Is anyone really listening to your TSA complaints?

Medhi
With only a few weeks left to leave your comments about the TSA’s controversial passenger screening methods, here’s a question worth asking: Is anyone listening?

If you said, “not really,” then maybe you know Theresa Putkey, a consultant from Vancouver. She had a run-in with a TSA agent recently after trying to opt out of a full-body scan, and sent a complaint letter to the agency assigned to protect America’s transportation systems.

Here’s the form response from the TSA:

Thank you for your e-mail regarding the rude behavior you experienced from a Transportation Security Officer (TSO).

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) regrets any unprofessional treatment you may have experienced.

TSA seeks to provide a high level of security and customer service to all passengers who pass through our screening checkpoints. Every person and item must be screened before entering the secured area, and the way the screening is conducted is important.

Our policies and procedures focus on ensuring that all passengers are treated with dignity, respect, and courtesy.

Please be advised that a passenger can always request to speak with the Supervisory Transportation Security Officer at the checkpoint to address any complaint regarding screening procedures.

Because your complaint concerns an incident that occurred at a specific airport, we have forwarded a copy of your letter to the appropriate Customer Service Manager.

We hope this information is helpful.

TSA Contact Center

Actually, it wasn’t. The form response failed to acknowledge her complaint, and she hasn’t heard anything from the agency since then.

Now, don’t get me wrong: Form letters can be a helpful way for a company or agency to send the same information to many people with the identical question. But Putkey had a specific complaint, and she was hoping for a specific response ā€” if not an apology, then a promise to investigate.

“I’m still waiting, ” she says.

“I’m writing my congressman”

If you think contacting your member of Congress will get better results, then talk to Craig Szwed, a photographer based in Hartford, Conn. He recently complained to his representative about the constitutional violations committed by TSA screeners and received the following boilerplate response:

Thank you for contacting me regarding Transportation Security Administration (TSA). I appreciate your comments and having the benefit of your views. As a frequent flyer myself, I understand your frustration with the security screening process.

After the tragic events of September 11, 2001, our nation began a much needed overhaul of the security procedures involved in air travel. Included among these necessary reforms were increased screening of passengers, cargo and aircraft personnel. Additionally, precautions including the securing of the cockpit were undertaken to further ensure the safety of the aircraft and those on board. In order to ensure the safety and security of both passengers, crew and others, the US Congress passed the Aviation and Transportation Security Act (PL 107-71), which was signed into law by President George W. Bush. Among the provisions in this legislation was the creation of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) within the Department of Transportation. Oversight of the TSA was then transferred to the Department of Homeland Security in March 2003 after the Passage of the Homeland Security Act of 2002 (PL 107-296).

TSA is responsible for the security screening of approximately 1.8 million air travelers that pass through more than 450 airports each day. TSA officers are charged with ensuring passengers do not carry prohibited items. As a result, TSA employees are required by law to check both passengers and luggage for banned items. In order to prepare customers for the security screening process, a list of banned items is provided by both airlines and TSA in a variety of ways: on their websites, in announcements over public address systems at airports, and in posted signs throughout the security screening area. These items include weapons, lighters, and certain liquids. Passengers must comply with these rules in order to gain access to airport terminals and aircraft. While these rules are strict and often inconvenient, they help to ensure that our transportation systems are safe and secure.

In your letter you voiced concern that this screening process was a violation of your constitutional rights. But the Fourth Amendment, along with most of the Constitution, does not apply in the airport the same way it does in most public spaces. The courts have found that airline passengers also consent to be searched when they choose to fly. Federal law requires commercial airline passengers to be searched prior to boarding a plane and airlines cannot transport any passenger who refuses. Over the past 40 years, the courts have upheld the constitutionality of airport security screenings as part of an overall regulatory effort to prevent hijackings and other terrorist activity.

The Supreme Court has ruled that blanket suspicionless searches are allowed in the airport as long as terrorism poses a risk to public safety. Of course, it is worth noting that the government’s right to search citizens in an airport is not unlimited. The government must show a clear need or immediate danger to justify the level of intrusion imposed on passengers. According to the Ninth Circuit, airport searches must be no more extensive or intensive than necessary, in light of current technology, to detect the presence of weapons or explosives.

Oversight steps have also been taken in order to prevent overreach by an individual screener or the agency itself. TSA has an independent mechanism for passengers to file complaints. The independence of this mechanism is then periodically audited and reported on by the US Government Accountability Office (GAO). Congress also has taken steps to increase transparency and serve as an oversight mechanism itself. This is most often done during FAA authorization measures where legislative language is inserted to ensure civil liberties and privacy concerns are adequately addressed.

Again, thank you for sharing your views on this issue with me. Should you have any additional comments or suggestions, please do not hesitate to contact me in the future.

This form letter apparently isn’t unique to one representative. Versions of it have reportedly been sent out by other elected officials.

What’s so telling about the email is the kicker.

“Please do not respond to this email as this mailbox is not monitored,” it says.

In other words, it’s a lecture, not a debate.

As to the form email itself, Szwed calls it “platitudes and excuses” and I can understand why. It suggests no one is paying attention to his complaints, and that even if someone did, it wouldn’t make a difference.

But a debate is exactly what Americans want, and deserve. They never had a chance to sound off on the TSA’s screening practices, which were imposed on them almost five years ago, and now, thanks to a court decision, they will finally get one.

Isn’t it time for the decision-makers in the security process to start listening, too?

  • Chris Bray

    True story: I sent six written complaints to the TSA over the course of several years. Long silence followed. Then, one day in my mailbox: a batch of six vaguely worded and precisely identical response letters.

  • RonBonner

    If TSA just spend an ounce of energy on dealing with complaints instead of using all available resources to attack and abuse the public screening would still be uncomfortable but at least somewhat more tolerable.

    I think the whole problem goes back to Pistole and his total incompetence as head of TSA.

    Why are taxpayers paying his salary?

  • TSAisTerrorism

    ā€œIā€™m still waiting, ā€ she says.

    Well, she’s going to keep waiting. I’ve been waiting for 3 years for a response from SAN about why all of the male screeners were sent on break after my declaration to opt out so that I could wait an extra long time for them to return and rub my groin. Meanwhile the WTMD was opened twice but I was not allowed through because I had “already opted out”.

    I’ve been waiting 2 years for a response from ATL to explain why a screener’s entire hand was inserted into my pants to “clear my waistband”.

    I’ve been waiting 7 years for someone from PHX to tell me why George at the TSA there decided to toss my medically necessary contact lens solution because I didn’t need any on a flight to SFO.

    I guess I’ll just keep waiting, though I know TSA doesn’t give a sh*t about anybody. Not even themselves. What a sad group of morons.

  • anc1entmar1ner

    As a chronic complainer myself, I can vouch for the fact that TSA sends out form letters when they bother to respond at all. The same goes for lawmakers. However, in the case of elected officials, they or their staff do count their mail even if they send a form letter in response.

    My dream is that my congressman will someday receive enough complaints about TSA to actually start paying attention, but at least so far the number is too small to expect any action. Only when more people get angry enough to actually communicate will our reps pay attention.

    I only wish that the Fourth Amendment had the kind of attack-dog organization behind it that the Second Amendment has. Until that time I fully expect more form letters in my future.

    And speaking of complaints, here are this morning’s numbers from regulations.gov on the AIT porn-o-scanners:

    Total comments posted: 2024

    Against AIT: 1874 (92.58%)
    Pro AIT: 138 (6.81%)
    Neutral or undetermined: 12 (0.59%)

    Keep those cards and letters coming!

    • I’m seeing 3,849 comments received. Where are you seeing only 2,024?

      • anc1entmar1ner
        • Ah, okay. This is what I’m seeing on the main page:

          3,849 Comments Received*

          *The total reflects comments received from Regulations.gov and other means as of 11:59 PM yesterday. All comments received may not be posted at this time including bulk submissions; therefore, the total comments received and posted may differ.

      • Susan Richart

        OK, so 2 days ago, 3,849 comments had been received.

        Today the website says 3,607 comments have been received.

        What happened to those 242 comments?

        http://www.regulations.gov/#!documentDetail;D=TSA-2013-0004-0001

        • EdB

          The TSA deleted them because they were over the 3.5 oz rule and contained terrorist materials like breast milk.

        • I don’t know. Maybe some of them were duplicates. Or who knows. All I know is that 3,000 comments out of a population of 300,000,000 is .001%. A pathetic, telling number. One-thousandth of one percent. Meaning that most people in this country don’t give a shit.

          Yes, I know that even people who do give a shit aren’t going to bother posting a comment. So yeah, you could say that there are many more people in this country who don’t approve of sexual assault and robbery at the airport. But so what? If they’re not willing to speak up, nothing will change.

          • EdB

            When calculating the number of possible people to comment, of that 300,000,000 number, is that the general population you used or the ones with Internet access? And of the ones with access, how many even know about it? I only know because it was mentioned in the blog. I have not seen anything about through any news sources. I just see it as another TSA secret rule. They had to open up for comments but are doing their best to keep it hush-hush.

          • Ed, all good points. Yes, I’m using a rough number for the population of the U.S.

            Alas, I think that even if every citizen in the country knew about it, there’d still be only a piddling number of people commenting.

          • Susan Richart

            I agree – how many even know about it.

            It’s mind-boggling how many people in this country are totally oblivious. Every day people show up at airports with full bottles of shampoo or large tubes of toothpaste and are astounded when those items are confiscated.

            And speaking of being totally oblivious and shampoo: has anyone seen the commercial where a woman on a plane goes into the head and pulls a full size bottle of shampoo out of her bag?

            Now, I wonder if that is a commentary on the ridiculousness of the 3.5 oz rules or whether the person(s) who wrote the commercial don’t know that the bottle was verboten.

          • EdB

            Reality has no place in advertising. If advertisers worked in reality, no one would buy the product being hyped.

  • Susan Richart

    WRT to Rulemaking, after making a comment, you will receive a tracking number. Please make a screenshot of that tracking number and save it. I submitted comments on or about April 23 and although the tracking number indicates that the comment has been received it is still not posted.

    I note today that over 50% of comments received have finally been posted. That’s a bit better than the 37% it was running at last week.

    WRT writing congresscritters, I get the exact same response every time from one of my reps, another doesn’t bother to respond at all and the third, sends a response that says absolutely nothing. Tells me that neither the reps themselves nor their aides even bother to read what we send.

    In the past I have contended and I still do that the TSA write their responses for them and I think this column proves it.