Flying while female? 5 things to remember at the airport

by Christopher Elliott on January 16, 2013

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 which 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.

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