Flying while female? 5 things to remember at the airport

On her last four trips through U.S. airport security, Anita Nagelis says she’s been pulled aside and subjected to a more thorough search by TSA agents, including an aggressive pat-down.

Nagelis, who works for a nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C., doesn’t know why. She never set off a metal detector, isn’t on a no-fly list, and no suspicious items are ever discovered in her luggage.

“It’s so odd,” she says. “I don’t fit the profile.”

Or does she?

Even though the TSA and other organizations that handle transportation-related security claim they don’t engage in profiling, they are known to single out certain passengers, a vast majority of whom pose zero security threat.

One of their favorite targets are womenattractive women.

The most famous incident happened in April 2011, when former Miss USA Suzie Castillo was subjected to what she described as an invasive pat-down by TSA agents that reduced the beauty queen to tears.

The issue gained prominence last month when another female passenger, Hyunjoo Kim, struck back at a TSA agent after experiencing an “enhanced” pat-down in Orlando. The South Korean woman reportedly was upset about the manual screening and allegedly slapped an agent. She was arrested and charged with two counts of battery on transit agents.

If you think these air travelers were overreacting, think again. The TSA has a thing for female passengers, a fact that any employee would be hard-pressed to deny. Agents have a disturbingly extensive vocabulary to describe beautiful passengers, including words like “Alfalfa,” “Code Red,” and “Hotel Bravo” (get it — Hot Babe?).

TSA agents apparently don’t flirt with attractive females, they “engage.” And when they talk about an “X-ray” they aren’t necessarily referring to a controversial full-body scanner; “X-ray” is screener-speak for, you guessed it, an attractive female passenger.

It’s a troubling contradiction. Agents are supposedly trained not to profile passengers — to treat each one in exactly the same way — yet they also do profile passengers because of the TSA’s institutional locker-room culture.

This problem probably can’t be undone by an act of Congress or a few protests. But you have the power to stop it. Here’s what you should consider doing if you’re part of the 51 percent who, like Nagelis, is vulnerable to being profiled in this unfortunate way.

Take a few sartorial precautions. I asked my better half, who is a woman, how to avoid getting ogled at the screening area. Watch what you wear, she advised. Far be it from me to tell anyone how to dress. But loose-fitting clothes and shoes tend to be more comfortable on a plane, and they generally draw less attention from the blueshirts, at least according to my well-traveled partner.

Avoid private screenings. There’s no telling what goes on behind closed doors. It’s better to have the whole world watching your “enhanced” pat-down. At least you’ll have witnesses if something goes wrong.

Know your rights. You do have rights when you’re being screened by the TSA (even if they’re not always respected). The most important one to remember is: You have the right to be screened by someone of your sex. Here are a few other frequently asked questions about the process.

Say something now. If your pat-down is making you uncomfortable, then step away and ask for a supervisor. Sometimes, the best solution is for another screener to finish the pat-down.

Report it. The TSA benefits from the fact that it operates primarily at airports, and the passengers it screens usually just want to make it to their flight without delay. Screening incidents often get swept under the rug. Don’t let that happen. Here’s where to file your complaint.

Like many TSA critics, I believe the agency should stop pretending it doesn’t profile passengers. Instead, it should focus on the air travelers who are likeliest to present a threat to flight safety and leave the rest alone. Actually, most of the screening work should be done long before anyone arrives at the airport; but that’s a concept that the reactive, slow-to-change, institutionally sexist TSA can’t seem to get its latex blue gloves around.

At least not yet.

  • nekiuk

    Um. Didn’t the TSA provide, and I thought even mandate, same-sex patter-downers? How about asking for one?

    I wonder if they’d use the same trick of having you wait so long for one that you’re at risk of missing your flight. I’d like to know. I have never been patted down by a guy, always by women. But maybe they don’t think I’m worth the trouble 😉

    • nekiuk, that’s their stated policy — to use same-sex screeners. But as plenty of people — including U.S. Naval Academy Professor of Mathematics Sommer Gentry, who writes for TSA News — can tell you, that’s not always what happens. Often, the TSA will tell you that “no one [of the same sex] is available.” “You’ll miss your flight.” “Just let one of us do it.”

      This happens all the time. TSA clerks who want to get their jollies groping women can do so.

      Read the Master List — click the tab at the top of this page. People are being victimized left and right.

      • Rmulligan

        Hi Lisa, One more comment today. The female person who performed the most invasive pat down on my person in Seattle definitely received some gratification (very possibly sexual) from the experience. When I stated to her she was over the top, her comment was. “Yes, I like getting paid to do this, and management says its OK. Make a compliant if you like.” My point: No should still mean No regardless of the genders involved.

  • PTSD Survivor

    I’m 58, and, while still athletic and well-groomed, my Hotel Bravo days are behind me. I’m also white, a permanent federal employee whose digital fingerprints and FBI background search are up-to-date, have a credit score over 800, and have never been arrested.

    As a whole body imaging refusnik, resident of Alaska, and frequent flyer, I have endured so-called “pat downs” in airports all over the US and beyond. In the past year or so, they have become much more aggressive. To protect my vulva from increasingly painful karate chops (easily felt through my jeans and underwear) I have started wearing maxipads on flying days, even though I’m over 10 years into menopause and do not need them for menstruation.

    I’m also a domestic violence survivor who struggles with PTSD (and my disability has been recognized by the government), which tends to be triggered when I’m put in the position of being cornered and physically restrained by a powerful or angry “authority figure.” I thus face a Hobson’s choice: stay home in AK (making it impossible for me to do my job or visit my family 4000 miles away unless I have several weeks to make the RT drive, and winter conditions cooperate through rural AK and Yukon Territory), give up my RIGHT to opt out of whole body imaging, or submit to what feels to my subconscious to be a physical attack. And due to my condition, I endure the added stress of worrying about breaking down and losing it, experiencing the blinding fear and rage of PTSD that could result in my “inappropriate” language towards the screeners, a physical struggle, or my “illegal” fight (running away) from the TSA screening area.

    DHS is subject to the same legal requirements re disabled people as any other federal agency. I have rights under the Rehabilitation Act that this agency has never acknowledged. If anyone from DHS or TSA is reading this, I am putting you on notice that you will be held legally liable if your continued failure to accommodate my disability results in further trauma to me.

    • PTSD Survivor, what the TSA has done to you is awful, unforgivable, and all too common. As always, I’m sorry and saddened and infuriated to hear about it.

      I don’t understand why the various associations for disabled people in this country don’t raise hell. As far as I know, they haven’t even come out with a statement. Only the Amputee Coalition of America, and that statement was pretty thin gruel.

      Same with the American Psychological Association. The American Medical Association. So many others. Where are these groups?? Why do they solicit money from their members to supposedly represent them? They seem to be doing about as good a job of representing as the worthless wankers in Congress.

      • Daisiemae

        The only thing I can figure is that these organizations are tied to it someway financially. Maybe they are receiving government funding and they are afraid they will lose their funding if they criticize TSA. If so, pretty pathetic.

        • Susan Richart

          BINGO! We have a winner here. That is exactly the reason these organizations won’t speak up. For example, RAIIN, Rape, Abuse, Incest National Network, got “$3,000,000 for each of fiscal years 2007 through 2010” from Congress.

          You think they are going to speak out against what the TSA is doing?

          • Daisiemae

            Yeah, money always talks. Money always trumps morality. Money and the power associated with it is the entire motivation of this entire TSA boondoggle. Just follow the money, and you will eventually find out who is behind the scanners (and all the rest of TSA’s nonsense) and what their motivation truly is. And the motivation is definitely NOT making US citizens safe.

      • Rmulligan

        Lisa, this is a major concern. Especially, the lack of expressed concern from the Psychological Association. They should be ashamed at calling themselves a professional organization if they won’t even attempt to protect those they treat. Re-victimizing those that suffer psychologically is cruel and unusual punishment. I consider it torture. Don’t forget having to choose whether to fly and suffer a psychological event or see your family, go to work, or recreate IS a form of torture.

  • Fisher1949

    The locker room reference is interesting. In that context there seems to be a parallel between TSA and the Stuebenville football team in terms of their view of women.

  • Susan Richart

    Actually, the wearing of a loose comfortable skirt will get a female traveler an especially humiliating grope at the hands of the TSA.

    Further, Christopher, we DO know what goes on in the private room. It’s there that the screeners assault passengers with the palms of their hands deep in one’s genital area, across the buttocks, and on and around a woman’s breasts.

  • Agree with all except the dress restrictions. Plenty of women wearing loose, comfortable clothing have also been abused. Just because you’re not wearing skintight clothes or showing cleavage doesn’t mean you won’t be singled out.

    It’s up to the whim of the TSA agents. Always.

    Unbelievable that we even have to be having this discussion. That we have to talk about how to protect ourselves from assault before we get on a plane. This country has lost its collective mind.