fly list?  According to a TSA spokesperson, "The watch lists are an important layer of security to prevent individuals with known or suspected ties to terrorism from flying."  Since Allyssa was allowed to fly on the day the Thomases were told that her name was on the no-fly list, she clearly isn’t a threat.  But even though the Thomases have appealed to DHS to have their daughter’s name removed from the no-fly list, they’ve been told that nothing in Alyssa’s file will be changed.  [This is exactly why Senator Lautenberg's (D-NJ) proposed legislation to prevent people on the no-fly list from being able to purchase a firearm is a dumb idea, not to mention unconstitutional – unless there are other legal reasons, such as being Osama bin Laden or a convicted felon, other than being on the no-fly list.]

This is what $7 billion (TSA’s annual budget, which is part of the $55 billion Department of Homeland Security budget) of your tax dollars buys you.  Transportation Stupid Agency.

Read more by Charles V. Peña