5 things you should never say to a TSA screener

It happened to Ann Holley again last week. As she passed through the security checkpoint at Atlanta’s busy airport, she asked a TSA agent to “opt out” of being screened by a full-body scanner.

Under the agency’s rules, she received an automatic “enhanced” pat-down.

She wishes she hadn’t.

“I was left waiting for an agent to come by and give me a pat-down,” says Holley, who works for the federal government in Hartford, Conn. “I waited 15 minutes.”

She adds, “I’m wondering whether TSA has decided to leave those who opt out hanging so we’ll eventually get tired of waiting and give in, the way nearly everyone else does. I never see anyone else opting out anymore.”

Holley — not her real name because she’s afraid the TSA will make her wait even longer the next time she’s in Atlanta — committed one of the passenger screening “no-nos” that you need to know about before your next flight. They include cracking jokes, mentioning certain laws and sometimes, just asking simple questions.

But to answer her question: Does the TSA intentionally keep passengers waiting? If there is such a policy, it is almost certainly an unofficial one. There’s ample evidence of its existence, including this passenger in Phoenix who had to wait in a glass cage nearly an hour when she balked at TSA screening of her breastmilk (see video, above).

What should you never, ever, say to a TSA agent?

“I demand to opt out!” See example, above. Personally, I avoid those untested scanners just like Holley, but there’s a right way and a wrong way to do it. Taking a loud, principled stand at the airport is likely to end you up in that glass penalty box. Instead, look for the line without a scanner and if you’re sent into the wrong queue, say that you’d prefer not to use the scanner. I suspect that exclaiming, “I opt out!” will force a supervisor over, and good luck making your next flight. (For the record, Holly made her flight — but just barely.)

“May I take your picture?” Although the official TSA policy is that taking snapshots are allowed at a screening area, the truth is, agents don’t like to be photographed at work. I know, because I’ve been at a major airport with a public affairs officer and a professional photographer, and have been told that the policy isn’t worth the HTML it’s coded on. A careful read of the actual rule makes that reasonably clear: “Taking photographs may also prompt airport police or a TSA official to ask what your purpose is,” it says. Who in their right mind would want to be subject to a police interrogation?

My advice: Unless you see abusive behavior that must be documented, don’t provoke the agents by pointing a camera at them or asking if they’d like to be part of your vacation photo album. (They don’t.)

“Ever heard of the Fourth Amendment?” That would be the one about the right of the people to be secure against unreasonable searches and seizures, in case you were wondering. Aaron Tobey famously posed that question on his chest last year, and was arrested. Of course, we can hope that most TSA agents have heard of the Fourth Amendment, as well as some of the other constitutional questions surrounding the latest screening methods.

Although I agree with the protesters that the TSA is treading on thin ice, constitutionally speaking, I think the best place to bring this up is either in a court of law or at the ballot box this November.

“So a terrorist walks into a bar …” TSA agents aren’t supposed to have a sense of humor (although when they do, it makes the failed comedians of the world sound funny). The agency dryly warns that quips about bombs will not expedite the screening process. No, duh.

The real joke, of course, is that we’re paying $8 billion a year to fund this circus. It’s a joke no one is laughing about, except perhaps the well-connected subcontractors who are building the gadgets and scanners that are supposed to protect us from those funny terrorist bombs that haven’t shown up at the airport yet. And those subcontractors are laughing … all the way to the bank.

“How can you live with yourself?” If you haven’t already guessed it, being a TSA agent can be a thankless job. Many workers disagree with their agency’s policies, but they stay on the job because they need the work. The last thing these federal workers want is an angry confrontation with a passenger who thinks they are all gate rapists operating above the law. (Fact is, what the TSA does is highly questionable, and when they aren’t on the job, I’m sure agents do a great deal of reflection — but there’s a time and place for it.)

Dressing down a TSA agent at the airport, while tempting, serves no useful purpose. These federal employees answered a call to duty printed on the side of a pizza box and are protecting us from airborne jihadists, or so they think. You have decided to fly, and in doing so, to subject yourself to their wrongheaded screening. If you have a problem with that, do something well in advance of your flight, not half an hour before departure.

That said, there are times when you ought to speak up. But that’s a topic for another time.

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