How to tell the TSA how to do its job – and how to get it to listen

pants on floor
If you’re afraid a TSA agent might bungle your screening when you fly somewhere this summer, maybe you should do what John Klapproth did when he was traveling from Seattle to Anchorage recently.

Like many air travelers, Klapproth declined to use the TSA’s full-body scanner, and was sent to a holding area for an “enhanced” pat-down.

“I told the TSA agent that was no problem,” he says. “I explained to him that I was a retired state corrections officer with 25 years experience doing pat-searches in a maximum security prison and knew what to expect. I also told him that I knew a proper pat-search could be performed without touching my genitals or anal areas and that I did not consent to be touched on either area.”

And guess what? The screening happened by the book.

“The result was a very proper and respectful pat-search conducted by the TSA agent,” says Klapproth. “It is a tactic that I will use in any future travels.”

As America gears up for the busy summer travel season, and some head to the airport, passengers are bound to ask how they can avoid an unpleasant screening experience. Is there anything they can say to ensure they won’t get unduly poked, frisked, prodded or microwaved?

Review the TSA’s written rules. The TSA spells out a lot of its own rules on its website. For example, if you’re confused about what kind of items can be brought on board, you can find out exactly what’s allowed at TSA.gov. I recommend you read these shortly before your flight, since they change from time to time, and often without much warning to the public. Note: The TSA is known to disregard its own rules from time to time — if it does, you’re well within your rights to politely point out the inconsistency.

Know what words can make a difference. Even though the TSA likes to pretend it isn’t in the customer service business, it actually is. The agency is processing thousands of passengers a day through security, and how it does so matters — if not to the agency, then to the passengers who ultimately pay for the agency. Simple words like “please” and “thank you” can ensure you’re treated with politeness and courtesy. (Then again, maybe not.) Being nice to your TSA agent shouldn’t be necessary in order to be respected, but it can’t hurt. And if that doesn’t work? Ask for a supervisor.

Know what you can’t argue. As tempting as it might be to debate the constitutionality or legality of the screening process with your screener, the airport isn’t the time or place to stage a protest. (At least not if you want to catch your flight.) Try the ballot box, instead. What you should know is that TSA screeners aren’t law enforcement officials, and they don’t have the ability to detain or arrest you. That is certainly an argument you can make if you run afoul of a screener. If you run into a problem you can ask the TSA to call the police.

To Klapproth’s specific goal, which is to ensure the most professional pat-down possible, I have a few suggestions. But first, let me say: The TSA shouldn’t be patting anyone down, ever. There are better, more dignified ways of screening passengers than treating them like inmates. It doesn’t matter that a narrow interpretation of federal law seems to support the manual searches; common sense tells you that these kinds of screening methods cross a line.

But I’ve stood where Klapproth has, and I can tell you what made a difference:

✓ Reading the agent’s name tag and saying, “Hello, [insert name of agent], how are you?”

✓ Refusing a private screening. There’s no telling what can happen behind closed doors.

✓ Being respectful. I realize you’re not in the military, but a “yes sir” and “no sir” keeps things polite and professional. And remember, your pat-down is being recorded.

✓ Your screener will ask if you have any injuries or medical conditions. “I’m not feeling well today,” will almost always ensure you’re going to get a light touch. The agents don’t want to catch what you have — whatever that is.

Bottom line? The TSA is far less likely to harass or detain someone who knows the rules and gives them no reason to hold them up. There’s a fine line between sucking up to the TSA — which I’m not advocating — and being cordial and professional. Klapproth says everything he did at SEA-TAC underscored the fact that “I was an informed traveler.”

And that seemed to do the trick.

  • Marie Shively

    I quit a job that required a lot of flying over year ago. But when I do fly, I do not greet the TSA goon, I do not say thank you after she has sexually assaulted me. I glare at them with as much loathing as I can express. I tell them I do not consent to their groping me but submit under protest to their unconstitutional search. I do not disclose any medical conditions to them because it is none of their damn business. Once i almost got arrested at the Burbank airport because I told my assailant her actions woudl be cause for her arrest if conducted anywhere but the airport. In short, I find the advice in this article ludicrous.

  • Robert Hollis Weber

    Chris: I’m normally a big fan, but you’ve written items like this a couple of times. I wish you’d stop. I cringe at the thought of where the civil rights movement would be today if you had been advising Rosa Parks.

    If the TSA were a rational organization, then maybe the rules of polite society would hold, but you cannot argue that their screening techniques, if not under color of government authority, would amount to anything other than sexual assault. I’m sure that some screeners mean well, but they are engaged in utterly repugnant acts that civilized people must not countenance.

    I firmly believe that we should NOT boycott the airports, we should, rather, fly as much as possible, and in the process take every opportunity to mock, shame, and ostracize the people who engage in these activities.

    I don’t say please and thank you; instead I point and laugh. If there has been an incident that week (when hasn’t there?) I make small talk: “I see that one of your co-workers felt up an old lady at JFK again this week. I bet that makes you proud.” I ask screeners how many toddlers they have groped.

    Some may think it’s juvenile, but I am on a mission to make every screener’s TSA job the most miserable entry on his resume. I want each and every one of them to be utterly ashamed of the entire carnival and the role he plays in it, however small.

    If I can send one TSA employee home in tears, then maybe he or she will have an idea how a breast cancer survivor feels. If I can be the proverbial last straw that makes one screener quit, then that’s one less person groping a disabled traveler. If I can provoke just one blue shirted drone to say to his boss, “you know, people really hate us,” then we’ve made a little progress.

    • Daisiemae

      This is what a true American patriot looks like.

  • Svensonon

    Try the ballot box, instead.

    Yeah, that’s worked great so far.

  • thajack

    Next time they ask me if I have any injuries or medical conditions I’m going to tell him I have advanced delusionary schizophrenia with involuntary narcissistic rage.

    • Daisiemae

      Hilarious! But the pizza box recruits will simply stare at you with their dumbfounded mouths hanging open.

  • RonBonner

    I posted the first message this morning after reading this piece. All I could think then was “Really?”.

    In my mind TSA represents the very worst a free country could create. Somehow with TSA our rights become nonexistent. Our Constitution no longer matters. Our freedoms inmaterial.

    How can a government agency operate without providing exact written rules to the public that we must comply with? How can knowing the invasiveness of a pat down compromised security? Why does the publics opinion about TSA procedures not matter? What kind of person would sign off on Enhanced Pat Downs of children, and yes I mean TSA Administrator John S. Pistole, and what kind of person would willingly do these Enhanced Pat Downs on children as part of their job?

    In my opinion there is no Honor or Integrity for those who work for TSA.

    I refuse to bow down to these people. They do not represent the America I believe in.

    • Daisiemae

      Preach it, Brother!

      • RonBonner

        I didn’t post a comment on Elliott’s site. Would probably result in a banning. I really can’t believe that Chris signed off on this piece. Disappointing if he did.

        • Daisiemae

          Yeah, I was a bit dismayed myself.

  • Susan Richart

    From today’s “edition” of Taking Sense Away, the insider’s dictionary:

    ““Splitting the upright”: Developed after the introduction of enhanced patdowns, refers to a screener’s hand coming off the leg during the search of the upper inner thigh and striking between the genitals, usually testicles, of the unfortunate victim, rather than remaining in contact with the leg until meeting resistance.”

    This would seem to indicate that genital contact is NOT part of the enhanced grope.

    http://takingsenseaway.wordpress.com/2013/05/29/letter-from-a-former-screener-new-entries-to-insiders-tsa-dictionary-combo-pack/

  • Daisiemae

    The idea of smiling, charming, and engaging the individual who is about to molest me totally creeps me out. It’s too reminiscent of how I had to charm a pedophile when I was ten years old so I could escape from him.

    Are we really reduced to having to charm low-level government employees in order to escape abuse from them?

  • http://www.facebook.com/sommer.gentry Sommer Gentry

    It’s hard for me to fathom, but after three years and millions of sexualized patdowns, there is still no clear answer to the obvious and very important question: “Will the TSA clerk intentionally touch my genitals during the patdown?” I’ve read literally hundreds and maybe even thousands of accounts of patdowns, and I have seen every variation on the theme. Some people say their genitals were never touched, as Klapproth says. Many, many people say that they felt a screener’s hands through their clothing touching their nipples, vulva, testicles, penis, or anus. Dozens of accounts reported that TSA screeners had painfully hit, grabbed, squeezed, twisted, or karate-chopped their genitals. A handful of accounts I read described being penetrated vaginally or anally. A screener penetrated me with a handheld metal detector, but that was in the era before the enhanced patdowns. The oxymoronically-titled TSA Privacy Officer Peter Pietra told me personally that yes, screeners are supposed to touch your genitals. But Chris Elliott has always maintained his belief that a proper patdown isn’t going to involve sexual touching.

    It’s irresponsible and dangerous for the TSA to allow this to go on year after year without clarifying publicly once and for all – does a patdown mean sexual contact or not?

    • http://tsanewsblog.com/10061/news/tsa-finally-holding-long-overdue-public-comment-period-on-scanners/ Lisa Simeone
    • TestJeff Pierce

      As I have posted before, the Jon Corbett detention case specifically includes TSA documentation of his incident, which the written reports by the STSO is clearly confirming that a “pat down” will include the groin (exact wording).

      There is no doubt as to the investigation of genitals IF the criminal pat down is performed following the TSA’s “secret orders”.

      None. Whatsover. Case closed.

  • Chris Bray

    My tactic is to radiate hostility — glowing, boiling contempt. It has never failed to produce hurried and sheepish patdowns.

    • http://tsanewsblog.com/10061/news/tsa-finally-holding-long-overdue-public-comment-period-on-scanners/ Lisa Simeone

      Love this idea as long as it works. Others have had the opposite experience. And then they’re blamed and lectured on how it was their “attitude” that caused the assault.

      • Chris Bray

        It may backfire someday, but so be it. Never, ever, ever will I say, “Hello, [insert name of agent], how are you?”

        Hello, pathetic stranger who is going to pointlessly fist my taint, how is your day going?

        Fuck that.

        • Daisiemae

          I totally agree with you, Chris. Although I could never bring myself to use that language in a public place to a stranger (Southern Belle, doncha know), it totally expresses what I feel inside.

          • Chris Bray

            The key is to be in control and to not use vulgarity. The response, “Yes, I understand what you’re about to do” can be made to sound precisely like “fuck your entire existence” if you do it right. I usually say two things in total, or sometimes three:

            1.) “I opt out.”

            2.) “Yes, I understand what you’re about to do.”

            And sometimes, in the middle:

            3.) “I do not want my carry-on luggage to be taken out of my sight.”

            Formal cooperation, coupled with facial expressions and tone that communicate deep loathing. It makes your point, but without giving them an explicit act to use against you.

            I decline to be deprived of my ability to travel quickly and conveniently. I give a shit if some sad sack touches my balls. But I won’t do the “surrender pose” for the Rape-scanner, and I won’t be polite to the American Pizza Box Stasi.

          • Daisiemae

            I really admire your style.

          • anc1entmar1ner

            Right Chris. I may be ancient, but I can still hold him with my
            glittering eye, as the poet said so well. Make sure your groper knows
            that he is beneath contempt and has no power over you. Say as little as possible verbally, but make sure he knows exactly what you think of him.

          • Chris Bray

            You would think a professional groper would already have a poor sense of self-esteem, but it never hurts to pile on.

    • IWonder39

      Being under 6′, older, and female “glowing, boiling contempt” is more likely to cause laughter than sheepish patdowns. But more power to you, big guy.

      • Chris Bray

        I have personally seen Joyce Appleby make a grown man cry, so I have to disagree.

    • nveric

      Strong body odor(s) ?

  • Daisiemae

    They left John Klapproth alone because they were afraid of him. I don’t see how that helps the rest of us.

  • http://tsanewsblog.com/10061/news/tsa-finally-holding-long-overdue-public-comment-period-on-scanners/ Lisa Simeone

    “The TSA is far less likely to harass or detain someone who knows the rules and gives them no excuse to let them pass through security.”

    Sorry, Chris. Dream on.

  • RonBonner

    Yeah, suck up to TSA, that’ll take care of everything. Want a helping of ass kissing to go with the suck up?