A TSA Agent Answers Questions From The Community

tsa agent security checkpointIf you are flying this week, you are probably anticipating long security lines, many tiny bottles of liquids, and a lot of time shuffling through a metal detector in your socks. Last night on Reddit, a TSA agent participated in a Q & A (known as an “I Am A…” or “Ask Me Anything” on the site), and the community asked some great questions on security, stereotypes and weird encounters. See below for some of his answers.

On speeding through security checkpoints:

Be nice to officers. Don’t lay it on thick, but being rude or confrontational will get you nowhere. The most often used tactic for officers looking to “win” or “beat” passengers is to slow down.

Pay attention. Especially at bigger checkpoints, look around. Many times there are lanes that have few or no passengers in them, and will not get a lot of business because people assume they are closed. Watch passengers that look like they know what they’re doing and emulate them. We have officers whose job it is to stand around and advise passengers on what they need to do to get through the checkpoint quickly. Pay attention to what they’re saying, they really are just there to help you.

On securing your checked bags:

They’re rollerbags with a hardcase and a lock built in to the side. That is hands down your best option. Anyone with a ballpoint pen can get into a locked piece of luggage and zip it up again without you ever knowing. YouTube it and you’ll see. But still, I’d put a lock on any checked bag. People besides TSA officers handle your luggage, people far less scrupulous than us, and I mean … you don’t want to just invite them to go through your stuff.

On TSA officers stealing:

Officers do steal stuff. Officers are, unfortunately, people, too. Not every person in the world is honest and scrupulous. I know of half a dozen officers who were caught stealing, and it’s usually stupid because it’s a fire-able offense. You get caught and they pull your badge on the spot.

So personally, I don’t get it. Even part timers are making like 400 a paycheck…you try to grab an ipod, or even 40 bucks out of someone’s bin…one paycheck later you’re out way more money than you would have gotten from it. Morality aside…it’s just bad math.

On behind-the-scenes “shenanigans”:

I wouldn’t say there’s really a ‘behind the scenes’ on a passenger checkpoint, but a lot of officers screw around right under passengers noses, and whether or not we get away with it, we believe we do. The sad truth is that in order to maintain staffing to be responsive to rushes there are often times when too many of us around with nothing to do.

We know people say TSA stands for Thousands Standing Around.

At one of my…less professional moments, it was slow and I took a pair of rubber gloves, rolled them into a tight ball and was playing catch with another officer across two lanes. I threw him the ball, and he missed the catch, it bounced off his fingertips and hit an old lady in the head. No one got caught, but that’s what I’m talking about.

Something about Idleness and the devil…

On the stereotypes that agents are useless or have no other career options:

Honestly 99.9% (or more) of the people we interact with on any given day don’t mind or understand that we’re a ‘necessary evil.’ Regular business travelers tolerate us and appreciate when we’re not jerkbags. If you go online and read the complaints about TSA, understand that they really are a vocal minority.
I don’t mind. In fact I went to school for Civil Engineering but once I got into the real world I realized it wasn’t what I wanted to do. Rather than going back to school (and spending a lot more money) I did this. The fact is the pay really is good (I make about 40k a year), with good benefits, and requires little previous experience.

On missing weapons or dangerous items in security checks:

Take a razorblade. Or a long, thin sawblade like what got through security in that Mythbusters. Turn it on end so you’re looking down at the edger of the blade.

Not a lot there to look at.

I hope that helps you imagine how such a thing could be missed..in fact we often catch small pocket knives and the passenger tells us that it has been through half a dozen or more airports without being caught.

On the weirdest items he’s confiscated:

I was around for the liquid scare in 2006. That was pretty crazy. We had these huge garbage bins out by the queues before you even got to the checkpoint, and officers up on the mezzanine with bullhorns just repeating the same things over and over again.

Those bins got filled and emptied countless times during the day…EVERY liquid was thrown in them: expensive perfumes, eye contacts in their little foil packs, baby food. The passengers did it willingly before we even looked in their bags. And very few people complained. Everyone was scared…the threat was real and close.

Other than that…I dunno, there are a ton of things. Some old guy, probably in his 80s, had a sword cane. Said he had it for years, never realized there was a sword in it. He was shocked.

On celebrity pat-downs:

So I don’t get to pat down attractive women. I’ve never woken up in the morning hoping I get to pat down some Abercrombie model. However from a technical standpoint, it is easier to pat down someone who is physically fit rather than someone who is overweight or obese.

On my third day of work, I was brand new, wide eyed stupid, I had to pat down Will Ferrell. It was weird for me…he didn’t seem to mind. I’ve also had to pat down a number of NFL players, because of their size they often wear baggy clothing.

Generally celebrities do their best to remain inconspicuous and when I recognize a passenger as a celebrity, I do my best to remain professional treat them the same as everyone else. In the situation I believe that’s what they prefer.

I did meet Alan Tudyk…and I’m a huge fan. I told him so.

Read the full Q&A here.

[Photo credit: Flickr user TSA Public Affairs]

TSA ‘Behavioral Officers’ look for the obvious

TSA Gadling Behavior Detection OfficersOur pals over at AOL Travel are reporting that the TSA has “behavioral indicator officers” who attempt to observe people in security lines to determine if anyone is a security risk. So, if you still think that it’s funny to make bomb jokes while waiting to pass through the x-ray machine, you might want to start working on some new material. The TSA, meanwhile, might want to consider that travel, in general, and airport security, in particular, tend to make even the most docile people uncomfortable. Are the Behavior Detection Officers (that’s the TSA’s official term) keeping us safer or just adding another layer of nuisance to the airport security process?According to the TSA website,

TSA’s BDO-trained security officers are screening travelers for involuntary physical and physiological reactions that people exhibit in response to a fear of being discovered. TSA recognizes that an individual exhibiting some of these behaviors does not automatically mean a person has terrorist or criminal intent. BDOs do, however, help our security officers focus appropriate resources on determining if an individual presents a higher risk or if his/her behavior has a non-threatening origin. Individuals exhibiting specific observable behaviors may be referred for additional screening at the checkpoint to include a handwanding, limited pat down and physical inspection of one’s carry-on baggage. Referrals are based on specific observed behaviors only, not on one’s appearance, race, ethnicity or religion.

You know who exhibits involuntary physical and physiological reactions in response to TSA screenings? A very large segment of the population. Between patting down children, radiating travelers and blatant xenophobia, the TSA hasn’t exactly installed confidence in the general public. So, it’s only natural that completely innocent travelers might exhibit signs of fear while waiting to be screened by poorly trained security agents.

At present, all travelers are presumed guilty until scanned innocent. That makes many people outraged, nervous and downright scared. Will these TSA Behavior Detection Officers be able to differentiate an anxious terrorist and a nervous flier? Seeing as how how the TSA has a history of overstepping its bounds, it’s hard for us to be confident in their profiling skills.

Oh, and there’s that word: profiling. Sure, the TSA statement specifically says that these officers are not looking at anyone’s “appearance, race, ethnicity or religion,” but this still opens the door to sweeping generalizations or assumptions about anyone who simply looks nervous. Some people are so terrified of flying that they start sweating and acting nervously the moment they enter an airport. What happens if you happen to be a dark-skinned, bearded aerophobic? Seems to me that you’ll be singled out and forced to explain to a TSA officer who has singled you out as a risk that you are scared to fly.

What the TSA’s website fails to explain is what types of training these Behavior Detection Officers have received. There are pyschologists who spend their entire careers studying human behaviors and responses to fear. What have these TSA officers been taught? Who taught them?

Terrorists, one would imagine, are psychopaths. People who are detached from reality are more likely to be at peace with their dangerous decisions. A terrorist can act calmly going through security. A nervous flier or a traveler who is offended by be treated like a criminal will exhibit fear. At the end of the day, it seems that the presence of these Behavior Detection Officers will just make more innocent people nervous.

What will these Behavior Detection Officers find? Most likely, a lot of people who are scared to fly, hate the TSA or who just simply have overactive sweat glands.

Echo chainsaw commercial shows TSA at their worst

Echo power tools has a new television ad for their chainsaws that takes some liberties – though some would say not many – with the intimacy of TSA pat downs. The comical commercial features a man passing through airport security being subjected to a fairly aggressive, yet thorough, pat down of his crotch. Meanwhile, inattentive agents allow his chainsaw to pass through the X-ray machine undetected. He comments that, while he’s willing to put up with a lot of things, he requires that his chainsaw be reliable.

Is the commercial an exaggeration of how handsy TSA agents get during pat downs? Some would argue that they’ve seen way more ridiculous things happen at airport security checkpoints. All in all, it’s a pretty funny and topical ad.

What do you think? Is this a parody of what really happens during TSA pat downs or is it close to accurate? Share your thoughts in the comments.

“Gate rape” is Urban Dictionary’s Word of the Year. Thanks TSA!

tsa, TSA
TSA
patdowns have gotten a lot of coverage here on Gadling. The tragicomic lengths TSA officials go through to grab some booty keep us safe have created a whole Internet subculture of jokes and rage. There’s even a blog called The Daily Patdown to showcase pictures of security officials looking for the next underwear bomber.

Now the fine folks at Urban Dictionary have named “Gate Rape” as the Word of the Year for 2010. Nobody knows who coined this sadly appropriate phrase, but it’s catching on. For some reason people don’t liked getting groped, especially if they’re Indian diplomats. Perhaps we will be seeing civil and criminal suits for gate rape in the near future?

Urban Dictionary has lots of travel-related slang, such as Travel Nazi and Heather Poole’s greatest invention: Laviating!

Happy Christmahanakwanzaka everybody!

[Image courtesy TSA. You wouldn’t believe what I had to do to get it.]

Galley Gossip: Four year-old kid discusses airport security & TSA pat downs


The following video was created for parents traveling with small kids who might be a little nervous about subjecting their children to the new TSA procedures. Regardless of how you may feel about the new enhanced security measures, there’s no need for children to be scared. My son will explain to them what a pat down is and even share a few tips. But first a few things the TSA would like you to know about going through airport security with children…

  • TSA will screen everyone, regardless of age, including babies.
  • NEVER leave babies in an infant carrier while it goes through the X-ray.
  • All children must be removed from strollers and slings when passing through the machine.
  • All children’s items must go through the X-ray; diaper bags, toys, strollers, slings, etc.
  • If any of your items do not fit through the X-ray, a TSA officer will physically and visually inspect it.
  • If your child can walk through the metal detector unassisted, TSA recommends you and your child walk through separately.
  • Do not pass your baby to a TSA officer to hold as you walk through the X-ray machine.
  • If you choose to carry a child through and the alarm sounds, TSA will check both of you.
  • Medication, baby formula, food and breast milk, and juice are allowed in reasonable quantities exceeding 3.4 ounces, and are not required to be in a zip-top bag. Declare these items for inspection at the checkpoint.
  • Children under 12 who require extra screening will be subjected to a “modified” pat down. It’s less intrusive than what an adult might receive.
  • Click the link for information regarding children travelers with special needs or medical conditions.




Photo courtesy of Tatiana Mik