Just who does the TSA think it is?

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By Christopher Elliott

Hardly a day seems to go by that I don’t get a complaint about the Transportation Security Administration.

Today it’s Judi Kutzko’s turn. She believes many air travelers like her are afraid to stand up to the agency for fear of being blacklisted.

“TSA can — and often does — make things miserable for anyone who speaks up,” she says.

(Indeed, it took some convincing to let me share her grievance with you here. You’re a brave woman, Judi.)

So what, exactly, happened to her?

A few weeks ago she was flying out of Bradley International Airport in Connecticut when a TSA agent rudely ordered her through the airport’s full-body scanner.

“She said because it was a Saturday and not many people were waiting, they were X-raying everyone,” she says. “I was told to remove my jewelry, and before I could take off my watch, the TSA agent ripped it off my arm and threw it in the bin. Thank goodness it didn’t break.”

Kutzko had some trouble wiggling out of her medical-alert bracelet, and finally the agent told her, “Oh, never mind. Just get in the machine and hold your arms up.”

She asks how, precisely, this security theater is keeping America’s skies safer.

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What’s up with the TSA?

Also, to use the vernacular, what is up with the TSA?

It’s a good time to ask. The TSA is celebrating its 10th anniversary this month, which is the perfect occasion to reflect on what the agency had done – and continues to do – to air travelers. How much worse can the TSA behave?

Kutzko and the many other travelers who have claimed during the last several weeks that the TSA is forcing them through the scanners are almost certainly the victims of an overzealous agent. The agency site is clear that the body scanners are optional.

Then again, TSA might have issued a secret order telling agents they could insist passengers use the scanners, contrary to its published policy.

If it has done that, it wouldn’t be able to tell me because, see, it’s a secret order. (Here’s how to handle the TSA when you travel.)

The TSA’s unexplained persistence

Kutzko and others like her tell me they’re appalled by the agency’s apparent lack of accountability.

Incidentally, her story doesn’t end there.

“After the X-ray I heard her speak into a walkie-talkie and say, ‘OK, she’s clear’,” she told me. “I started toward the bin to retrieve my belongings, only to have the TSA agent block my path and say, ‘Where do you think you’re going? I’m not done with you yet.’”

Turns out there was “something” about her arms that had made them suspicious. She needed to be patted down. Kutzko told her that was “ridiculous” since she was wearing a sleeveless shirt.

“They were just doing this because they can,” she says.

I agree. I’m willing to bet that a 72-year-old retiree wearing a medical bracelet is not going to blow up a plane.

She wonders: Just who does the TSA think it is?

That may well work as a rhetorical question. But it is also answerable, to a certain degree.

TSA is an agency that thinks it can operate in secret, with little or no accountability. It is an agency that believes the rules – even the ones that it sets for itself – don’t necessarily apply to it.

The TSA’s behavior is beyond unacceptable

On a more practical level, the TSA thinks that frisking grandmothers and forcing them through a scanner is not only completely acceptable.

It seems to also think that it can be rude about the whole thing.

It is easy for someone like me to be outraged by these clear violations of our dignity, if not our civil liberties. After all, I’ve been covering the most unpopular government agency since its inception a decade ago. I have been threatened by the TSA, lied to by it and been served with an illegal subpoena to force me to name a source (I didn’t).

But until everyday passengers share my disappointment with the way the agency operates, I’m afraid the answer to the question, “Just who does the TSA think it is?” will be: Whatever the hell it wants to be.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

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