The Insider: Do I really have to deal with the TSA?

Editor’s Note: This week’s Insider series is on managing the TSA when you travel. As always, please send me any suggestions on topics or content I may have overlooked.

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One of the most common questions I get from air travelers is whether they really have to endure the searches, scans and pat-downs by the TSA.

If you’re flying, the answer is: probably.

Where will you find the TSA?
The TSA is charged with protecting the nation’s transportation systems and “to ensure freedom of movement for people and commerce.” As a practical matter, the agency can’t police every highway, regional airport or waterway, and it never will. Instead, you’ll find the TSA in the following places:

At major airports and some regional airports. Smaller airports or airfields are TSA-free, so you might be able to avoid the agency by using a small airport or flying on a private aircraft.

On the road. TSA is deploying its mobile VIPR teams (that’s shorthand for Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response) on some roadways, but you’re more likely to see a UFO than to be stopped by a VIPR team.

At sea. If you’re cruising, you probably won’t see any TSA agents. Screenings and passport control are handled by customs agents and cruise personnel.

On the train. Although some VIPR teams have been spotted in subways, light rail and Amtrak, their presence is random and sporadic. Your odds of seeing an A-list celebrity on the train are greater than being stopped and frisked by a TSA agent.

Do you have to comply with the TSA?
Once you enter an airport screening area, TSA requires you to go through the screening, and judges have consistently supported the agency in that regard. However, it’s important to note that TSA screeners, also referred to as Transportation Security Officers, do not have any law enforcement authority. In other words, they can’t arrest you. They have to call airport police for that.

If you’re not at the airport, the rules are different. If you approach a VIPR checkpoint, you can make a U-turn or walk away, and there is no requirement that you allow your vehicle or your belongings to be searched. In addition, you can deny the agents permission to search you or your car by saying, “I do not consent to a search.” A law enforcement officer can’t search your car without probable cause — in other words, if he sees something suspicious. So technically, it’s possible to pass through a VIPR checkpoint and deny agents the right to search your vehicle. But you are probably better off just leaving.

Should I try to avoid the TSA?
That depends. A vast majority of TSA airport searches are incident-free. The agents are polite, efficient and helpful. But some go horribly wrong. There are disagreements over the safety of the TSA’s body scanners, misunderstanding over prohibited items and, of course, altercations over pat-downs. I know some air travelers who refuse to fly. I know others who believe the TSA is doing a great job protecting us from terrorism.

There are certain air travelers who may want to consider avoiding the TSA. Travelers with disabilities have a higher-than-average incident rate with the agency, and especially passengers with mobility problems. The agency also dislikes shutterbugs, even though taking pictures of a TSA screening is completely legal. If you show up with a video camera on “record” you may be confronted by an agent. In the past, the TSA has automatically given a secondary screening to passengers with certain foreign passports, including Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan. Also, if you’re skittish about being touched, poked and prodded, then TSA screening might not be for you.

How do you get around the TSA?
The best way to steer clear of the agency is to plan a trip that avoids a scheduled airline. If you have to fly, take a chartered flight or use a smaller airport that has no TSA presence. Most business and leisure trips take place by car (about 9 out of 10 do) so you would be in good company if you went by car. A cruise is another way to travel TSA-free. But none of these methods is a guarantee; the agency is aggressively expanding and if it could, it would screen every method of travel, in accordance with its mission statement.

Are you exempt from screening?
The TSA has carved out a list of passengers that do not need to be screened or are given access to special screening procedures. They include:

• Working pilots.
• Flight attendants on duty.
• Senior members of Congress.
• Cabinet secretaries.
• Former presidents.
• Members of the military and their families (by order of Congress).
• Police officers on duty.
• Cargo loaders, baggage handlers, fuelers, cabin cleaners and caterers who work at the airport and are on duty.
• Airport volunteers.
• Foreign dignitaries.
• Members of TSA’s pre-check (trusted traveler) program.

Note: If you’re a frequent traveler, you may want to consider joining the pre-check program in order to avoid some screening procedures. But bear in mind that while they may expedite your screening, they don’t guarantee that you’ll avoid a scan or pat-down.

(Photo: marklyon/Flickr)