Random, unpredictable airport security that’s not always awful? Only in America

plane and fence
The TSA screening area at Reno-Tahoe International Airport’s B gates isn’t much to look at. It’s a dark, cavernous processing area with well-worn linoleum floors that almost makes you feel like you’re visiting a relative in prison.

But looks can be deceiving. I just had the best TSA screening experience in Reno, and I’m not alone. On a recent Monday morning, my entire family transited through Terminal B, and they could scarcely believe they’d been checked by federal screeners.

The TSA checkpoint at Denver International Airport looks like it’s something straight out of a science fiction movie. It’s a gleaming hall with the newest technology, including an array of shiny new body scanners. It’s the kind of place where you’d expect to find a modern, friendly, and efficient screening.

Yet here, too, all is not as it seems: A few days ago, I had the single worst screening experience of my life. I still can’t believe what happened.

The two TSAs

In America, there are two TSAs: one that understands its real mission and seems to respect the dignity of its passengers, and another that’s operating under the mistaken belief that it’s the last line of defense against terrorism and that it can break a few laws, and trample on the US Constitution, to get the job done.

You can experience both today, with the apparent blessing of the Department of Homeland Security. Why? Because the government encourages “random and unpredictable” airport security, which means that it’s in the TSA’s best interests to have one airport that passengers actually like and another that’s universally hated.

No one ever said this would make sense.

Best little checkpoint in Reno

When we arrived at the Terminal B screening area in Reno, we were prepared for the worst. But the line moved quickly, and within less than a minute, we were standing in front of a TSO who greeted everyone with a friendly and genuine smile.

“Looks like you guys have been in the mountains,” he said. Our sunburned faces had given us away.

Another screener checked our boarding passes and waved us through quickly. There are no full-body scanners at Terminal B, which doesn’t seem to bother anyone. (And surprisingly, no terrorists have exploited that little loophole — makes you wonder about the deterrent power of those scanners, doesn’t it?)

After getting our bags scanned, a screener asked my 10-year-old son, Aren, what was inside his bag.

Oops. Turns out he’d left his laptop in his luggage by mistake. But the agent examining his bag didn’t scold him; in fact, he cracked a joke about what else he might have packed.

“Got any Tasmanian Devils in there?” he kidded.

“Uh, no,” Aren replied.

Within less than three minutes, the backpack had been rescreened and we were on our way.

“Wow,” said Aren. “They were really friendly.”

Indeed. The Reno TSAers won the airport of the year award back in 2010, which suggests we aren’t the only ones who like their work.

1-pat downMissed it by a mile in Denver

Our experience in Denver couldn’t have been any different. The pre-screening area is a confusing maze of ropes and missed cues. The agent asking for our ID tried to joke around with the kids, but his humor fell flat.

“And who are you?” he said to my six-year-old daughter, studying her ticket.

My daughter, who gets a little shy around strangers, said nothing. Mom and I answered for her, which only seemed to ratchet up the tension.

Then we were ushered into the screening area: a baggage X-ray, a metal detector, and a body scanner. The TSA has a state policy of not separating families and isn’t supposed to ask young children to go through the body scanners, so it typically allows the whole family to walk through the metal detector at the same time.

But not this time. I was the last one through, and an angry-looking female TSA agent with a military-style haircut gestured me toward the full-body scanners.

“I’d prefer not,” I said.

“MALE ASSIST!” she screamed, refusing to turn to me.

“You are separating me from my family,” I said, politely.

She refused to look at me, instead staring straight ahead, like a schoolgirl giving you the silent treatment.

My “male assist” screener was not gentle. On several occasions, he nearly pulled down my pants. He also forcefully grabbed my ankles, where I had an injury. I winced. That didn’t seem to bother him.

For some reason, a second TSA screener began hovering around us. I have no idea why. Maybe they recognized me? Maybe they just enjoyed watching a colleague perform an “enhanced” pat-down?

I asked my son to take pictures of the event (see photo, above).

Do I look like I’m about to blow up a plane? I don’t know…with that shirt and ski pants, I look like I’m ready for a day on the slopes, not someone about to embark on a glorious jihad.

The experience left me a little traumatized. I mean, I don’t really care if the entire Denver airport screening area sees my tighty whities, but I really felt as if the screeners were just harassing me instead of protecting America’s transportation systems.

There’s a word for that: security circus. It’s an eye-pleasing spectacle that doesn’t make any sense.

(And please spare me your inevitable comments about pressure-cooker bombers at marathons, which has absolutely nothing to do with airport security. Even if it did, would you really want mobile TSA teams scanning and frisking people at the next public race?)

It might be hyperbole to suggest that the TSA is at war with itself, that a small number of good screeners are fighting the incompetence and arrogance of a larger group of bad screeners.

But if nothing else, my own experience suggests this agency could benefit from a little more transparency. And consistency.

We know, for example, that some of the New York-area airports are cesspools of TSA troubles, with corruption, thievery, and botched pat-downs in the news regularly. We also know that the government rates its own airports and compares their scores to other airports.

Don’t we deserve to know which airports have the best TSA agents?

One thing seems clear: If every TSA screening were like the one we recently had in Denver, I would be writing about the TSA every day instead of just once a week.

And if it were like the one we experienced in Reno, I would probably never have to write about the agency again. Except, maybe, to commend them on a job well done.

  • Jackie

    Last week our family took our first “airplane” vacation since my 13 year old son started wearing an insulin pump. I read up on all his rights and had a letter in hand from the doctor explaining no xray whatsoever. I had myself scared silly and anxious for him. I am thankful to report the TSA in both Seattle and LAX were very nice and casual about it not making it a “big deal”. Neither airport forced any of our family members through the scanners.

    • I am glad to hear that your experience was benign, but I think your worries were and are justified. I believe the situation was simple for you because the screeners likely assumed your son was 12 and all 12-and-unders go through metal detectors with their families. I worry, for your sake, as your son gets older.

    • Daisiemae

      Sixteen-year-old Savannah Barry was not as lucky. Savannah requested a pat down. She showed TSA her doctor’s note instructing her not to go into a scanner.

      TSA forced her into a scanner anyway because she was carrying a juice box to control her sugar levels. After the scan, they forced her to have a pat down anyway…which is what she requested to start with.

      Afterwards, the manufacturer told her that they could not guarantee that the pump was functioning properly. The pump had to be replaced. And these pumps, as you know, are extremely expensive.

      And then we have the case of the diabetic pistol at LAX. TSA thought a woman’s diabetic pump was a pistol. They let her go through the checkpoint with no problem. (Think about that. They thought it was a gun and they let her go through.) After some considerable time had passed, they called the police and told them a woman had passed through the checkpoint with a gun.

      The police searched the airport and found the woman. They forced her back to the checkpoint where she was thoroughly examined this time. Thank God the woman made no sudden movements since the police thought she was armed and dangerous. This story could have had a very tragic ending.

      I’m glad that you did not have a problem this time. That is no guarantee for next time. The inconsistency of TSA is the point of this article. You have no way of knowing whether you will have a problem…no matter what precautions you take.

      Fortunately, this time you encountered sensible people who did not have an agenda. Next time, who knows? You might encounter idiots or tyrannical sadistic despots.

      And you have no recourse if you do have a problem. TSA can do anything they want to anybody they want any time they want. You are completely at their mercy.

  • Jeremy Smith

    Denial? Is that what you think of anyone who doesn’t agree with you? The key to creating an ongoing discussion is accepting that other people’s opinion are somewhat valid. Just because he thinks TSA is redeemable doesn’t mean he is in denial.

    • Susan Richart

      Who/what are you responding to? Your post makes no sense whatsoever.

      • Susan, I think he’s responding to Marie Shively and me. See earlier comments in this thread.

        • Susan Richart

          I knew that, Lisa, just me being perverse again. 🙂 You know, when one gets to be a certain age, one has an opportunity to say whatever she/he pleases.

  • “…an array of shiny new body scanners.”

    That should have tipped you off in advance, Chris.

  • TJ

    “Do I look like I’m about to blow up a plane? I don’t know…with that shirt and ski pants, I look like I’m ready for a day on the slopes, not someone about to embark on a glorious jihad.”

    It sounds like the author wants the TSA to profile Does anyone else think that this would be a bad idea?

    • Kitten

      The TSA already profiles. If you are female, traveling alone, you are a target. If you have medical special needs, you are a target. If you are elderly, you are a target. And on and on.

      • TJ

        Profiling is not permitted by US law. I am not denying the different peoples’ experiences. I am simply saying it is a bad idea to suggest that “you” are not a terrorist because “you” don’t look like a terrorist. If we go down that route, what is there to stop a terrorist group from using a terrorist that looks just like “you”?

        • TJ, I don’t think you’ll find any of us at TSA News (well, the writers anyway) disagreeing with you. I think Chris was making a wisecrack about how the TSA looks at everyone as a potential terrorist. We’re all assumed to be criminals. You’re quite right, of course, that the kind of crude profiling that many Americans are in favor of — “oh, look, Big Scary Swarthy Person!” — is stupid, pointless, and abusive.

          • RB

            Well I think TSA should profile, they should profile themselves as the thugs, criminals, sex perverts, murderers, drug dealers, and whatever else TSA is, because TSA is certainly not a security agency.

            The only acceptable answer in my mind is to remove TSA from the face of the planet!

  • Marie Shively

    I used to fly nearly every week round rip for business. I have since quit that job because I got fed up with the 2x weekly sexual assaults performed on me by the TSA. Denver was one of the worst airports for TSA thuggery.

    • Marie, one of our writers here, Wendy Thomson, also had to give up her career because of the incessant assaults by the TSA.

      Unbelievable to me that we have to be having this discussion. Even more unbelievable that millions of Americans ignore what’s going on and choose to live in denial.

      • Marie Shively

        Yes, it is amazing the amount of denial. I once pointed out to a fellow passenger that she was more likely to be killed while driving to the store to get a quart of milk rather than by a terrorist attack on a plane and she treated me as if I were the terrorist.

  • Svensterobster

    “Don’t we deserve to know which airports have the best TSA agents?”

    No, we deserve an airport with no TSA agents at all.

    Frankly, the author puzzles me. He rails the TSA on performing their security circus, but his fix for that is what? That the circus performers…smile more?

    The issue most of us have with the TSA is not that they don’t know how to joke with kids. The issue is that the TSA uses invasive, illegal procedures that strip all of us Americans of our rights.

    The job the do is evil. And it doesn’t matter one bit if they smile or not, while doing it.

    • Daisiemae

      Smiling just makes it more horrifying. Many predators and sexual assailants smile as they perform their “work.” I can attest to this from personal experience.

      One of the most chilling things I have ever seen in my life was the video of six-year-old Anna Drexel being “patted down” by a TSA screener in New Orleans…after a very upset Anna said she did not want to do this. The moment when the screener stroked Anna’s hair and said, smilingly, “Pretty hair!” sent chills down my spine.

      It felt like I had stepped back in time to when I was 10 years old. The pedophile who molested me smiled in just that same way and had similar “compliments” for me.

      No! Smiling does not make TSA’s abuse any better. It makes it worse.