The TSA is always in the news these days, and usually not for the right reasons. You might say the controversial agency has an image problem. Or is that an imaging problem? Either way, the coverage has mostly been one-sided, so we decided to speak with a former TSA security officer to find out what it's like on the other side of the screening process.
The former Transportation Security Officer (TSO), who agreed to talk with us on the condition of anonymity, worked at a major U.S. airport until being injured on the job. Get the scoop on misbehaving passengers, what to do if you want a pat-down, and what we should be doing to make the skies safer.
SmarterTravel (ST): It's rumored that passengers may soon be able to leave their shoes on during screening. Do you think this will happen?
TSO: Because of the shoe bomber, I would think not. If the TSA gets the frequent traveler pre-screen going, I am sure there will be an allowance made for them.
"The terrorists always seem to be one step ahead of us."
ST: How well-trained are the people doing pat-downs?
TSO: Let me assure you, we are very well trained. We are watched by our supervisors, who are at the checkpoint doing their job of making sure that their crew is performing whatever they are doing correctly. Pat-downs are one of the most important functions of a TSO. Not only are we watched and critiqued by our supervisors and other screeners, we have to be certified once a year by passing our tests for every function screeners do. This is not automatic. The tests are very demanding with no room for failure.
ST: Have you seen or heard about bad behavior from other TSA Agents?
TSO: I personally have never witnessed bad behavior from any of the TSA staff I worked with. You do hear things about someone maybe being short with a passenger, but that is usually after they have exhausted themselves explaining why we are taking their bottle of water, or why we have to pat them down. Most passengers are agreeable to just get the process over, but we do always have those who think the rules weren't made for them. It can be frustrating during an eight-hour shift.
ST: What's your pet peeve? What do you wish travelers knew to do (or not to do) when going through security?
TSO: I found that most passengers did not read any of the signs on display on their way to the checkpoint. The TSA has signs on display for all to read so they understand what is expected as you approach the metal detectors or body scanners. The other most annoying thing is that most passengers don't listen to what we are saying. Guess they think we like to hear ourselves talk.
ST: Do you (or others) talk or make fun of passengers behind their backs?
TSO: Inappropriate behavior is not tolerated by the TSA. That is not to say that some of the officers may think they're the fashion police once in awhile and make a comment about what a passenger is wearing. Never when the passenger is in earshot, though. We were all guilty of thinking to ourselves, or maybe out loud once in a while, about how heavy someone's carry-on bag might be, or why someone needs 15 pairs of shoes when traveling. Nothing serious, though.
ST: What's the most embarrassing/funniest/grossest item you've found during screening?
TSO: Sex toys are always embarrassing to me, but not usually to the passenger. The funniest thing I witnessed was when a male screener found a passenger with a huge dildo stuffed down his pants during a pat-down. When asked what he had in his pants, the passenger replied "dilado" (in Spanish) and pulled it out like a sword. It was hilarious, and of course then it had to be run through the X-ray machine for additional screening.
The worst thing I witnessed was when a male screener had to perform a pat-down on a passenger who had a bowel movement in his pants. It was terrible.
The grossest thing I have found has to be food that people carry in their checked bags. The smells often make you gag. There is some really nasty and strange stuff that people eat. Rats, for instance. The worst nightmare for most of us was opening a suitcase full of dirty clothes that had been laying around for a week sometimes before being packed. I never realized how disgustingly dirty some people live. Having cockroaches jump out at you is never the highlight of your day.
ST: What's the best excuse you've heard from a passenger trying to bring something forbidden through security?
TSO: "Why can't I have that item, do you think I am a terrorist?" "I forgot I had that six-inch knife in my bag."
ST: Tell us about the meanest passenger you've ever dealt with or heard about.
TSO: On my first week of employment, I dealt with two of the worst female passengers ever. The first one was a young girl who was traveling with a friend. They were late getting to the checkpoint, and the plane was loading. The passengers had to be screened, and one wouldn't let my trainer, who was shadowing me, touch her. She wanted paper towels to stand on and to cover her feet. She insisted that I be the one to screen her. Every time I tried to do my job of the pat-down, she would move and say, "don't touch me." It was awful, and in my opinion, she should have never been allowed to travel being such a pain in the butt. I felt like we should have called the police on duty and have them there while I screened her. Maybe she would have been more cooperative.
The second nightmare passenger was one who had a purse that was like a gunny sack full of crap. Her bag set off the X-ray machine, and I had to search it. Well, the bag was torn inside at the bottom, and there was so much junk inside, just thrown in loose everywhere. She had dollar bills laying in there loose, and as I picked through everything, I would hand the bills directly to her. I knew she had a pocket knife in her bag, but I couldn't find it. I finally found where the bag was torn on the seam at the bottom and retrieved the knife.
All the while, the passenger insisted she had no pocket knife. After I put everything back in her bag and handed it back to her, she stepped away for a minute or two, and then came back and asked to speak to my supervisor. She told my supervisor that I had stolen $200 from her purse. Well, after accusing me and calling me names, she wanted me to empty my pockets. Which I refused to do with the supervisor's advice.
"Profiling is truly the one sure way of controlling terror in the air."
The passenger stood in front of me the whole time I searched her bag, and remember, I handed her the dollar bills I found laying loose in her bag. She finally went away when my supervisor told her that he was going to call police and bring them over to the checkpoint, and then they would escort her to their office where she could wait till they reviewed the films from the cameras that record everything that goes on at the checkpoint.
Needless to say, she left with a burst of dust behind her. She couldn't get away fast enough. They just don't realize there are cameras everywhere. I really felt like telling her that if she had $200 in her purse, she should have gone out and gotten herself a new one to replace the piece of crap she was traveling with.
ST: The 3-1-1 liquids rule is controversial. Do you think it's necessary?
TSO: I have to believe that the Department of Homeland Security would not implement these rules if it were not deemed necessary for the traveling public's safety. I don't travel often, but I certainly want to feel secure when I get on a plane. So, yes, I feel it is necessary to follow that rule.
ST: What rights do passengers have if selected for additional screening?
TSO: They have a right for a private screening if they so choose. This means they do not have to be screened in the public's view.
ST: What happens to confiscated items?
TSO: All confiscated items are collected and taken to the TSA office. I am not sure what actually happens to them after that. I know that they have had news articles recently about just that. I try to avoid all TSA news articles. Most times they are very negative on us officers, and I do not want to see that. We are just all doing our job.
ST: How effective do you personally think the TSA is?
TSO: I feel that the TSA is very effective in the War on Terror in the skies. We are the last test of defense before boarding the plane. You have to understand that we are not Israel or some of the other countries who are allowed to profile people. Profiling is truly the one sure way of controlling terror in the air. All you have to do is see how successful Israel's security has been through all the years. The TSA is limited on what they can do without violating people's rights during screening. The terrorists always seem to be one step ahead of us as to what they are going to try next.
ST: What makes passengers more likely to get screened?
TSO: Not taking off their shoes, not emptying their pockets, or carrying a prohibited item in their carry-on bags.
ST: What do you think should be done to improve airport security?
TSO: I think we should adopt Israel's policy on profiling. They have been successful for many, many years without any kind of incident. If we were able to profile, we wouldn't be screening everyone who travels. You would think that something like this would be what the American people want, but it is against our rules, so we all have to pay the price for a few who want to harm us.
ST: What did you dislike most about your job?
TSO: Not being appreciated for the hard work I was performing. One of the most difficult things to overcome was putting your hands on another person's body. We did not enjoy that.
"One of the most difficult things to overcome was putting your hands on another person's body. We did not enjoy that."
ST: What did you find most rewarding?
TSO: Feeling like I was doing a great service for my country. I was proud to be a TSA officer who was working to keep the traveling public safe. Remember, the TSA is the last defense you have before boarding a plane.
ST: Do you worry about health risks from being around X-ray and body scanner machines all day? And does the TSA offer regular health checks or other precautions?
TSO: Of course I worried about the health risks. I worried not only about the X-rays and body scanners, but I really worried much more about all the touching and handling of everyone's stuff. Not only their baggage, but their bodies during pat-downs. You have no idea what kind and how many germs we came into contact with each and every day. Even though we wear gloves, you never really feel secure. There were some bags and passengers that you just felt like taking a shower after handling them personally, or their items in the bags.
ST: Do you think the TSA is understaffed?
TSO: That answer is going to be different for every airport in the country. At certain times of the year, yes, I did feel we were understaffed. But remember, I worked there when we had to screen every checked bag by hand. One hundred percent of the bags were done by hand. Now we have the EDS machines that scan the bags, and we only go inside when needed. This has cut down the amount of work in the bag area greatly. When I worked in bags, it was the hardest job I ever had. We had bags that weighed over 90 pounds sometimes, and all the lifting and screening were brutal.
ST: What's the best way to ask for a pat-down if you don't want a a body scan?
TSO: Just let the person at the checkpoint know that you are requesting a pat-down. It is that simple.
ST: What do you think about the blogger who claims that he can beat the body scanners?
TSO: I haven't seen or heard about that as of yet, but what I can tell you is that there will always be someone trying to beat or figure out ways to hurt Americans. It is called terrorism, and it does exist, and there are those who want to see Americans dead. We will always have to be vigilant in our fight against terrorism. This is one reason the TSA keeps changing the way they do things. The TSA doesn't want the bad guys getting to know our routines so they can find a way around them.
Readers, what do you think now that you've heard about the TSA from the inside? Does it change (or confirm) your opinion of the agency? Share your thoughts in the comments area below.