Encounters With the TSA

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on December 28, 2010

Over the Christmas holiday, I flew to Los Angeles for a family wedding. I was, of course, glad to escape–if only for a couple of days–the cold weather afflicting us here in Chicago, and I was certainly glad to celebrate with family. But I was also curious to see what my encounters with the TSA would be like both at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, and at LAX. I don’t need to recount for readers the ongoing controversies regarding the new TSA security procedures, in which passengers either receive a very intrusive physical patdown, or get X-rayed by the Rapiscan (who thought that name up?) backscatter machine, whose pictures leave little to the imagination. But I was interested in seeing how the TSA would handle travel on Christmas, and in the immediate aftermath of the holiday. The plural of “anecdote” is not “data,” but for what it’s worth, my experience was as follows:

I flew out to LA on Christmas day. At O’Hare, the TSA checkpoint I went to had two backscatter machines. None of them were being used; both were cordoned off, and I don’t think that they were even activated. There were two separate lines of passengers. One line had a patdown, though from what I saw, the TSA officials appeared to be careful to ensure that in the course of their patdowns, they did not encounter any variety of resistance from passengers. The other line–my line–didn’t feature any kind of patdown from what I saw; after having placed all of my earthly possessions on the conveyor belt, I was simply motioned to walk through. I should add that despite these minimal security provisions, it took about half an hour to get through O’Hare’s TSA checkpoint.

I flew back on December 27. The good news is that took less than five minutes to get through the checkpoint. The weird news is that there were no backscatter machines in site, and once again, from what I saw, no one was getting any kind of patdown whatsoever.


I am glad not to have had to go through the backscatter machines. I am glad not to have experienced a patdown. I am not a terrorist. I know I am not a terrorist. And I know that I would have been significantly annoyed to have had to endure either an excessively revealing picture-taking session, or a gropefest to confirm that I am not a terrorist.

But supposedly, incidents like the attempted Christmas bombing last year made clear–according to the TSA, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Obama Administration in general–that these intrusive inspections of our persons are necessary to ensure airport and airplane security. If that is the case, then one would expect that on the first Christmas after the attempted Christmas bombing, the TSA would be particularly vigilant in taking pictures of, and patting down airline passengers to ensure that no terrorist events took place.

Instead . . . nothing. At least nothing from my little corner of the world of travel. I’d like to think that the lack of inspections means that the TSA has found a smarter way to make sure that terrorists don’t get on planes. But I am betting that as with the Thanksgiving holiday, backscatter machine sessions, and gropefests were dispensed with so that the TSA would not have angry passengers causing it public relations problems.

If there is another explanation for what I encountered–and again, I know that the plural of “anecdote” is not “data”–I would be delighted to know what that explanation is. But from where I sit, there are yet more reasons to be concerned about the arbitrary and capricious nature of the TSA’s implementation of its security procedures, and more reasons to believe that the TSA is not doing all that it should be doing in order to prevent airport and airline-related terrorism.

  • Ed

    Mr. Yousefzadeh, I’m shocked. The depth and intrusiveness of the screening was carefully designed to make you feel secure, and yet you’re not convinced. Don’t you trust the government?

    • docduke

      These experiences seem to confirm my suspicion. It appeared to me that the media hype about the TSA “intrusions” were timed to distract attention from the Lame-Duck session of Congress. As soon as the ugly deeds were done and the Ducks waddled off, there was no further need for the distraction.

  • Montjoie

    I had the same experience at Midway and Atlanta over Thanksgiving. Very simple, no pictures, no pat down.

  • Anonymous

    Due to metal in my leg, I set of a metal detector about 50% of the time, and it is difficult to predict when. I had the porno patdown a few days before it became a huge deal. But this Christmas:
    — Austin: no advanced scanners; just standard metal detectors. I didn’t set it off.
    — Nashville: millimeter wave scanner. They were sending half of the people through standard metal detectors, half through the new scanner. It think it was a queue management strategy; they didn’t have enough new scanners to cope with high volumes. I asked the woman if I could go through the millimeter scanner due to my tendency to set of metal detectors; she obliged. Quick and painless.

  • Anonymous

    It may be that the TSA decided they had disrupted any terrorist plans that involved bombs carried on one’s body. Having convinced al Qeada that scanning would be in place, and assuming that would lead to a change of approach, the TSA decided the machines would not be needed.

    Unfortunately, I am unable to convince myself that TSA has that level of sophistication.

  • Anonymous

    The only thing I can assume is that the TSA is profiling. Any other explanation elludes me,

  • Thrye

    Be careful talking about the TSA. I would never publish, in an identifiable way, any negative experience with them. Retribution follows if enough people read it. I live overseas and could easily find myself unable to return home to my family.

    That’s the sort of government we have now (and I’m not talking about any particular administration…the omnipresent security state has evolved over years.)

  • Ezra Gonzalez

    I flew to Utah out of HHH airport in Minneapolis, not only did I get the patdown but that was AFTER going through the show-me-naked machine; no idea why and I didn’t ask.

  • Miriam

    I have one word for the United States of America (and in particular its travelers):

    Lucky.

    And I pray that it lasts til sanity again takes hold.

  • Anonymous

    No backscatter machines at Austin or DFW Terminal C (AA domestic) either.

    • Dennis_mclaughlin

      Ditto Newark and Atlanta. Machines acting as coat racks.

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  • GaryJAX

    Same experience in Jacksonville and Las Vegas – machines cordoned off and not used, people just had to walk through the metal detector.

  • Robert

    Same experience at O’Hare and Cleveland Hopkins — new machines cordoned off, no pat downs. At O’Hare there were only a few people in line, in Cleveland it took about a half an hour to clear because they only had one luggage scanner working.

  • Rjkjunkmail

    One must always remember that TSA stands for Transportation STUPIDITY Administration and most of what is being done has nothing whatsoever to do with air travel security and everything to do with security theater. The TSA is, by now as everyone knows (except Big Sis) that the TSA runs the greatest 21st Century airport versions of Potemkin Villages. There is much noise and fury, much marching at lockstep but little or no actual forward movement or progress.

    The TSA is the airport version of the Department of Education or DOE or HHS: a large, mindless, make-work, dead-handed bureaucracy that serves only to drain the commonweal. Like its bureaucratic cousins, it should be obliterated. There is need for airport security but having swarms of mindless fools doing it is of no use whatsoever.

  • PBT

    My experience was different. I flew out of Dayton, OH and both my husband and I went through the rapiscan. There were two lines and two rapiscans. Pretty much everyone who went through the scan was sent for the pat down as well. The reason – there was movement and the scans were not clear. Note to self – do not breathe during the scan.

  • PBT

    The rest of the story . . . I know that when I fly I cannot take more than 3 oz of liquids with me so I fly with an empty water bottle. I fill it up at the drinking fountain after I pass security. When I went to take out the water bottle, I was shocked to find a container of yogurt. I had forgotten to eat it on the way to the airport.

    If I was scanned and groped to insure our security, how did they miss the yogurt in the backpack? This is all kabuki theater!

  • Tman

    “But from where I sit, there are yet more reasons to be concerned about the arbitrary and capricious nature of the TSA’s implementation of its security procedures, and more reasons to believe that the TSA is not doing all that it should be doing in order to prevent airport and airline-related terrorism.”

    I’m speaking from another non-data anecdotal Christmas traveling experience and I’ll say it was just silly. I did the Xray machine leaving Nashville airport (with the fun patdown after!) and it looked like the government is spending wayyyy too much money hiring people and equipment to stand around and look busy.

    I recognize that there have been a handful of incidents of airport and airline-related terrorism in the last fifty years (one obviously being a turning point in history), but in relation to the number of flights that have flown without airport and airline-related terrorism since and before I wonder if we are wasting our efforts in fixing that which isn’t broken.

    We have other pressing emergency response units -like fire trucks or ambulances or hey! snow plows- that deal with far more traumatic accidents involving a much higher odds of disaster yet we have volunteers working most of them.

    How many volunteers work for the TSA?

  • Belgarion3225

    The truth is simple really. Just like in the intelligence field, Congress loves to spend on new technology (fun) but hates to invest in personnel (boring). So we get all sorts of satellites and surveillance drones, but not enough intel agents/”boots on the ground”.

    The new AIT machines (backscatter and millimeter wave) are cool technology that politicians love to fund. However, the TSA doesn’t have enough people to operate the machines consistently, if at all. The millimeter wave machines ideally take five officers to operate. These officers are solely dedicated to the MMW, separate from the traditional checkpoint staffing model. Most checkpoints, or lanes within a checkpoint, are already understaffed as it is from the ideal model. TSA simply doesn’t have the additional officers available to effectively run the new equipment. Additionally, the introduction of all of this new technology requires additional training in how to operate it. I work at an airport of an equivalent size to ORD and LAX. To provide the training required to operate this many new machines for the amount of officers at these large airports will take some time.

    That is the primary reason why most AIT machines are not being used, not because of a public relations backlash.

  • Eric

    Proof positive (not that we really needed NORE proof!) that TSA provides nothing more than security THEATER, as opposed to real security. It’s all about putting on a show – not even a particularly GOOD one, and it doesn’t matter if they fail their own announced-testing spectacularly, as long as they put on the appearance of “doing SOMETHING”.

    Screw the Nude-O-Scopes. Screw the perp-frisks. Screw the idiot with the blacklight glancing at my ID (“Papiere, bitte!”). This is *NOT* Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia, and I (and tens of millions of other peaceful, innocent, law-abiding American citizens, as well as visitors to our once-great country) have the Supreme-Court-and-Congressionally-recognized *RIGHT* to travel freely about this country by common carrier without being virtually-strip-searched or frisked as though I were a convicted violent felon going to Solitary. One cannot, by law, be required to sacrifice one right to exercise another, which is what TSA (an agency of the Federal government) is demanding we do.

    THEN we can get into TSA’s long-documented litany of deliberate abuses of the flying public, as FURTHER evidence of their incapacity and/or unwillingness to do the job they’re allegedly meant to be doing…

    • Thrye

      Ooh, good luck with all that righteous indignation…you will simply end up on a no-fly list. The US you grew up in is no more. You will now obey the thugs or you will not fly. And if you make a scene, you will go to jail. These are the facts. The laws do not actually apply any longer (at least the ones that protected you in the past…the ones that will put you in jail certainly apply) Your “rights” will not be defended by courts (the TSA is effectively un-sueable) and therefore no longer exist.

      Welcome to the new world. Now bow and kiss the feet of your masters, the poorly trained, not-very-bright, yet powerful rented security drone.

      You are no longer a citizen, you are a subject, and there is absolutely nothing you can do about it.

      I live overseas, and have decided not to even bother getting my daughter a US passport…it will simply put her under the boot-heel of the thugs who now run the US. She’s better off not being a US citizen.

      • Anonymous

        By all means, stay there — when folks like you live in self-imposed exile, the average backbone of the American resident goes up just a tad.

        • Thrye

          Does it?
          I have far more day-to-day freedom than you do…I can fly domestic without being felt up, I can take pictures on a train or at city hall without being roughed up by security goons. If my kid brings a water pistol to school, the police are not called, and their academic career is not over. I don’t see surveillance cameras except at ATMs, and a man peeing behind a bush is not a sex offender.

          If allowing your society to turn into a fear-based police state where unaccountable officials can molest your child in public and have you arrested if you complain is “backbone”, we have different definitions.

          The average American is utterly supine in the face of this crap. The Thanksgiving “demand a patdown” day was a flop because it was just too much trouble to make even the most basic squeak of protest. The woman who actually had the backbone to try has been publicly punished with a flight ban for having had the temerity to question her betters. TSA doesn’t even try to hide the fact that they retaliate against complainers…they just double down and continue. And you write complaints on comment threads and feel yourself to have “backbone”. Yeah right.

          • Anonymous

            I can no doubt come up with an equally shallow list of reasons why your foreign paradise of choice is just as much of a freedomless pit — politically incorrect “hate speech” comes to mind. But that misses the point — which is that, for all your bluster and indignation, you’re useless.

            And like I said, one less useless person raises the average for the rest of us. So thanks, and keep “fighting” the good fight!

          • Thrye

            If you were actually likely to do anything that might be true…but you won’t. Aside from writing macho comments, that is. Guess we’re both useless, but I do have the excuse of having a career and a family here.

            I didn’t leave the US out of any protest (business, then marriage and family) but I have over the last 2 decades, seen the US become a country I hardly recognize. My current country of residence is not perfect by a long shot, but I feel far less threatened by the authorities here, and those authorities actually feel restrained by the law. Perhaps I cannot afford a huge American-style house or drive a Suburban, or buy as many kinds of organic vegetables as you, but I’m also far less likely to run afoul of an increasing number of legal infractions. And I do not think the examples I listed are shallow. They are indicative of a very sad change in the basic character of the population.

            If I ditched my life here to come back and fight, which side would I join? The Republicans, with their anti-intellectual, anti-science, and fundamentalist Christian base? Or the Democrats, with their “bigger government is better government” redistributionist statism and contempt for the “masses” they claim to want to help? Or the Tea Party, who believe in smaller govt and less regulation but seem to have no plan or philosophy beyond that? No thanks. The country has changed too much.

            Good luck with your brave fight in the comment threads. You’ve got the powers that be quaking in their boots!

          • Anonymous

            I’m not quite sure what you’re getting at — you’re the one pulling the Internet tough guy routine, full of hyperbole and bluster, not me. Stop projecting, please.

            If you want to respond to what I’m actually saying — that the country is better off with blustering, indignant, ultimately useless buffoons as yourself voluntarily separating themselves from the electorate — then do so. Otherwise, I’m not interested in feeding your “mall ninja” routine any longer.

          • Thrye

            blustering, indignant, ultimately useless buffoons…mall ninja

            You seem to be doing the blustery namecalling here.

            You go enjoy your patdowns and microwavings secure in the knowledge that you don’t have to put up with me and my uselessness, duckie. Just try to forget that you’re doing nothing to oppose it….kind of useless. Like this thread has become.

            Byebye, duckie.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_Y72TJATBNXTNDUDMUOW6WZF5RY tdperk

    “I know that the plural of “anecdote” is not “data” ”

    I keep on hearing that phrase. I find it to be nonsensical. All the anecdotes there are is all the data there can be in this sort of thing.

    Your experience is corroborated I believe to an universal degree by all other reports. The TSA is employing the scanners and porno patdowns as an escalated example of security theater–they dispense with it when they feel its use will bring too much political heat on them.

    They are grotesque frauds who do us no good and much harm.

  • http://conservativebootcamp.com Martin Hale

    It was with great interest that I read the other day in Der Spiegel that the CEO of the Dusseldorf airport, who is also the president-elect of the German association of airports, is calling for sorting passengers into threat groups, based in part upon age and ethnicity. He cites the ever-downwardly escalating spiral of detection/concealment as a failing strategy. Other factors mentioned (though not by the Dusseldorf gentleman) in the article are biometric data and flight booking data. In other words, profiling based on age, nationality, origin/destination of flight, among other things.

    One interesting quote from the Der Spiegel article was from the head of the IATA

    “With today’s terror threats, we need to be able to find bad people, not bad objects. We can only do that by assessing passengers for risk with appropriate security checks to follow.”

    It’s interesting to hear from someone who wishes to replace the current pretence of security theatre with actual security measures.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Michael-Gebert/1122931181 Michael Gebert

    “more reasons to believe that the TSA is not doing all that it should be doing in order to prevent airport and airline-related terrorism.”

    That would be true even if they were X-raying and groping everybody. We should consider it a win if they are not doing something that probably didn’t do anything for security, because they’re afraid of the backlash when something does happen after they’ve spent however many months doing the especially useless and irritating thing.

  • Tedst

    Yes, somehow it has become oddly fashionable to argue with the quote of a Nobel prize winner. I don’t get it either, especially when it is painfully true.

  • Army of Davids

    Seattle AIT machines also cordoned off on Christmas Eve.

    At a smaller Michigan airport, my anecdotal evidence of the 3 people I witnessed getting the grope-down:

    - 75+ yr old lady who looked bewildered.
    - 50ish woman (overheard her say she knew the routine)
    - mother in Muslim headscarf and large skirt along with her two toddler girls. The way the girls hugged each other under the gaze of the TSA officers would have made the picture of the year if my camera wasn’t in the xray machine.

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