Airport Security Questioned By Parents, Skydivers

As our front line of airport security, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is charged with providing effective and efficient operation of America’s transportation systems. That’s a big job that involves a whole lot more than the highly visible airport security checkpoints travelers most often associate them with. But most often it is when those airport security checks go awry that the TSA makes the news and last week was no exception.

Three-year-old Lucy Forck suffers from Spina bifida, a developmental disorder, and was on her way to a magical Disney World dream vacation when selected for secondary screening at the Lambert- St. Louis’ International Airport. Targeted for the extra security measure because she was in a wheelchair, the scene did not turn out well. The TSA employees were caught on film taking the child’s stuffed animal, as parents objected all the way. The viral video prompted an apology.

“TSA regrets inaccurate guidance was provided to this family during screening and offers its apology,” TSA says on its website.

Understood – a tough situation indeed. TSA agents are charged with making judgment calls all day and with the sheer volume of people screened, things like this are bound to happen in the process of protecting us from harm. I think we all get that and surely want to fly safely.

What many travelers don’t get are situations where embarrassment, if not invasion of privacy issues, could have been avoided. Some, like Lucy’s parents, are more vocal than others too.

On just about the opposite end of the humanity scale from 3-year-old girls are professional skydivers.They’re a salty bunch that speak a language peppered with words little Lucy would get her mouth washed out with soap for uttering and I would probably not get published here for writing. Still, as a group, skydivers are also a very close-knit community of uber safety-conscious sportspeople who live life on the edge. That’s probably because what they do involves jumping out of a perfectly good airplane, over and over again, so safety is of premier importance.

The February issue of Blue Skies, a monthly print magazine about skydiving, BASE jumping, paragliding, wingsuiting and other forms of human-powered flying has a story detailing what pro skydiver and pilot Dean Ricci calls the “TSA Two-Step.”

Ricci describes what skydivers commonly experience every time they go through a TSA checkpoint with their “rig,” a container that carries their parachute, a backup parachute and what is called a CYPRES device. Technically an Automatic Activation Device (AAD), CYPRES is a brand name, an acronym for Cybernetic Parachute Release System and an important safety feature, which automatically deploys the parachute at a pre-set altitude should something go wrong in free fall.

Few skydivers turn their rig in to airlines as checked luggage, preferring to keep the $5000+ equipment, which fits in a commercial airliner’s overhead storage with them at all times, for a couple reasons. First, since humans don’t actually fly, this is the equipment that has a great deal to do with if they live or die. Understandably, they don’t want it tossed around like luggage. Also, the value of the equipment usually exceeds the maximum airlines will pay for lost items.

To make going through checkpoints a smooth process and to avoid panic among other air travelers (imagine if others in line saw TSA agents visually inspecting a parachute then allowing that passenger to board the plane) skydivers carry a CYPRES card, which explains what is inside the container:

To Airport Security Personnel:
On the reverse you see two X-rays (a=view from above, b=side view) of a complete parachute, containing a CYPRES parachute emergency opening system. CYPRES is a Life Saving Device for Skydivers. Depending on the parachute container the X-ray on your screen may vary. All its components (e.g. measuring technique, electronics, battery, loop cutter, control unit, plugs, cables, casing) as well as the complete system contain parts and materials that are approved by U.S. DOT and other agencies world-wide, and are not subject to any transport regulations.

Still, under x-ray inspection, the delicate AAD instrument looks quite suspicious – so suspicious that the TSA and U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) have special rules allowing the container to pass through inspection if it looks somewhat like on the CYPRES card being carried by its owner.

Apparently though, not all TSA inspectors have been trained on how to handle such matters.

Because passing through security is almost always a problem, Ricci brings along a copy of TSA guidelines as they pertain to skydiving equipment to at least point TSA agents in the right direction when going through security.

He took that information with him in advance of a recent flight out of Sacramento International airport too.

Nonetheless, after a 20 minute discussion with TSA personnel about the matter, Ricci was allowed to leave his AAD and emergency parachute untouched but instructed to remove his main parachute from its container which totally covered the secondary screening area, well within sight of other air travelers.

“The crowd was mixed between being amused and nervous to see what was clearly a parachute lying on the ground as they prepared to fly away,” says Ricci, describing a situation that could have been avoided then adding, perhaps more importantly “and the TSA staff were at a complete loss.”

At a time when stories are flying around the Internet and through the news media of potential government cutbacks, causing there to be fewer TSA agents on hand, backing up lines and making their operation more difficult, Ricci believes TSA staff should be selected more carefully and have better training.

“Stop putting some pimple-faced kid who barely managed to get his GED in a blue shirt and letting him pretend he’s the boss,” suggests Ricci, defining a more effective option as “give me an intelligent soldier type. Healthy, well-kept and carrying a gun, who can show respect to me and everyone else.”

Ricci, a pilot and tandem skydiving instructor with over 8,000 jumps to his credit, is quite serious about his views on the TSA, safety and our security. He notes that his experience is not unique and has a lesson for little Lucy’s parents of what she might have in store for future travels, although they might wait until she is a bit older to fill in the details.

Ricci tells the story of Barry Williams, another professional skydiving instructor who had surgery as a child to repair a genetic abnormality. Today he is fine but still has a great deal of metal in his pelvic area.

“Barry carries with him not only a diagram of exactly what the screeners are detecting, but documentation from the surgeon detailing exactly what he had done, yet without fail TSA never listens.”

Ricci saw first-hand how Williams presented the documentation as he approached the screener, showed the agent that he had nothing in his pockets then stepped though the metal detector which, as he said it would, sounded an alarm.

A second time through, the alarm went off again, as it did when instructed to go through a third time as well. But Williams knew the drill and was more than ready for the one-on-one wand and pat down search in a bigger than normal way.

“As they escorted Barry into the secondary screening area, he signaled to me that I should pay attention,” says Ricci, noting a distinct jiggle in the basketball shorts that Williams wore that day. “First I noticed Barry’s face. It was beginning to look like the face Meg Ryan made in When Harry Met Sally when she started having the fake orgasm in the restaurant.”

Apparently able to salute TSA agents on command, Williams had been doing it for years because “no matter how hard he tried to explain to the TSA what the issue was, they always asked the same stupid questions, without any independent intelligent thought.”

That’s a long way from the ordeal Lucy and her parents went through but carries a similar lesson that the TSA sums up very nicely on its website, in its own words:

“We are committed to maintaining the security of the traveling public and strive to treat all passengers with dignity and respect. While no pat-down was performed, we will address specific concerns with our workforce.”

We hope so.

In case you missed it, here is video of Lucy’s experience. Video of William’s experience is not available.

[Photo Credits – Flickr user alist, CYPRES]