Does the TSA really care about your customer experience? Read this before you answer

He clutched a red passport and a boarding pass and wore a confused expression, the kind you slip into when no one speaks your language. The passenger was Japanese, and by my guess, English wasn’t his first — or his second — language.

“Wha -, wha-, wha -,” he stammered, facing a woman who he seemed to believe could help him.

“Wha -, wha -, what – ” the woman mocked. And then added, disgustedly, “I’m going on break.”

The passenger had every reason to think she could answer his question: She was wearing a TSA uniform.

On a recent morning at the Houston Intercontinental Airport screening area, I stood there with my two kids, transfixed and horrified.

And as quickly as the incident began, it was over. The agent stormed off. The passenger took his place in the screening line, question unanswered.

It wasn’t just bad manners, and it wasn’t just a clash of cultures. It was downright cruel. And if you’ve ever witnessed unprofessional behavior by a person in uniform, you might have wondered if there is anything you can do about it.

But in the moment, I didn’t have the answer.

The TSA is not exactly known for its good manners. Notorious for their up close and personal pat-downs, TSA agents bark orders at ordinary passengers like prison wardens, all in the name of security. But, TSA — why you gotta be so rude? When even members of Congress say you’re lacking in manners, you know you’ve crossed a line.

The exchange between the TSA agent and the passenger left me so uncomfortable that I made eye contact with other strangers as if to ask, “You heard that too, right?” I was embarrassed on a human level and felt horrible that any person, especially a visitor to our country, would get this kind of treatment.

Related story:   Some airlines refunding tickets for passengers who fear pat-downs

And even though I knew it was wrong, I wasn’t brave enough under the jurisdiction of TSA to speak up and demand her name.

What to do?

More than a week passed, and I still kept thinking about that passenger, and how I should have stood up for the right thing. But I didn’t know the agent’s name, and even if I did, would anyone care?

Ten days later, I reported the incident via TSA’s complaint site, figuring I would never hear a thing.

Wouldn’t you know, within 24 hours of filing the complaint, I was contacted three times by the TSA. With each contact, they pressed me for more detail about the incident.

The first response assured me that they had received my complaint, including boilerplate language that “TSA monitors the nature of inquiries we receive to track trends and spot areas of concern that may require special attention.”

When I received a second email from Screening Management, asking for supplemental information about the incident, I wrote:

The TSA agent was passing through the queue because she was leaving for her lunch break. The passenger began to ask her a question in broken English. She interrupted him and started mocking how he was talking, very loudly, and stammering, as if to mock his lack of English proficiency.

He was never able to articulate his question, as she kept interrupting and imitating him, mock stammering. She told him twice, quite abusively, that she was on her lunch break so she didn’t care what he had to say.

She spoke over him and told him that there was a long line of passengers, so if he was in a hurry, he would have to ask each of the people in line who are all waiting for flights whether he could cut in front of them. And she told him again, she’s on her lunch break, and left. It was beyond uncomfortable, and in my opinion, was abusive behavior.

This TSA officer strikes me as someone who should not be working with the public, and should not be representing the United States to the traveling public.

I felt it was important to report because I think the supervisor on duty at that location would probably know who it is. This is probably not an isolated incident. Certainly if the TSA keeps records of who goes on break at what time, this person would be easy to identify.

Feeling satisfied I had done what I could, I thought that was the end of it.

That is, until a third email came from TSA’s personnel office, requesting the exact physical location where I was when the encounter took place and a physical description or photo of what my kids and I were wearing that day. The body of the email contained my initial submission, where someone had highlighted key words, such as the time of day, the date and the location. The email said that they may review closed circuit television footage to identify the officer for corrective action. I provided our exact location, and because my mother had taken a picture of us that morning as we left for the airport, I happened to have a photograph of what all three of us were wearing. The email explained that due to privacy laws, the TSA would not be able to share what corrective action was taken.

The email concluded by saying that “unprofessional behavior is not tolerated” at the TSA, calling the incident “troubling.”

A new image?

As appalled as I was to witness this upsetting exchange between a trusted federal employee and a foreign visitor, I was even more surprised that the TSA seems to have taken my complaint seriously.

I am convinced that emails from multiple TSA offices is significant. I imagine they could readily identify the agent, and honestly, I hope that they have. Even if she’s a good person who was having a bad day, it’s the wrong job for her. And while we will never know the outcome of my complaint, I feel like it touched a nerve at TSA. Maybe they’re looking to change their image. The TSA did team up with Yelp! not long ago to seek more feedback from the public. Maybe the tide is turning, and we’ll see a day where the TSA is known for doing good.

We can only hope that’s the case — that the TSA is able to maintain high standards of service, remove bad apples from the bunch, and in the process, make the unpleasant checkpoint experience better for everyone. Yes, the TSA has its security mission. But the mission and manners don’t have to be mutually exclusive. TSA agents have the ability to carry out that mission with dignity, and help travelers along the way, not in the name of security, but in the name of humanity.

Does the TSA take complaints seriously enough?

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...

Jessica Monsell

A writer and natural advocate, Jessica joined our consumer advocacy effort following a decade of work on behalf of air crash victims at one of the nation's largest plaintiffs' law firms. She has lived in Europe and Asia, but now calls Charleston, S.C. home.

  • Altosk

    I hope they take it seriously. I once complained about an IAH TSA Agent who was rude to some German speaking passengers that were asking directions. They spoke English, but it was broken and slow. The agent was a real piece of work and waved his hand in their faces saying, “Ain’t got time to talk.”

    I helped them out, but wow, TSA. You make a great impression.

    My complaint never received a response, so at least you got further than I did.

  • AAGK

    I am so glad you reported this. I feel so badly for that passenger. It must have been so embarrassing. Hopefully the agent will be identified and retrained. This agent has probably bullied many passengers and it is awesome that you took the time to follow through and try to stop this, especially since you were traveling and with your kids and have a full plate yourself.

  • jh

    I’m so glad that you reported this, and I hope the TSA will take swift and decisive action so this agent is not loosed on the public again. I’ve traveled a lot and have a few stories myself, all reflecting badly upon TSA agents and, sadly, not one that reflects well upon them.

  • IAH seems to be where I’ve seen the rudest TSA personnel. I wonder if it’s something to do with that location. Other places haven’t been nearly as bad.

  • John Keahey

    I have no idea if they take them seriously enough, so I can’t respond to the poll; none of us know really. This story and TSA’s apparently legitimate follow-up offer hope. I go through the line several times a year and, in my experience, I am now feeling more negativity with European security than with TSA. Wonder what that’s all about.

  • flutiefan

    it’s great that they’re taking these incidents seriously. i work at an airport with them daily, so i know how they can be. i also know some great agents.

    but to say this is abusive is taking it a little far. rude, completely. however, i (as an airline agent) get treated far worse than this every day. people (passengers) are just MEAN. it doesn’t help that i’m in one of the worst delayed airports in the country, but that’s no excuse for anyone to treat me as a lesser human being. not that it matters, but i have my degree. the public seems to assume that jobs like mine (and the TSAs) go to uneducated, low intellect people, and they treat us with condescension. i just happened to “fall into” this job after college, and it turns out i’m really good at it.

    the point is, i wish someone watching the passengers berate me, make fun of me, yell at me, ABUSE me, would step in and say something like this writer did. but they rarely do.

    and just because this TSA woman had a very bad exchange with the foreign passenger doesn’t mean she is like that every day. to uniformly say she should never work with the public is just ridiculous. as i’m always told, you don’t know what’s happening in someone’s life to inform their behavior on a particular day.

  • Peter Varhol

    My encounters with TSA agents has been overwhelmingly professional. They have a difficult job, and I think in general try to do it well. Because we are dealing with human beings, it doesn’t always go as it should. Of course, I speak English.

  • It is abuse because of the unequal power dynamic and the ability to retaliate. The TSA could detain the passenger, have them arrested, etc. The passenger is fairly powerless. What was worse was that the TSA initiated the belittling. The passengers actions were benign.
    While it is unfortunate that you put up with nasty folks, you are still the one in power All the passenger can do is yell and get slimy. On the other hand you could mess up their travels fairly easily (not saying you would, but that you could). If you were to initiate nastiness or retaliate then people would consider you abusing your position.
    In short, it is all about who does, or does not have power.

  • Tom McShane

    What kind of snake is that supposed to be anyhow? Looks like an anaconda took advantage of a king cobra and the offspring had Fang Augmentation Surgery.

  • Beverly Walker

    I had my first bad experience with TSA on February 4 in the Las Vegas airport. They sent my husband and son through the expedited line and held me back. Thank goodness they let my son go with my husband, as they held me up for almost 20 minutes. They only let one line through while three or four other lines stood waiting and waiting. There were plenty of agents standing around and I began to worry that I would miss the plane. I have never seen them to do this before and hope to never see it again!

  • Mel65

    Maybe it’s the airports I fly into and out of, but *shrug* I’ve not had any major issues with the TSA… other than the fact that I’m starting to get paranoid about whatever is going on with my left shoulder that keeps getting flagged…

  • 42NYC

    Where’s their incentive to do a good job? They’re not McDonald’s where the customers have other options for airport security services.

    When you have a monopoly customer service falls apart. Fact

    At least in the nyc area they have a giant “never forget 9/11” sign hanging up right when you leave security. I feel the sign in there mainly to tell passengers “yes, we suck but we’re doing it for your safety”

  • Extramail

    And, some of us are deathly afraid of snakes and think that picture is very unsettling. Irrational, I agree but not the way I wanted to start my morning!

  • moonshin

    A few years ago I was passing flying out of New Orleans. I set off the metal detector as i walked thru it due to my fake hip. SO i had to be patted down. The TSA agent used me as a training dummy to show another agent how to pat someone down. I had to stand with my arms outspread for 15 minutes while he roughly ran his gloved hands over me. So roughly he was literally pulling the hair on my arm from the friction with the gloves. After 10 minutes with my arms at my side i started to lower them since they were getting tired. The TSA agent yelled at me “what are you doing I didnt tell you to put your arms down”. After 15 minutes i was allowed to pass. I wrote a Complaint to the TSA but of course never heard anything back. Since then I refuse to fly to or from New Orleans and drive instead

  • Tim Mengelkoch

    I would have some concern about giving an accurate description of my family to the TSA. Maybe I am too cynical but you never know what they will use that for

  • John McDonald

    the TSA is one huge con. It was safer flying prior to SEP11. Don’t believe it. THen ask Bin Laden. Isn’t he dead ? Who knows. The dodgy govt says he is, but who believes the garbage they come out with. No wonder Trump is going to be next President. Everyone is sick of the spin put out by govt departments.

  • Jadeveon Clowney

    You actually believe the TSA takes your complaint seriously??

    Other than that, I’m surprised you travel with your children, since the TSA is well known for abusing children just as much as adults. And as for Yelp, the TSA does a good job of censoring reviews there. Take a look:

  • Tricia K

    I’ve had some pretty rough handling by TSA agents doing a pat down (multiple joint replacements and a metal detector don’t go together), which is bad enough, but how they treated my daughter was inexcusable. We were traveling after she had some pretty major knee surgery and was on crutches and no weight bearing. Unfortunately, I didn’t know we could have had a wheel chair prior to going through security. I went through, but because she had a big brace that could not be removed, she had to be screened differently. I have no idea what the delay was, but she was standing, waiting for them for at least 10 minutes, if not more. She was crying because she was in a lot of pain. I started to get a chair for her and two agents rushed me. I started yelling at them to get her a chair and they told me “if you really want to help your daughter, go get her something to eat.” Still no chair. Finally they let her sit down and did their screening. the problem here though, is that none of us dare speak out against an incident while we are going through it for fear of getting bumped off of our flight, or even arrested. I realize now that I should have filed a complaint, but this was about five years ago. I don’t understand why one of the most important jobs in transportation security goes to such low paid workers. You get what you pay for.

  • Tricia K

    I wish I could say the same. I have bilateral knee replacements as well as bilateral jaw replacements (yes, I’m part bionic). If i can’t use the whole body scanner, I end up with a very aggressive pat down that has included them pulling back the waistband of my pants and looking down at my crotch. Of course, it’s under the pretense of checking the waistband. Contrast that with security in Madrid, Rome and Ireland, where they don’t use whole body scanners, but are very respectful of me and careful not to cause me physical pain. The woman who did the screening in Dublin even apologized, but was nowhere near as hands as some of the agents in the US. My husband, on the other hand, gets through security with no problem because he meets the “profile” of Mr. Businessman, here for a purpose and not going to cause trouble. If I were a terrorist trying to blend in, I would model myself off of that.

  • Susan Richart

    I would wonder whether this complaint received attention because it came from someone other than the person who was treated abusively. It would often appear that the TSA’s attitude is always the passenger is wrong and we are right, end of discussion.

    Lots of complaints about screener attitude at @AskTSA which no amount of training at the TSA’s “training academy” is ever going to fix.

    TSA’s troubles start at the top and until the top is fixed, passengers will suffer at the hands of screeners.

  • cscasi

    I have never had any issues with security when traveling overseas. Perhaps I have been lucky in the past 45 years, I don’t know. I just pay attention and do my best to comply with what is being asked and continue on through. I experience more negativity here at home; although, I do admit that seems to have abated a bit here the past couple of years.

  • cowboyinbrla

    Sorry, flutiefan, but NO.

    You’re an employee of a private company – an airline. You may have to deal with shitty passengers at times, but that’s the nature of your job. If you maintain your cool, that’s great – it’s what you should do. And I’m sorry more people don’t step up and speak out when customers abuse you – I always try to be overly nice to agents who are taking it on the chin from other passengers – but really, if airlines weren’t so shitty to their passengers, maybe the passengers wouldn’t be so shitty to their representatives.

    But the TSA is a step beyond. They are government agents – public servants – and they have a heightened responsibility to treat the public correctly, including not mocking their language skills. And just because it “doesn’t mean she is like that every day” doesn’t provide an excuse.

  • cowboyinbrla

    Gee, I suppose children should just stay home until they’re adults and ready to be abused? You know, some people don’t have much choice about whether or not to fly with their children. Being “surprised” that a passenger does that is, well, surprising.

  • AirlineEmployee

    I voted NO. I certainly commend you for putting in the complaint (even days later) and I am surprised the TSA followed up several times. Nevertheless, I think most people believe this is/was just a “rare” case of whoever read your complaint just happened to be caring enough at that moment to look at it and do something. In other words you just happened to get to the right person at the right time. How many thousands of complaints do they toss aside, laugh at or just forget about ? I would venture to say a very high percentage.
    As far as I’m concerned, the majority of TSA cop-wannabees are the misfits of society. If they weren’t fortunate enough to get a job with the TSA in the first place, they’d be slinging hash or cleaning toilets somewhere (if they even worked any job at all), though it would be an insult to those who do short-order cooking or janitorial jobs efficiently and because they have to.
    I recently viewed a YouTube video of a 10-year-old girl being patted down by a TSA woman. She patted this child down repeatedly in the same places for a full ten minutes – just about every inch of her body. It was beyond ridiculous and utterly horrendous. The parent was filming it.

    I don’t really have the answer as to what could effectively replace the TSA but it seems that we ‘sheeple’ can’t do much about this. Reminder: Get to the airport very early when you’re traveling to be able to survive the machinations of this ‘thing’ we have to be groped, grimaced and now mocked by.

  • cscasi

    I am sorry you had to endure that. However, the recourse is to immediately ask for the TSA Supervisor for that particular screening station. . If he/she is unable to get things settled, you can escalate it further and ask for the TSA Manager for the airport.
    I know, one does not have time to do all that, right? The other recourse it to take good notes and file a complaint. Perhaps TSA is actually paying attention to them these days. All we can do is report what we experience.
    As for getting what you pay for; well, I have to disagree. The TSA agents are paid more (with more and better benefits) than those were paid when it was being done by private screeners working for companies who got the job by bidding the lowest price. Therefore, passengers should expect a higher caliber of personnel to be TSA agents who must be held to a higher standard of professionalism and conduct.
    Just keep the reports coming and perhaps TSA will improve.
    Lastly, people complain about the TSA, Social Security Administration, IRS, FAA, and just about every other government agency there is. So do they about private companies in our country; like what we see here on a daily basis. Keep making your feelings known.

  • Jadeveon Clowney

    Very sorry but not surprised to hear this story. No one should have to go through what you and your daughter did.

    I do want to make a point about “low-paid workers” though. TSA employees are not low paid. They are well compensated, not only in terms of salary, but full benefits. I bet many people posting here would like to make what they make. Anyway, no matter what the pay, that’s still no excuse for their abusive behavior.

  • Jadeveon Clowney

    You are right that some people are forced to fly with their children, either for medical reasons or divorce or etc. I’m not talking about those people. I’m talking about discretionary travel. I personally know people with children who won’t allow them to fly because of the TSA.

  • Jadeveon Clowney

    If Trump becomes president, won’t he then be part of the same dodgy government you say you don’t trust? You think he won’t spin?

  • Jadeveon Clowney

    “I end up with a very aggressive pat down that has included them pulling
    back the waistband of my pants and looking down at my crotch.”

    This kind of says it all. I’m amazed at all the people who voted Yes in the poll.

  • pauletteb

    I agree. I have never been treated impolitely or unprofessionally by a TSA agent or even witnessed such behavior . . . karma will probably bite me next time I fly!

  • pauletteb

    Knowing someone who used to write reviews for Yelp, I don’t even bother to look at them for ANY service.

  • sofar

    Not only should the agent not work with the public, but probably shouldn’t work in a field where she’ll be exposed to travelers — which (shocker) may not speak English.

    I recently got back from a trip in which I visited three countries, each with its own language. And I was treated with nothing but patience and kindness in all those countries’ airports as I tried to piece together what little I knew of the language.

    When I got back to the U.S. and went through customs, I heard a customs agent berating two young women at Dulles: “I can’t UNDERSTAND YOU. You’re gonna travel to the United States and you’re not gonna speak ENGLISH?” How much do you wanna bet that guy, when he travels (if he does travel) expects everyone around the world to know English?

  • sharpasice

    I am happy you reported this, however, I’d worry the next time I had to go thru TSA since now they have your picture. I’d worry about retaliation.

  • LonnieC

    I think it’s hopeful that the TSA appeared to take this incident seriously.

    Of course, now that it has your photos, you’ll never fly again….???

  • Kairho

    The biggest failure here is that people expect such TSA people to be “professional.” They are simply low level inspectors, without significant authority (aside from permission to intimidate and bully), who can not interact with passengers on their own. The personnel who reviewed the complaint, and acted on it, show more professionalism than an entire airport full of TSA drones.

  • Carchar

    Sad to say, that was my first thought.

  • PolishKnightUSA

    My wife applied for the job of airline agent and she didn’t make the cut. It’s amazingly competitive, like FA positions, and underpaid. I know that some people are real jerks who are upset when their flight is cancelled/delayed (horror stories here) and take it out on the agent. The agent is basically the scapegoat for problems created elsewhere in the system from the top (CEO) down to the maintenance crew (who may not have gotten the plane ready on time). It’s like the way the waiter takes the hit when the food is bad.

    I sympathize.

    The TSA is a different dynamic, however, since they can retaliate and sometimes do. I see travelers from foreign lands and even the USA who act with fear so much so that they are afraid to smile and relax in line. They are worried that being relaxed will get them picked out for additional questioning or make the wrong “joke” and get thrown into jail. As Paul McCartney would say:

    “Back in the USSR!”

    As an experienced traveler, I thank all the crew and people working on my itinerary, I even have gifts for them (chocolate), say good morning and goodbye, give them time to relax after helping one person before I jump on them with my request, etc. AND I plan accordingly knowing that since I have to cut these people some slack, I need to be early and give people more time by scheduling my own. If I’m late, I won’t have time to be polite so I avoid being late. I pad my schedule, dress well, pack light, and avoid the crowds.

    I am not the typical traveler, sadly, and I expect most here are are atypical. It’s a fault of our dysfunctional system as much as anything and not necessarily deregulation. Consolidation of airlines means there are fewer flights, there are more people in the USA (cough, won’t go into why, election year), so more travelers, the security protocols for the USA are poorly designed (variety of reasons). etc. It is, what it is.

  • Carchar

    I think ACE has a very good imagination and expresses it with great talent. Comically apropos.

  • Carchar

    Judging by the atmosphere of Trump’s rallies, expect a lot of knock-down drag-out brawls while waiting to get through TSA.

  • This one is part of the TSA VIPR program

  • Éamon deValera

    Scumbags work everywhere. Fortunately they are in the minority. They will be pushed out of one job and move on to treat people like garbage somewhere else. Just hope they don’t touch your food.

  • TestJeff Pierce

    IN GENERAL, the ANSWER is NO: The TSA put in criminal touching (i,.e groping) of passengers as a ‘standard protocol’. If they don’t touch your private parts or (female) breasts, then they did their job wrong.

    Medically challenged people are TARGETED for this criminal touching pat down process.

    America puts up with it because most people are gutless and assume these procedures keep them safe against insurmountably low risks.

    So, the fact the TSA cares about how a TSA clerk treated a foreign passenger pales to the fact they support molestation of the medically disabled.

  • Sai

    Given that I had to *sue* them to get a response to my formal complaints — it took a year, and I won; — I’d say “obviously no”. They will blow you off, make nice noises for the press, etc., but if you want any real response, it’s only going to happen through litigation.

    Which is a pity. They could have obeyed the law (rather than obstructing the investigation into my complaints) and settled with me when I tried to get them to do so in good faith. It’s now three years later, that’s not going to happen any more. Just means it’ll cost them a whole lot more.

  • Joe Farrell

    I’ve done similar right then and there. And I had a supervisor ask me ‘if I wanted to fly that day’ when I pressed the issue of staff violating regulations.

    I said: “nope, lets take all the time we need to do this right.” And Stared him down.

    I then said: “let get the tape, lets pull the directional mikes, and lets see who was right.”

    I then handed my attorney business card and said: ‘Your turn’

    He handed me his card, and said he’d be in touch. I asked to see his supervisor. Who was called and came out about 10 min later. I said Mr. Rodriguez will be calling me about a staff regulatory violation, and I just wanted you to know.” Asked for his card, gave him mine, thanked him for his time and went back in line.

    I even returned to the airport to have a meeting with Mr. Rodriguez and his supervisor Ms. Tandy to discuss what the rules are concerning passenger property, being separated from it, and who could paw through it randomly without searching it. They had the video of the screening, and the audio. Backed up my complaint.

    And like you say, you never hear what they do – but there is a bureaucratic response.

  • Joe Farrell

    Just remember one thing – its 2016. No one is going to eat your chocolate. . . .

%d bloggers like this:
Get smart. Sign up for the newsletter.