Another kid gets the once-over by TSA — what can the agency do to improve its image?


Seems the TSA just can’t get a break. First there’s the fallout from the pat-down video of a six-year-old, which I covered yesterday.

This morning comes the unbelievable story of Bill Gordon, a 63-year-old air traveler from Colorado who was pulled aside and patted down for the crime of having something in his pocket while passing through the security checkpoint in Memphis.

Yes, apparently that’s enough to make the TSA suspicious. That, and criticizing the agency. (More on that in a minute.)

If you have anything, and I do mean anything, in your pants pockets you will end up being frisked.

Of course, there is absolutely nothing that informs the traveling public that you have to completely empty your pockets. I had cash in my right front pants pocket, a handkerchief in my left back pocket and some paper charge receipts in my right back pocket. That was more than enough to give me the “Royal Frisk” treatment.

I was seriously surprised when advised that I shouldn’t have had anything in my pockets at all.

Well, that’s a new one.

TSA says passengers are only required to “Take metal items such as keys, loose change, mobile phones, pagers, and personal data assistants (PDAs) out of your pockets.” But handkerchiefs and cash should be left in, and shouldn’t trigger a pat-down — unless the good TSA agents in Memphis have decided to change the rules and pat down everyone with something in their pocket. Here are the details.

How odd.

Item two: My whistleblowers apparently decided CNN was a better news outlet for their memos. The news organization yesterday reported that TSA critics could face increased scrutiny at the airport. Someone leaked a list of behavior indicators TSA regarded as suspicious, which included complaining about the screening process.

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Got that? If you complain, you could be a terrorist.

(By the way, I’m not convinced my sources were going to send me that memo, but some readers think so, and emailed me yesterday to say I was “scooped.” If they’re right, then I’m kind of relieved. CNN has lawyers on staff. I just have three cats guarding my front door in the suburbs and between you and me, they are not all that effective at deterring lawsuits or federal agents.)


Item three: I’m usually the one in trouble for TSA articles, but here’s one that makes me look like a responsible court reporter. It’s WikiHow’s How to Tolerate the TSA As a Sex Crime Victim. If you think there’s something wrong with that premise, you’re not alone. It is nominated for deletion because of what commenters say is “mean-spirited” activity.

From the article:

Take some time to recover afterward. It may have felt intrusive and even upsetting but carrying the sense of disturbance with you will increase your upset and it is better to center yourself and find some calm.

Look, I’ve written something about surviving a pat-down on this site, but the sex crime victim headline — even I wouldn’t have done that. Interestingly, another travel site has also just published a story on how to survive a pat-down, but its advice is not as offensive.

And finally this morning, for those of you who thought the pat-down of six-year-old Anna Drexel in New Orleans was an isolated incident, please meet eight-year-old Spencer Sheahan. He and his family were on their way from Portland, Ore., to a Disneyland vacation in Southern California when a TSA agent pulled him aside and gave him a pat-down. Here’s the video.

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“They went up his leg, into that area, down the next leg, up here, felt all over,” explained his mother, Heather Sheahan.

I, for one, am not impressed with the TSA’s latest antics. If the agency and the Department of Homeland security want to repair their image, it might start by treating air travelers with a little respect and screening with common sense.

But this isn’t helping.

What do you think? What should TSA can do to improve its image?

(Photo: zeb ble/Flickr Creative Commons)


Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at chris@elliott.org.

  • Tim R

    In the first story, I’m surprised by that. The screeners at Miami International tell you to have nothing in your pockets when you go through the screening process.

  • sunshipballoons

    I flew out of LAX a few weeks ago. In the LAX terminal that has Southwest, it is clearly posted at the full body scanner that you must completely empty your pockets. I’m not saying that’s the case in Memphis, but at least one airport does have this requirement clearly posted.

  • Martin

    I can relate to the gentleman with the non-metal objects in his pocket. Early last Saturday, I was at St. Louis Airport and sucessfully passed through the metal detector. After that, a TSA agent approached me, and said that he needed to pat down the cargo pockets on my shorts (why not the rest of the pockets or the rest of me I’ll never know). Long story short, I had a Pop-Tart in one and my passport and other ID in the other. I was then told that I would have to send the Pop-Tart through the X-ray machine. Why, after not beeping, I was subjected to increased scrutiny really makes me wonder what these people are getting paid to do.

  • Martin, they’re getting paid to hassle and abuse us. They’re getting paid to conduct “security” on a whim. They have complete power. They can do what they want, when they want, how they want, to whom they want. They can choose to grope or not grope, put you through the metal detector or strip-search scanner, haul you aside for “secondary” screening, detain you, slap you, and otherwise harass and bully you.

    Funny how we pretend to understand the saying, “absolute power corrupts absolutely” for other things in life, but not for the TSA.

  • Ecinindy

    Perhaps screeners would have a little more empathy towards travelers if they had to work in the same conditions that we must go through during the screening. Not wearing shoes, nor a belt, etc.

  • Philpm

    As far as the TSA agents frisking you for not emptying your pockets, they did the same thing to me at ROC yesterday (4/18/11) for not removing my wallet, and ran my wallet back through the x-ray machine. I’d not heard of having to remove non-metal items before either. I wasn’t required to at MCI on 4/14, nor was I frisked afterwards.

  • Zod

    I don’t know how they can improve their image…what does a child molester look like anyway?

  • Jyoon8

    I recently flew out of IAD and was instructed to take everything out of my pockets and remove my belt. I had never been told to do that in the past and asked when the change of rules occurred. They said that the change happened when they got the back scatter scanners. I responded that could not be the case because I have flown many times since that occurred and have gone through the metal detector station with my wallet and belt.
    Security reiterated their request and then after I complied they put me in the line for back scatter scanning. I refused and requested a pat-down (well…requested might not be the right way to express that…) and even though it was dead on a Sunday AM and they had tons of staff, they made me wait 5 minutes to get someone over to conduct my pat-down.
    Ultimately, I feel the same way that most who have made comments feel….if it will truly lead to improvements in safety then I am willing to give up some personal rights to improve the situation of the collective. Unfortunately, we are allowing ourselves to be put into a police state at airports and are not receiving the benefit of additional security. Overall it is just a sad situation.

  • Jyoon8 writes: “and even though it was dead on a Sunday AM and they had tons of staff, they made me wait 5 minutes to get someone over to conduct my pat-down.”

    They did the same thing to me in September of 2010 at BWI — this was after the scanners had been installed but before the gropefests had been instituted. I saw the boggling spectacle of NO ONE in the security line. No one. Yet they still made me wait, and wait, and wait, while they all stood around doing nothing, just staring at me. They’re on a power trip. That’s the whole point: they have power, we have none. And they’re going to make sure we know it. I wrote about the experience here:

    http://www.cogitamusblog.com/2010/09/we-are-your-neighbors-friends-and-relatives.html

  • Linda

    Even removing everything from your pockets won’t always protect you. Disclaimer: This wasn’t the TSA because it happened in Spain. I went through an ordinary old-fashioned machine (not the new scanners) and it was set off – I had nothing metal on or with me, so it was just a malfunction. I was pulled through and patted down (lightly, not intrusively) so quickly I hardly knew it was happening.

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    You should have asked them to heat up the Pop-Tart for you!

  • Hilarious:
    (By the way, I’m not convinced my sources were going to send me that memo, but some readers think so, and emailed me yesterday to say I was “scooped.” If they’re right, then I’m kind of relieved. CNN has lawyers on staff. I just have three cats guarding my front door in the suburbs and between you and me, they are not all that effective at deterring lawsuits or federal agents.)

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