What to do when the TSA makes up its own rules

Does a container of juice for a toddler really pose a security threat to U.S. air travel? Whether it does or not, you can’t blame Kristin Rausch for wondering after a recent bad experience with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).

Rausch’s case suggests that the TSA is protecting us from persons and objects that don’t pose a security threat, and that its agents subject passengers to punishment for holding the TSA to its own rules.

Rausch and her four-year-old daughter had to go through the security area at George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston to board a flight. Rausch wanted to make sure that she could bring some juice on board the flight to help her daughter cope with the change in cabin pressure during takeoff and landing. She called the TSA’s “special procedures” line, where a TSA agent assured her that she could bring the juice aboard the plane and merely needed to pack the juice in a separate clear plastic bag.

She also checked out the TSA website, which indicates that “Formula, breast milk and juice in quantities greater than 3.4 ounces or 100 milliliters are allowed in carry-on baggage and do need to not fit within a quart-sized bag. Separate formula, breast milk and juice from other liquids, gels and aerosols [are] limited to 3.4 ounces.”

When she reached the TSA checkpoint at Bush Airport, a TSA agent told her that it was fine to take the juice in her carry-on bag, but to put it in a separate bin for screening. So far, so good.

Then Rausch walked through the body scanner. As she emerged, another TSA agent pulled the juice out of the bin and asked Rausch, “How old is your daughter?” Rausch answered that her daughter was four years old.

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Here’s Rausch on what happened next:

The agent unprofessionally shouted to another, “Four’s too old for juice, right?”

The other answered, “I think it’s three and under.”

The agent then turned to me and told me to take my daughter out of the checkpoint and go check the juice in my luggage. I told her I had called the special traveler line and they said it would be fine, because she needed it on the plane, but subject to special screening.

The agent got annoyed and took the juice out of my view to another agent. I heard her say, “I told her no but now she’s saying it’s medical.”

The agent came back and said, “Well, if you’re going to make a medical issue out of it, you have to have a pat-down.”

I consented to the pat-down, and then tweeted to @AskTSA about the age limit on juice. The reply I received was a non-answer.

The TSA website contains the following instructions regarding liquids for small children:

Inform the TSA officer if you do not want the formula, breast milk and/or juice to be X-rayed or opened. Additional steps will be taken to clear the liquid and you or the traveling guardian will undergo additional screening procedures, to include a pat-down and screening of other carry-on property.

The website offers no guarantee that passengers traveling with these items won’t be subjected to a pat-down — in fact, it indicates that the passenger should expect a pat-down. It also doesn’t list an age limit for these liquids.

That said, the agent’s hostile attitude was uncalled for. While Rausch would have been subjected to the pat-down simply for bringing juice for a small child onto her flight, the agent’s annoyance and claiming that Rausch was “making a medical issue out of it” were unnecessarily aggressive and led Rausch to believe that the pat-down was retaliation for insisting that she was allowed to bring the juice on board the flight.

Passengers such as Rausch with complaints against TSA agents can use this form on the TSA website to file complaints against the TSA. The TSA website also contains email and telephone contact information for its Contact Center for passengers with questions about TSA operations.

Sadly, interactions like these between the TSA’s agents and travelers suggest that the TSA needs to take a hard look at its screening procedures — and its personnel who conduct screenings. There is a fine line between strict enforcement of rules and aggressive attitudes towards passengers over issues like juice for toddlers, and the latter doesn’t do anything to protect the American public from terrorists.

Do the TSA's screening procedures need overhauling?

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Jennifer Finger

Jennifer is the founder of KeenReader, an Internet-based freelance editing operation, as well as a certified public accountant. She is a senior writer for Elliott.org. Read more of Jennifer's articles here.

  • JewelEyed

    Actually, what the website says is:
    “Formula, breast milk and juice for infants or toddlers are permitted through the security checkpoint. Separate formula, breast milk and juice from other liquids, gels and aerosols limited to 3.4 ounces or 100 milliliters.” At the age of 4, you are no longer a toddler. This information is from the link provided above in the article.

  • Regina Litman

    I’ve always thought of a toddler as being someone below school age. That would generally be 5 in the U.S.

  • Kairho

    Google returns many results, most saying ages 1-3 are toddler, with a few going to 5. I would think the American Academy of Pediatrics would be difinitive and they say 1-3 years. https://www.healthychildren.org/English/ages-stages/Pages/default.aspx

  • Jeff W.

    Both sides have valid arguments on whether a four year old is a toddler or not one. However, juice is something that can easily be purchased on the other side of security, unlike breast milk or formula. And on most full service airlines, apple juice is also available as a beverage choice.

    Could the TSA have been more discreet? Perhaps. But since it is just juice and not formula/milk, I would have just let it go.

  • AJPeabody

    Regardless of rules, real or invented, TSA interactions with the public are subject to varying interpretations and frictions. The best solution would allow review and correction/education/discipline for errant TSA agents, and a sure defense if the agent was right. This would require surveillance recording at all TSA sites, either fixed cameras or wearable ones such as are now being recommended for police officers. This will be done two weeks after Hades freezes over, I suspect.

  • Altosk

    I think the conflicting answers from multiple agents here are the most troubling.

  • AAGK

    Does she need breast milk for the 4 year old also? Does this airport not have juice past the security checkpoint? How odd. Maybe I misunderstood.
    A 4 year old is in nursery school already.

  • AAGK

    A four year old is in nursery school.

  • RightNow9435

    The answer to the question is obvious. Of course it does

  • technomage1

    I have no idea what age a toddler is, but it would seem to me this is an easy fix for the TSA. All they need to do is set an age limit, say 4 or under, for the fluids mentioned.

  • Rebecca

    It isn’t like you can’t buy juice in the airport. I have flown with my infant and toddler – my kids are 9 months and 22 months – and you can easily buy juice there. Is it overpriced? Yes. But worth the $3 not to have an issue like this one.

  • Rebecca

    While I’m not saying the TSA had to be rude, I have a feeling the OP wasn’t exactly an angel. Who makes a big deal about juice that you can easily purchase at the airport? Someone that doesn’t get into the line with the best attitude. Frankly, it’s sounds entitled when you’re insisting your 4 year old is a toddler and just must have juice because her ears are going to hurt. It’s an odd attitude to go into it with.

  • Altosk

    I’m normally the snarkiest one here, but I gotta side with the OP.

    If I had taken the time to call TSA to ask if my kid could have her juice (let’s say it’s magic juice…I don’t know why this traveler had to have THIS juice either) and was told yes, then told it was fine again at the TSA line, I would be a bit annoyed when someone later told me “no, you can’t have it, your kid is too old.”
    The OP had already received assurances from the TSA phone line AND the TSA greeter (?), the latter of which saw the child and likely marked her boarding pass.

    It’s just another example of the TSA being totally arbitrary and I’m not good with that.

  • C Schwartz

    I used to have to take liquid medication on board a flight, had a dr.’s
    letter and all that. The medication was in its original package, with
    the RX label, as required, and my name. The medication is only dispensed in one size which is well over 100 milliliters. Depending on the airport I had various levels of extra screening — pat down, swab for explosives, and such. I disclosed the large liquid and was polite and patient. Some agents were more polite than others, but I never had any problems and this is with flying between 50,000-70,000 miles per year. I seem to be fortunate not to have had a negative TSA experience.

  • NotThatBrooklynGuy

    So, if the kid is three or under bringing juice on board is OK. But try flying on the kid’s fourth birthday or later and the juice suddenly become dangerous?

  • MarkKelling

    Yes, juice is available, but not during takeoff and landing which is when the OP wanted it available for her child. And even if she was able to get some during the flight, the flight attendants will confiscate it before landing. So the only option in this case is to bring your own.

    But there are dozens of places to buy juice in the airport. I would have done that to eliminate one more possibility of getting harassed by the TSA

  • Bill___A

    My father used to say “don’t go looking for problems”. Buy the juice past security. You’ll save all the grief. It is more expensive and it is unfortunate to have to do it, but it can be done.

  • taxed2themax

    I agree.. To me this is, and should be an easy fix.. While I do think that adding a “randomness” component makes it harder for someone to plan, with intent, to deceive the system, I think where practical, that *objective* measurements be used such that there is ONE answer that is not discretionary or subjective.
    IF the TSA said under 4, then at 4yrs and 0 days and even 4 years and 1 day, you’re over the age limit, full stop

    but, at 3years, 364 days, then you’re ok..

  • mbods2002

    How ridicules these rules are and here we are arguing at what age a child is allowed to have juice on the plane to help her with the air pressure. Sigh….

  • Fishplate

    If you’ve never been subjected to the hostile attitude of a TSA agent, then you must walk everywhere you go.

  • MarieTD

    To you, someone sounds “entitled” after going through all that calling and checking to see if taking the juice was allowable? I think you’re grabbing the wrong end of the issue.

  • MarieTD

    It would have been more helpful if the authorities she checked with prior to going to the airport had reminded her that juice could be bought after check in.

  • Regina Litman

    I meant elementary school. For various reasons, not every child goes to nursery school.

  • Lindabator

    But we really don’t know HOW she asked them about her “toddler” – like did she state an age?

  • James Dworak

    I remember as a teenager parking right out front of ohare outside Chicago. Walking inside, going up a set of stairs to the roof and watching planes take off. Date night.
    Now, to be politically correct and not offend any one nationally, we all have to be subjected to body searches, scans that affect our body and personal embarrassment.
    Choice? Spend more on overpriced airport juice or body search?, lest you try and bring on a half ounce too much of juice…..

  • joycexyz

    Who decided the definition of toddler?

  • joycexyz

    Power trip!

  • cscasi

    ” She called the TSA’s “special procedures” line, where a TSA agent assured her that she could bring the juice aboard the plane and merely needed to pack the juice in a separate clear plastic bag.

    She also checked out the TSA website, which indicates that “Formula, breast milk and juice in quantities greater than 3.4 ounces or 100 milliliters are allowed in carry-on baggage and do need to not fit within a quart-sized bag. Separate formula, breast milk and juice from other liquids, gels and aerosols [are] limited to 3.4 ounces.”
    While I agree with what you and others have said here about purchasing juice after security, the issue is that she checked with TSA and did what she was told and still got hassled. The real problem is that TSA is not 100% uniform. Things vary from airport to airport and depending on who is working at the time. That’s what is not right and makes it hard for passengers like Rausch to comply.
    The bureaucracy just continues to grow and some passengers seem to suffer more and more because of how the rules are inturpet

  • cscasi

    While I agree about purchasing the juice beyond security and paying a lot more than bringing it with you, TSA should not have told her that she could bring the juice and she complied with how she was told to present it. When one is penalized for following/complying with what she is told to do, it is NOT her fault; rather the fault of TSA.

  • cscasi

    And, did TSA take the time to tell her what the age limit is for a “toddler” or just give her a partial answer.

  • Rebecca

    I get your point. It isn’t that I don’t think the TSA is ridiculous. It shouldn’t have happened in the first place.

    That being said, why would you make this issue your hill to die on? That’s where I’m coming from.

  • AAGK

    An elementary school student is not considered a toddler bc toddlers “toddle.” They are learning to walk. The airlines should specifically define that term though.

  • Bill

    No mention of entitlement here … Altosk is simply pointing out that the OP went to considerable efforts beforehand to ensure that what she was doing was right and proper and within guidelines. This was confirmed by the other TSA agent(s) encountered at the airport, save a single one who chose to be rude and make a public spectacle out of something that should have simply required a pat down … Granted, I don’t think this would have been the battle that I would have chosen to spend so much pre-flight time and then in-aiport time on but, as Altosk says, maybe it was magic juice. When my daughter was younger, she would only drink certainly types of juice and never, ever grape juice as she hated it. Then again, try to find organic “real” fruit juices in the airport that are not flavored sugar water and you might have another reason the OP went to such great lengths.

    But … did anyone (even the OP) believe there was an “entitlement”? Not at all … all we’re suggesting is there should be some consistency. If you do A when at B then the result should always be C (if you bring juice for your child through the security area of the airport, prepare for a pat down) … pretty simple, really.

  • Regina Litman

    I’m sorry if I wasn’t clear enough. In my eyes a toddler is younger than elementary school age. By elementary school, I mean kindergarten and up. In 1957, many elementary schools did not have kindergarten, but today, most, if not all, do. Today, I am not sure how many public school systems have pre-kindergarten for all children (as opposed to just special needs kids), but due to tradition, I will draw the line at normal kindergarten age, which would make a toddler someone younger than 5.

    There are some gray areas here, too. The letter writer appears to live in Texas, where I believe a child needs to be 5 before August 1 to enter kindergarten that year. Let’s suppose they are flying United to another ex-Continental hub, Newark. In New Jersey, a child must be 5 before October 1 to enter kindergarten that year. If it’s, say, late September when they’re traveling, and the child has turned 5 since July 31, one could argue that, under my rules. this child is still a toddler in Texas but not in New Jersey.

  • JewelEyed

    Is that serious comment? It’s a developmental stage of humanity, it has a scientific definition. Google it.

  • JewelEyed

    Prior to school age does not make you a toddler. The fact that you don’t agree doesn’t make it any less of a fact. It’s a developmental stage.

  • JewelEyed

    Can you cite for me the number of guns, large knives, and explosive materials the TSA has confiscated?

  • JewelEyed

    I’ve never had a TSA agent be hostile with me. I’ve been explosive residue checked twice, I had a small utility knife confiscated and chucked because I forgot it was in the backpack from a previous car trip, and I forgot I had my belt on when I went through the scanner. Nobody was nasty to me.

  • ctporter

    Perhaps the TSA agents working the lines just do not fly often, or they don’t fly seating near a “young person that may or may not be an official toddler” that is screaming loudly and nothing the parent is doing seems to help.
    Perhaps they need a bit more empathy and instructions on how to relate with passengers.
    Perhaps the brand of juice is important to the parent as well, perhaps they are trying to limit the sugars found in so many commercial juices and want to use something with specific ingredients not found commercially at airports.
    No perhaps about it, there needs to be much more consistent basis for, knowledge and enforcement of the rules, both by TSA and to the public.

  • MarkKelling

    I agree with you completely. But given the variability of TSA reaction to situations, even where one TSA employee at the same checkpoint told her one thing while the next one told her something else, I just try and eliminate things that would cause issues. Depressing when you really think about it.

  • Carchar

    I think the only liquids that should be confiscated by TSA are ones that TSA is afraid to toss into the bins in the middle of the crowded screening area.

  • Daddydo

    Yes there is a total need of a re-haul. But this has been decided by the votes of the last 2 million posts re: the TSA.

  • Altosk

    I’m not dying on anyone’s hill beyond conflicting information coming from the TSA is a giant problem. If you’re talking about the OP, I don’t see evidence of “dying on hills” either, but posing the question of “I was told this by two people and then someone else said no” is pretty much what this site is made up of in terms of cases.
    …and not just with the TSA. Pretty much like 95% of cases on this site fall into 3 categories:
    1. I have a non-refundable ticket/room and I have a really good reason why it should be refundable
    2. Car Rental scam/damage.
    3. I was told X by so-and-so, but then was expected to do/pay for Y by someone else.

  • Steve Rabin

    Me too. Condescending, self-righteous, and mildly rude, but not hostile. I too have been checked for residues many times, and they usually will explain what’s going on if you ask nicely. I figure the last thing I want to do is antagonize one of these folks, because I want my interactions with them to be as brief as possible (although I have run into some quite pleasant ones as well…). The more you tick them off, the longer you’ll be visiting with them, and they hold the cards.

  • John Grier

    the TSA is a joke, besides, any smart terrorist is not going to take down an aircraft from inside. Too easy to do it many other ways.

  • LeeAnneClark

    Does it matter? There is not a shred of proof that a single item that the TSA has confiscated was intended to be used for terrorism, or any other violent act onboard the planes.

    The vast majority of items that the TSA have confiscated were either 1) inadvertently left in a carry-on bag; 2) tools intended for use by the traveler later (e.g. technician’s tools, scuba dive knives, etc); 3) historical relics for collectors, or 4) completely innocent items that were not actual weapons (e.g. a belt buckle with a leather embossing in the shape of a gun). A very small percentage of the confiscated items where when someone tried to smuggle an actual weapon onboard, but in virtually every case it was determined that it was not to take down a plane…it was due to the passenger simply not wanting to have to check a bag or some other non-nefarious reason.

    Not a SINGLE person who had an item confiscated has been determined to either be a terrorist, or someone who meant to do harm to the airplane or its passengers. Almost all of them were let onboard the plane after their item was confiscated (a very tiny percentage were arrested for illegal weapons charges, but only because they weren’t legally allowed to own or carry that weapon, not because they had any intention to use them). So if all these dangerous items were confiscated, shouldn’t their owners all have been arrested? But they weren’t, because it was clear they weren’t terrorists, or had any intention to do anything wrong. They just forgot they had a gun in that bag, or stupidly tried to sneak something through because they didn’t want to pay to check luggage, or something else completely benign.

    Rudy is right. The TSA has not stopped a single terrorist. Not one.

  • JewelEyed

    The worst I had was dumb. There was a lady that was about to search my boobs because of a necklace that stops like 2″ above my cleavage when one of the older guys comes around and says “It’s obviously her necklace. She can go.” I was wearing a cami, so anything that high up would have to be stuck in my esophagus or surgically implanted in my body. I wasn’t worried though, I was just going to ask if I could just take the necklace off and get scanned again instead. :P

  • Rebecca

    I meant the OP. My reasoning was that she didn’t just dump it out. The thought of getting through airport security with small children, which is not particularly fun in and of itself, then deciding to fight for a cup of juice rather than just throw it away strikes me as dying on that hill.

    That’s not to say I think the TSA doesn’t suck. They suck. I have had my own experience with a power tripping b*#$^ and its not fun. But I chose to just lose that battle. The fact they don’t uniformly apply their rules is total bs. On that front, I agree wifh you. But some battles just aren’t worth fighting. In my opinion, based on my life experience, this is one of them.

  • JewelEyed

    That’s funny, because they only seem to try to do it from the inside…

  • Altosk

    You must not fly between IAH, MCO, or ATL much because those are the airports I’ve seen the worst/hostile/rude agents. I’m usually a single (seasoned) traveler and I have encountered incredible hostility and rudeness. Heck, one time two female agents at IAH started fighting between themselves–throwing punching and pulling hair. I would’ve videoed it but decided I wanted to make my flight. That was a few months ago!

  • FCVA

    So silly. Bring an empty sippy cup and ask the FA for juice or water as you board. You can ask for more later if you need it. They’re not going to take your child’s personal cup away for takeoff or landing. Or buy juice inside the security zone. Doesn’t matter what you read or what anyone else said. Yes, the TSA is inconsistent…and they’ve heard every story and excuse in the book for why every special snowflake shouldn’t have to do what they say. Don’t you think they get tired of hearing this stuff? What kind of example are you setting for your kids when you argue with someone in this situation instead of just finding another way to deal with the issue?

  • Skeptic

    If the TSA fails to define its regulatory language, please don’t blame the public for the resulting confusion. The federal government has extensive requirements for ensuring that anything it communicates with the public IT SERVES is expressed in plain language. This problem is 100% TSA’s/DHS’s fault.

    All federal agencies are also required to comply with the Administrative Procedure Act, which, among other things, prohibits actions that are “arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with the law.” This story illustrates classic TSA arbitrary and capricious behavior. They are literally making stuff up as they go along. TSA’s so-called “agents” are empowered to coerce passengers to submit to intrusive pat-downs for doing things that are supposed to be OK according to their own website and special procedures staff. They force passengers to discard property they have brought to check points after being told the property is allowed. A passenger’s only recourse is to protest after-the-fact, i.e. after submitting to the pat-down and/or surrendering private property in order to make it on to the plane.

    Jeh Johnson, stop pulling this crap in my name, OK? You aren’t making anyone safer and your goons are giving the rest of the federal government a bad name.

  • John Grier

    Brussels, Istanbul … you have a very short memory. Isis are systematically killing tourism to many places around the world.
    Why are airfares so incredibly cheap in real terms ? Because less people want to fly & to certain places in particular.
    In Australia, we have just seen one way fares Perth to Athens via Singapore advertised for AUD$369 inc taxes(USD$281) & AUD$419(USD$319) from Melbourne, Sydney & Gold Coast(low cost airport 1 hours drive south of Brisbane), but not food or bags(add $50 to $100 for this maybe). That’s for flight to SIN of roughly 5.5 to 7.5 hours + SIN/ATH of 11.5 hours on brand new B787’s with Scoot, Singapore Airlines low cost. Singapore Airlines are probably the world best airline. These fares are for peak northern summer in 2017, from late June(start of Australian school winter holidays) to October.

  • JewelEyed

    In fact, I do not. We’re talking about the TSA. Feel free to cite the list of places that’s happened in the US. I’ll wait.

  • JewelEyed

    Seriously? If you have a child that you take to a pediatrician and don’t know what a toddler is, I really have to question whether you’re paying attention. Developmental milestones are a large focus of pediatrics for young kids.

  • JewelEyed

    Actually, I was in Orlando not long ago, but no. Mostly New York airports, Detroit (where I don’t have to deal with them at all), and airports in NC and Florida. The only other ones I think I’ve even been to have been SeaTac, Philly, and Atlanta (a few times, but that was well over a decade ago). We fly once or twice a year nearly every year, but usually to the same places.

  • John Grier

    point is, TSA so called security, only happens when go inside terminal after check in.
    No protection at for example check in, which is where the Islamics have hit in Europe & wait for it, elsewhere. USA is one big target. Hopefully Trump will clean it up. Clinton is more useless than Obama.

  • JewelEyed

    You’re the one who made an extraordinary claim and chose not to support it. “Forgotten were the elementary rules of logic, that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence and that what can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.” – Christopher Hitchens

  • Skeptic

    Yes, seriously, JE. Federal agencies are held to a certain standard when it comes to promulgating and enforcing rules. Using vague language doesn’t meet that standard. It’s clear from the dialogue right here that different people have different ideas about what the word “toddler” means. There is no earthly reason for a federal agency to use vague, ambiguous language when a clear definition (e.g. the TSA could say “used here, ‘toddler’ means a child age 2 years and 11 months or younger”) is easily applied instead. I am not inventing this; it’s been litigated time and again in federal courts. Congress told all agencies to use plain language over 20 years ago. The TSA is flouting this requirement.

    It really isn’t hard to use plain language. And I have to wonder why so many of my fellow Americans commenting here are so ready to victim blame. I see a mother who did everything she could to plan ahead for the best possible experience for herself and her child, but who was essentially misled by the TSA staff she contacted in advance of the trip. Either that, or the TSA staff at the checkpoint got it wrong. In any case when an agency gives you two different answers to the same questions (what is a toddler and when is juice allowed though checkpoints), the problem lies with the agency, not the member of the public.

    It is not the TSA’s role to promote juice sales inside the secure zone. If a parent wants to bring nutritious juice that their child likes instead of paying 400% above retail for a limited selection of sugar-laden crap from Hudson’s, I believe they are entitled to do this.

  • JewelEyed

    Well, I think we’ve hit the center of the garden maze here. Have a great day. :P

  • John Grier

    what does that mean ?

  • Altosk

    I don’t see anywhere in this story that the OP was arguing beyond stating what she was told by:
    1. The TSA Special Services phone line
    2. The TSA greeter/boarding pass check person

    I would’ve done the same. I have no tolerance for this agency that can’t get their crap together and I know from first hand experience the TSA agents at IAH seem to be always salty and rude. I’m willing to bet this was C checkpoint, too. Those seem to always be the worst my home airport. I actually witnessed two female agents get into a fist fight there. Oh, how I wanted to film it but I always wanted to make my flight. I’m honestly surprised it didn’t get put on YouTube.

  • Altosk

    I fly once or twice a week, and IAH is my home airport.

  • JewelEyed

    Oh, I know you have way more travel experience than me. I just thought Fishplate’s assertion that *only* those who never fly have never been subjected to open hostility from TSA agents was a bit silly. I believe other people who say they have, but I don’t think that’s a universal experience either.

  • Mel65

    Do you have children? After 3 they’re not really toddlers. Toddler refers to toddling–aka learning to walk. They’re usually referred to as pre-schoolers from 3-5.

  • Regina Litman

    No, I don’t have children and never realized the origin of the word “toddler”. Genuine thanks for pointing this out!

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