The Insider: How to complain to the TSA

Editor’s Note: This is the final installment of the Insider series on managing the TSA when you travel. Here’s part one, part two and part three. As always, please send me any suggestions on topics or content I may have overlooked.

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If you have a problem with the TSA, what’s your next step?

Ideally, the resolution would happen in real time. Wait until you get home, and like other travel-related grievances, you may never get a fix. And I know what I’m talking about; I’m still waiting for the TSA to respond to my documents request under the Freedom of Information Act I filed back in 2010. I’m sure I’ll get an answer before I retire.

If something goes wrong with your screening and you ask for a supervisor, you should probably know a thing or two about the TSA hierarchy:

Transportation Security Officer (TSO) – These are the people who are screening you, sometimes also called “one-stripers” because they have a single stripe on their shoulderboard.

Lead Transportation Security Officer (LTSO) – Also called a “two-striper,” the LTSO has direct oversight in the screening area, and is most likely the first supervisor who will arrive if there’s a complaint.

Supervisory Transportation Security Officer (STSO) – The “three-striper” usually oversees the entire screening area. He or she will be called to the scene if things get serious.

Above them, there are other TSA managers you should be aware of, including the Transportation Security Manager (TSM), the Assistant Federal Security Director (AFSD) and the highest-ranking TSA employee at the airport, the Federal Security Director (FSD). They don’t wear uniforms and you are unlikely to ever see them.

Once you’re away from the airport, there are several layers of Area Directors (AD), several flavors of Administrator (Deputy Assistant Administrator, Assistant Administrator and Deputy Administrator) followed by the Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security for the Transportation Security Administration, also referred to as the TSA Administrator, and last but not least, the Deputy Secretary and the Secretary of Homeland Security. The TSA is nothing if not bureaucratic!

But it helps to know this chain of command if something should go wrong. So, for example, if you’ve been patted down and a “three-striper” is telling you to move along, you can ask for the TSM. Remember to always be polite; it’s actually your secret weapon when you’re trying to resolve a grievance in real time. No one has ever been arrested for being too polite.

What kinds of grievances should I wait for?
It’s not an issue of waiting, necessarily. If you’re still at the airport, and there’s a chance a screener can address your problem, you should say something. It’s more a question of whether any additional paperwork is required to get your problem resolved. For example, allegations of serious screener misconduct like assault or theft need to be documented, so you’ll want to create a paper trail regardless of the outcome of your initial complaint. You’ll also need to file a form for lost or damaged property or a civil rights complaint. More on that in a sec.

A note about lost, damaged or stolen property: The TSA has earned a reputation for having agents that pilfer items from checked luggage. Although it says it has tried to curb the thefts with a “zero tolerance” policy, it has only been moderately successful at stopping their employees’ criminal behavior. The takeaway for you? Don’t ever check anything valuable, and take reasonable steps to secure your luggage by closing all latches and making it difficult to access your belongings. That way, if they decide to go after your bag, they’ll have to work for it and they won’t get anything of value if they do.

What do I need to know about the claims process?
Beyond what’s explained on the TSA site, there are a few things they won’t tell you. The claims process can take a long time (two months or more) and I hear from lots of travelers who are unsuccessful at it. One of the problems is that the appeals process seems to be something of a loop. The denials seem arbitrary, and often lead to more denials, regardless of whether your case has any merit. The reason you don’t hear more passengers griping about the system isn’t that the agency is quickly replacing the items it damaged or stole during screening; it’s that they simply fail to file a claim when they have one, believing it will never be processed.

Is there an appeal process for damage claims?
Yes. You can either send an appeal, along with more information that might persuade the TSA to change its mind, to the following address:

TSA Claims Management Branch (TSA-9)
601 South 12th Street
Arlington, VA 20598-6009

Or you can sue the agency. No, seriously — that’s what the TSA recommends.

Can I shortcut the process on social media?
No. The TSA’s two main Twitter accounts, @TSABlogTeam and @TSA, are used for messaging, and generally don’t interact with passengers. But it would be inaccurate to say TSA doesn’t pay attention to the online chatter. It does, but mostly for PR reasons. I haven’t seen it reverse a claim denial because of something a passenger said via social media.

What about other complaints?
The other major type of grievance is the civil rights complaint. You’ll find instructions for how to file one on the TSA site. What won’t they tell you? That’s difficult to say. I’ve never actually heard from anyone who has filed a successful civil rights complaint with the TSA. If the process is anything like its luggage claims, then it is slow and for many, absolutely pointless.

With any luck, you’ll never end up at the end of your appeals process. Instead, you’ll avoid having to file a complaint — or better yet, you’ll avoid the TSA entirely.

(Photo: b.frahm)