How to travel with your rights intact during the holidays

by Deborah Newell Tornello on November 28, 2011

Air travel in America–at any time of year–carries with it a certain amount of stress and worry no matter how well-prepared we are.

During the holidays, however, airports are routinely more crowded and travelers more harried, with weather events causing flight delays and global events often leading to frequent changes in security procedures that are almost impossible to keep up with (and, to be sure, that are inconsistently applied, further adding to the confusion).

Those of us who do not wish to give up our civil liberties in order to get from Point A to Point B might face additional delays.

The ACLU offers excellent guidelines for navigating airport security, but even they warn travelers that “opting out” of the notorious scanners, for example, will probably mean you’ll have to wait for an appropriate agent to be located (or freed up) in order to perform the also-notorious “enhanced pat-down”.  And if you decline to answer a question during the so-called SPOT interview, you may well be selected for secondary screening.  Meaning, more delay.

From their website:

OPTION: Decline to answer 

You can decline to answer questions or reply to each question politely with the simple words, “personal business.” However, if the TSA officer does not feel that you are answering his or her questions, they may select you for secondary screening.

Clearly, the vast majority of travelers are interested in getting to their destination (and out of that crowded, hectic airport!) as quickly and smoothly as possible.  Thus, the TSA dangles the carrot of convenience over our heads:  ”Just go through the scanner; it’s much quicker!” or else “If you refuse to answer more specifically, we’ll have to send you through secondary screening, which is currently backed up and could take…oh, another forty-five minutes to an hour, at least”.

Regardless of what your personal boundaries are when it comes to acceptable intrusions into your privacy, if you must travel by air, it makes sense to be as fully-informed about current security conditions as possible, and if you’re flying with medical devices, medicine, or breast milk, to print out the TSA’s own rules–you have the right to request that an office conduct a “visual inspection” — and carry them with you in case the agent you encounter doesn’t appear to be terribly well-versed in them.  (Although as observers will note, even doing just that–printing out the TSA’s rules for medicines and milk, etc., and carrying a copy with you–will not always prevent your being unfairly detained and seriously delayed, as this unfortunate working mother discovered.)

TSA Newsblogger Sommer Gentry has an excellent post that further details what the TSA can and cannot do.  She describes how she avoids the scanner machines in part by choosing her routes (and airports) carefully and provides a link to TSA Status, which is updated frequently (almost in real-time!) and lets travelers know which airports (and terminals) are using the scanners, and to what degree.

She further reminds us that:

Every traveler has a right to refuse TSA searches

If the TSA tries to do something to you that you find offensive, you should say no. Although the TSA has threatened travelers with fines and tried to argue that walking away isn’t permitted, in practice the TSA has no power other than the power to deny you access to the boarding gates. The police do have the power to detain you, but that requires individualized suspicion, something that you do not exhibit merely by purchasing an airline ticket.

Since the TSA has steadfastly refused to describe exactly what anyone might be subjected to at a checkpoint, many travelers will find themselves pressured to bow to unpredictable and unreasonable demands. For instance, a handful of flyers report being physically strip searched in private rooms, and some women were coerced to bare their breasts to male screeners in a stairwell – would you comply?

Protecting yourself from invasive searches requires only willingness to abandon your travel plans and make new ones. United Airlines was wonderful and rebooked me for a later flight the same day from Reagan Airport, where there are no scanners in Terminal A. The United employee who helped me even agreed with my stance, telling me that he thought the scanners were “not decent. They shouldn’t do that to people, it’s just not decent.”

To my mind, the best (and perhaps most difficult-to-follow) security-related travel advice of all is this sentence: Protecting yourself from invasive searches requires only willingness to abandon your travel plans and make new ones.

Which means, research other flight options well beforehand, if possible, and plan your day accordingly.  If you wish to avoid the scanners for privacy or health reasons (or both), build in plenty of extra time for the agency to locate that elusive special person to do the enhanced pat-down.  If you’re 100% opposed to being physically searched on certain parts of your body–and plenty of us are, for a number of reasons–understand that you may have to walk from that particular flight and take another one, perhaps from a different terminal or city, even.

As for me, I was thrilled to recently learn that Tampa has a lovely renovated and historic train station which is itself a “tourist destination”–where have I been?!–although I am not so thrilled to learn that the TSA has been conducting passenger searches and pat-downs, as part of the VIPR program, at Amtrak and bus stations too.  And John Pistole is pressuring Congress to add 12 more VIPR units to the current 25 in 2012.

That’s another post for another day.

Also at Litbrit.

(Photo: greyhound dad/Flickr)

Previous post:

Next post: