The truth about TSAs lines — and lies

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By Christopher Elliott

PR disasters are nothing new to America’s least-loved federal agency. But after a particularly bad week, it’s worth paying attention to how the TSA reacts when things go horribly wrong.

What it says isn’t just a clue to how the agency feels about itself and air travelers — it can also offer insights into the future of these federal screeners.

Let’s begin in New York, a place some passengers might argue has a reputation to uphold, when it comes to TSA incompetence. I won’t disagree.

On Friday, eight New York-based federal air marshals, including a supervisor, were reportedly terminated by the TSA for allegedly drinking at a restaurant while on duty. Another six were canned because they knew about the incident, but didn’t report it. The whole dustup follows the firings of eight TSA screeners at Newark Liberty International Airport who were accused of sleeping on the job.

Here’s the official TSA response:

TSA holds all of its employees to the highest professional and ethical standards and has zero tolerance for misconduct in the workplace. TSA’s decision to remove the individuals involved in the misconduct affirms our strong commitment to the highest standards of conduct and accountability.

There’s just one thing. That comeback is so recycled, there ought to be a law against it. Most recently, a version of it was used by a TSA official in a congressional hearing.

The earliest use of this prepared statement — the “highest professional and ethical standards” and “zero tolerance” and “accountability” — dates back to 2006, when another TSA honcho used it in (you guessed it) congressional testimony.

And so? Look, the fact that TSA has been feeding us more or less the same line for at least six years can only be interpreted in one way: The agency is giving us a canned answer and has absolutely no intention of changing the way it operates.

None, whatsoever.

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But if there are any other interpretations, I’m open to them.

Next up: The remarkable story of the TSA screener and the spilled ashes. John Gross, flying from Orlando to Indiana with his grandfather’s ashes, said a TSA agent violated his dead relative’s dignity when she spilled his remains during a bag check and then, remarkably, laughed the whole thing off. The ashes were clearly labeled as “human remains.”

TSA, what say you?

TSA recognizes the importance of screening human remains with utmost respect and dignity while remaining vigilant of our security mission to protect the traveling public. It is a TSA policy that under no circumstance should a container holding remains be opened.

We have been unable to reach the family to learn more about their perspective on the incident, however, our initial review concluded that the circumstances as described in some reports are inconsistent with what we believe transpired.

That’s a reiteration of TSA’s policy on human remains, which was also restated on its blog on Friday. It’s also nonsense. When the TSA needs to reach you, it will reach you. Believe me, I speak from personal experience.

But pay attention to the last part of that statement. Whenever the agency says it has “reviewed the circumstances” — as it did in this 2008 blog post about a passenger with body piercings — the very next thing out of its mouth is that it’s right and whoever is making the accusation against it is either misinformed, or lying.

Remember the 95-year-old passenger who alleged that TSA agent forced her to remove her adult diaper last year? Here’s the TSA response:

We have reviewed the circumstances involving this screening and determined that our officers acted professionally, according to proper procedure and did not require this passenger to remove an adult diaper.

Like Pavlovian dogs, we’re conditioned to expect spin, obfuscation and probably lies, after the TSA says it has “reviewed the circumstances.” The fact that TSA continues to use that tired line speaks volumes about its opinion of us, the traveling public.

Does it think we’re idiots?

And finally, here’s the unbelievable story of Abdul Majed. He is the TSA screener at JFK’s Terminal 7 who didn’t realize the metal detector was unplugged, according to reports. Planes had to be turned around, passenger rescreened. It was chaos.

You can’t make this stuff up. The TSA threatens to fine passengers who refuse with full body scans.

The reaction?

The truth is, this is the failure of the most basic level of diligence. How can you expect the public to feel confident of the mission of the TSA if they don’t even know if the lights are turned on?

Oh, wait. That was an anonymous law enforcement official, not an official TSA statement.

I can’t find any official statement on this incident from the normally talkative agency. Maybe that’s because in this case, there’s nothing it can say that will make it look any better. (Here’s how to handle the TSA when you travel.)

Actually, the TSA has a long history of clamming up when it suits the agency, either by not talking about something or declaring that it’s “SSI” — Sensitive Security Information. But airline passengers know better. After more than a decade of deceptive rhetoric, followed by brief periods of self-serving silence, public discontent with the TSA is about to boil over.

As a best case scenario, the agency assigned to protect America’s transportation systems could try a few new lines on us. It might be nice, just for the sake of variety. Is it asking too much to be offended in new ways instead of the same old, predictable ways?

Then again, it’s possible that the TSA’s image problems will turn an election-year issue. But don’t get too excited. When it comes presidential candidates and TSA policy, it looks like we may have to choose between dumb and dumber.

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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. He is based in Panamá City.

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