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]

Galley Gossip: A question about moving from coach to first class when there are open seats

Dear Heather,

I love your blog, I always wanted to be a flight attendant but was told by many I’m probably too short so now I’m going for an Air Traffic Controller job. But I do have a question for you. On the past 4 flights I was on I was stuck in the middle seat because no window seats were available and I can’t sit in the aisle. But I was stuck in between to large passengers that had to keep the arm rest up because they were to large to fit in the seat with it down. There were open seats in 1st class and none in coach on all the flights but on all the flights but one the flight attendant said there’s nothing they could do. Was there really nothing they could do or did they just not want to deal with it, and I should add these were not short flights, 2 were Chicago to Phoenix and 1 was Phoenix to Charlotte, and the one the flight attendant did move me to 1st was JFK to Phoenix.

Melissa

Dear Melissa,

I’m so happy to hear you like the blog. Thank you. First I must congratulate you on choosing an amazing career path in the aviation industry. I’ve always been in awe of those who work in air traffic control. As for being too short to become a flight attendant, height requirements may differ between airlines. The airline I work for requires a flight attendant to be tall enough to reach into the overhead bin and grab the emergency equipment located inside.

Your question brought back memories. I had just started my career as a flight attendant when I found myself walking down the aisle on a flight from New York to Los Angeles, after pushing back from the gate, only to find two passengers standing up and fighting over the same seat in coach.

“You need to take your seats!” I’m sure I had said.

“There are no other seats!” one of them probably said, because it was a full flight and what I didn’t know at the time was we were one seat short.

Remember, this happened before we had that computer in the terminal that scans your ticket prior to boarding, which explains why we not only had a seat dupe that day, but why we also had one passenger too many onboard the aircraft. Did I happen to mention we had already left the gate? We were moving on the tarmac! Immediately I called the flight attendant in first class, who spoke to the captain, who told the flight attendant in charge to tell me to move a passenger up to first class and fast! There were open seats available.

“Oh, okay,” I remember saying, as I thought to myself, WOW, I’m about to make someones day!

Quickly I walked up the aisle, looking for someone, anyone, dressed nice enough to sit in first class. Don’t forget, this was thirteen years ago and people dressed a tad bit better, and ticket prices were more than a tad bit expensive, and we were taxiing out on the tarmac, remember! So I was feeling a tad bit panicky. I stopped at the first passenger I found wearing a business suit. What can I say, he looked the part.

As we made our way to first class, I noticed a few flight attendants and passengers looking at us curiously. “Here’s your seat,” I told the nice man, who had become even nicer upon finding out he’d be traveling in first class.

After takeoff the phone rang. It was the Captain. He wanted to speak to me. In person. Oh god, I remember thinking, what now?

Slowly I walked to the cockpit. I knocked on the door. Two seconds later I stood looking at the back of a very full head of wavy blond hair, a head of hair I had seen being combed quite thoroughly minutes before departure. The nicely combed hair turned and a thick mustache looked at me.

“Have a seat,” the captain said, and he said this very seriously.

I gulped. Plopping down in the jumpseat behind the first officer, I remember thinking, this is not going to be good.

It wasn’t.

As the Captain scolded me for moving a coach passenger to first class, instead of moving a business class passenger to first class AND THEN moving a coach passenger to business class, all I could do was stare at the stache as it bounced up and down and spoke to me in a very nasty tone. “You know I should probably report you for this!”

“Really?”

“Really.”

What I wanted to say was, Seriously? Because I mean seriously? It was a mistake. Granted, a very big one. Instead I said something like, “Please don’t! I didn’t know. I’ll never do it again!”

Scared and embarrassed, I walked out of the cockpit, clicking the door shut behind me, not joining the other (more senior) flight attendants in the galley for a chat. About me. And my stupidity. And walked back to my post in coach, head hung low. I just…well…it had never occurred to me to do the whole song and dance while we were moving on the tarmac. Remember, I was new. And stupid.

But I never did do stupid again.

Now that I’ve been flying thirteen years and spend a lot of time working in business class, I know just how precious (and expensive) those first and business class seats are. Our frequent fliers put their names on a standby list days before the flight for those oh so precious (and expensive) seats. That list has a tendency to get very long. Each passengers knows exactly where their name is on that list. Don’t believe me? On your next flight ask a passenger sitting in the exit row what number they are on the list. You’ll see. And trust me when I tell you that no one is going to bump in front of one of those names on that list, no matter how miserable you are in coach.

Recently I worked a flight that was delayed because one of our frequent fliers got bumped from coach to business ahead of another frequent flier, a frequent flier who was not going to let that happen, who did not let that happen, and who found herself and her bright red power suit in the business class seat half an hour later. Good for her. Hey, it was her seat. Needless to say, bumping from one cabin to another isn’t as easy as it sounds.

Even if there are open seats onboard.

From day one it is drilled into the flight attendants head to respect each cabin, as well as the cabin service. That means if a passenger in business class is traveling with someone in coach, we can not allow the business class passenger to take any business class items to coach. Why? Because the companion paid for coach. Not business. It doesn’t matter if the business class passenger is not going to eat the dessert or watch the movie. And yes, it is a big deal to cross cabins. No, I am not being mean. I’m just doing my job. Abusing my power? What power? Okay, please stop arguing with me. And please, whatever you do, do not try to hide it under your shirt and sneak it to the back when I disappear from your sight! Don’t do it because I already know you’re going to do it. I’m watching you. (Even when I’m not watching you.)

Now to answer Melissa’s question (finally!) about getting stuck between two large people in coach. I’m sorry to hear that happened, and not just once, but three times! Unfortunately there really was nothing your flight attendants could do if there were no seats available in coach. Even if there were open seats in first class. They were not being mean. It’s not that they didn’t care. I’m sure they felt terrible for you. But flight attendants can get into a lot of trouble for moving you to a first class seat without doing it in the proper manner. Unfortunately the proper manner requires a credit cart. Who would know? We have “ghost riders” onboard who watch us to make sure this sort of thing does not happen. As for the time you were moved up to first class, I’d chalk it up to good luck and not count on that happening again. I do not know many flight attendants who would have done such a thing.

Of course it’s not fair that you paid for a seat and did not get to sit comfortably in that seat on your flight, so my advice to you would be to write the airline a letter and explain to them what happened. I’m sure they will compensate you somehow, someway. If this happens to you again, make sure to tell the flight attendant while you’re still on the ground. That’s when something can be done – if at all possible. Or take it a step farther and talk to the agent at the gate. The gate agent is the one with the power to move you, not the flight attendant.

I hope your next flight is a better one.

Heather Poole

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PHOTOS COURTESY OF: (business class) Pat+, (first class passenger) Ammar Abd Rabbo, (Crew) Jfithian