My first date with TSA

For the last few weeks I’ve been debating what I would do when I arrived at security. I’ll admit that I’m not a hard-core civil liberties activist and we need to be proactive to keep our skies safe. The discussions, blog posts, horror stories, news articles, and tweets about the new Transportation Security Administration (TSA) procedures left me apprehensive.

There is something about the whole-body imaging that doesn’t sit right with me. Keep in mind TSA is using two types of whole-body imagine technology, Millimeter Wave and Backscatter technology. The latest uproar has been around Backscatter technology which uses “low intensity” radiation to create a detailed outline of your body. I prefer to limit my radiation exposure and am not yet to be sold on the “safe levels” the new whole-body imaging machines produce. It’s essentially a digital strip search and I feel there has to be a better way to ensure security.

On the other hand, I recognize that security procedures are always changing and in someone’s mind the TSA is doing what they can to keep everyone safe. Personally, I feel like every time TSA installs a new security procedure, it’s a reactive event. Maybe we just don’t hear about the security procedures that prevent incidents before they happen.

I arrived at the airport about 3 hours before my flight. The combination of Thanksgiving day, new security procedures, and whoknows what else I didn’t want to take a risk getting stuck in security. With that in mind, I upgraded my flight class, which allowed me to go through the premium security line (it’s that other entrance that’s always empty and puts you at the front of the line). It’s just a shame that there were only about a dozen people in line for security when I showed up. Minor failure on my part.

Now I’m a pragmatist, if I was running behind and thought I would miss my flight I likely would have given in to whole-body imaging. I wasn’t trying to be difficult, but I wanted to experience the hype about the new pat-down procedures. I had plenty of time to catch my flight, there was only one person in front of me that opted out. I told the TSA agent of my desire to opt out. I sense a little annoyance on his part as he tried to quickly describe what would happen in a distasteful way to persuade me to change my mind.

I told him I understood and he asked me to stand to the side. Over his radio he reported a male-opt out and requested an additional TSA agent for the pat down. The TSA agent came promptly (I waited about 2 mins) and I was asked to check my pockets one last time and step through the metal detector. He asked me to identify my items and repeatedly told me not to touch anything.

I sat down and as he was putting on the gloves he asked if I had this procedure before and then explained exactly what he would be doing. I told him I understood and stood up and faced the wall with my arms out. I’ll admit, I didn’t really care about the pat down; I’ve been gone through pat-downs before. Yes, this was the “enhanced pat-down” that was creating lots of controversy so I wanted to see what the “enhanced” part entailed.

So what did he do?

  • Ran hands up and down my legs and checked my inner thighs
  • Checked my inner belt line very thoroughly
  • Ran his hands over my back, chest, and stomach area
  • Very thoroughly checked my collar
  • Repeatedly told me not to touch anything
  • Aggressively told me not to touch anything when someone tried to hand me my phone that fell onto the conveyor belt (Side note: the other passenger who found my found was yelling at me like it was my fault. To which I wanted to say “Don’t look at me, the TSA agent grabbed my stuff from the conveyor belt”)
  • Overall, he acted very professionally about the pat down

What didn’t he do?

  • He didn’t grope me in the way a doctor would
  • He didn’t belittle me
  • He didn’t make any remarks or distasteful comments
  • He didn’t make me feel like he was doing anything inappropriate

What did I think?
There were brief instances in which I felt apprehensive about the process but I never felt violated or treated less than humanely. I’m sure it’s wasn’t the highlight of his day either. I’ve read about the stories of other passengers feeling violated; the father who had to listen to the TSA agents making suggestive comments about his daughter, the passenger who had his urine bag expelled on himself, the woman who had her breasts groped and then bra snapped, and the list goes on. Obviously, these are valid complaints and I think these agents should be held dealt with accordingly.

My personal experience was not as intrusive or traumatic. My belief is that it largely depends on the TSA agent performing the enhanced pat down. I had the good fortune of having my enhanced pat-down performed by a very quiet yet professional TSA agent who at no point made me feel like I had done something wrong or that he was doing anything but his job.

What’s next?
I have three more “dates” with TSA before the end of the year. It will be situation dependent, but if it’s not going to cause me to miss my flight (since I refuse to fly anything but @virginamerica my options for being re-booked are limited to slim) then I’ll consider going through the enhanced pat-down. I’ll be describing each of my “dates” with TSA in future posts.

Addendum: Before beginning the enhanced pat-down I was required to pass through a metal detector.