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Subject:  My TSA horror story Date:  6/30/2012  5:23 PM
Author:  salaryguru Number:  43825 of 117400

I am generally supportive of strict airport security. I believe that full body scanners are a good thing and wish they were in more widespread use. Although I consider web sites leaving cookies on my computer or screening employees for AIDS an invasion of privacy, I am comfortable with TSA running full body scans of everyone who is going to board a plane with me. I feel this way because I know that there really are people out there who want to terrorize America and who have focused on airplanes as a significant part of their weaponry. As TSA has developed new screening techniques, they have developed more sophisticated ways to bring weapons on-board. They've moved from box-cutters to shoe bombs to underwear bombs and are working on bombs that cannot be detected by full-body scanners. The people who want to inflict terror on America have been persistent in their attempts to kill innocent travelers. Making things more difficult for them by requiring me to submit to inspections and screening is a trade-off I'm willing to accept.

But, I really do think we need some sort of check-and-balance to keep TSA from abusing their power. Here's a story of what happened to SGSpouse and me yesterday.

SGSpouse and I arrived at Logan airport in Boston significantly early for our 7:00 PM flight. We got back from sight-seeing early and decided we might as well wait at the airport rather than in the lobby of the Westin.

SGSpouse has seriously injured her knees and currently wears knee braces on both legs. Seeing the braces, a TSA agent signaled for us to come around to a shorter line for security screening - the line they have for crew and for 1st class passengers. We are both thinking that this is a good thing. But the crew line does not have a full body scanner like the other lines. Instead, they have only the conventional metal detector, an X-ray monitor for baggage and belongings, and a machine that swabs belongings and analyzes trace chemicals for explosive residue. So here's what happens: SGSpouse's knee braces, of course, trigger the metal detector. In the absence of a full body scanner, this marks her for swab and analyze. Apparently they also decided that all of her carry-on and belongings needed to be re-X-rayed. I can see no obvious reason for this. The swab and analyze machine indicates a positive response. The woman running it then tests a rubber glove fresh from the wrapper and finds that the machine also indicates a positive. She tests every item within her reach and each one triggers positive. She, the last sane person we are to encounter during this ordeal, recognizes that something is wrong with the machine so she calls her supervisor over. He goes away and supposedly consults a procedure manual. He shuts down the swab and analyze machine since it obviously is not working correctly, but tells us that SGSpouse has triggered a new level of security procedure and must wait for a higher level supervisor to come and conduct a strip search. Meanwhile, all of SGSpouses belongings have been routed back, not to the X-ray machine we came through, but split up and routed through 3 different X-ray machines. They all, again, show no problem, but some of our belongings have been spilled and scattered all over the inspection station. We are not allowed to go back and collect these items, but are forced to watch as TSA agents wad and stuff things back into our luggage in random fashion. Twenty or thirty minutes after our being sent to the head of the line, a female TSA agent with enough rank to conduct strip searches shows up and takes SGSpouse into a room to examine her. She, of course, finds nothing. She discusses the swab and analyze machine and agrees that it should remain off-line until they can get it repaired. They have a second machine in another line, but it started producing false positives earlier in the day and has not been used for awhile. The TSA supervisor decides that they have to turn it on and swab and analyze SGSpouses bag with the machine that was previously found to be faulty in order to clear her. . . It tests positive again, as does a sterile rubber glove and everything else they test. But now we have triggered another level of security inspection and they begin to unpack every item in SGSpouse's carry-on and swab it individually. Everything is testing positive, which spirals us deeper and deeper into more detailed inspection procedures. I try to point out that the only thing that has gotten us to this point is two machines that TSA clearly knows are not working and have now taken off-line. I ask if we can leave and go back into the normal line for security to submit to full body scans which will clearly show whether explosives are on us or not. They have a solution that they are using on passengers while we are being held hostage, but they won't use it. Each appeal to common sense is met with anger and threats to arrest us. There are about 4 or 5 TSA agents who are clearly getting off on treating us like terrorists and being verbally abusive and condescending. I get the feeling that at least two or three of them are trying to provoke us so they can arrest us. Keep in mind that SGSpouse and I were born and have lived our entire lives in the US. We are not exotic looking in any way. We are in no way imposing. We are in our late 50's. I'm 5'8" and SGSpouse is 5'6". Both of us have worked much of our engineering careers with security clearances.

After a little over an hour, someone shows up at the gate who actually knows how to use the swab and analyze equipment. They re-calibrate one of the machines and after re-swabbing every item in SGSpouse's carry-on, we are cleared to go to the gates. Total elapsed time to get through security was 1 hour 20 minutes.

SGSpouse started making some calls today to report the incident and suggest that if that really was "procedure" then we had uncovered serious flaws in that procedure, and if it were not "procedure" then someone should be disciplined and corrected. You can guess what she was met with. We are the enemy. By definition, we are wrong and TSA was correct and only making America safe. If we get abused, it is a small price to pay for airline safety from terrorists. There is no place to appeal - no authority that checks TSA abuse. They could have arrested us, made us miss our flight, and cost us thousands in legal fees and transportation back to Boston to fight it in court. We are supposed to feel lucky that this did not happen.

Somehow I don't feel that lucky.
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