TSA Watch special report: A Christmas card from Al-Qaeda

Maybe it was the frosting, which a TSA agent tsk-tsked for being “too gel-like.”

Or maybe it was the sinister name of the company that baked it — Wicked Good Cupcakes — that made the federal agency charged with protecting America’s transportation systems suspect the cupcake contained more than chocolatey holiday cheer.

Whatever the reason, we now have the latest TSA scandal: Rebecca Hains, a Peabody, Mass., college professor, says a single cupcake was confiscated by TSA agents in Las Vegas last week.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Southwest Airlines. The mission of Southwest Airlines is dedication to the highest quality of Customer Service delivered with a sense of warmth, friendliness, individual pride, and Company Spirit. We are committed to provide our Employees a stable work environment with equal opportunity for learning and personal growth.

The agency bans certain liquids and gels, even though there’s no convincing evidence that terrorists are plotting to bring down a plane with liquid explosives, or specifically, that the topping in a single tasty holiday cupcake could incinerate an aircraft.

These must be actions of a single, overzealous TSA agent, right?

If only. When I mentioned this story on Twitter a few days ago, I heard back from readers who said airport screeners were busy confiscating all kinds of Christmas contraband, including snowglobes and cheese dip.

The TSA’s explanation, in case you care, is that some of the holiday paraphernalia is on its ever-changing list of banned items. Its reasons for prohibiting them are vague and unpersuasive.

Truth is, the TSA has been swiping our holiday stuff for years.

One of the earliest reports came by way of Jessica Bruder, a writer for the Portland Oregonian who flew to Illinois over the Thanksgiving holiday in 2007 and almost had her apple pie confiscated by a federal screener.

After sliding her dish through the conveyor belt, the interrogation began:

“Are you the pie lady?” the agent demanded.

Standing there in orange polka-dot socks, jeans inching down my hips, I nodded soberly. He indicated we’d have more to talk about on the far side of the metal detector.

When my pie emerged, the questions began.

“What kind of pie is that?” He squinted at the pan.

“Apple. With some raspberries.”

“Does it have lumps?”

I glanced at the crust, which was black in places and looked like a topographical rendering of the Himalayas.

You get the idea. The agent eventually let her fly with the pie, but admitted to confiscating dozens of pumpkin pies because they were too close to the consistency of plastic explosives.

The TSA later backtracked and said pies were OK.

Snowglobes are not, however. Why? I haven’t heard a reasonable explanation yet. But here’s what happened when agents told blogger and Houston Chronicle features editor Kyrie O’Connor she couldn’t take hers on the plane earlier this month:

The TSA confiscated my snowglobe.

“Really?” I said. “I bought it at the Lexington airport. I didn’t expect to be here. I’m just going to walk down that hall and buy another. Exactly how are you making the world safer by taking my snowglobe?”

And, dear reader, that is when I — not a crier — began to cry.

They took my snowglobe.

“Maybe this is the low point of your day and everything gets better from here,” said the chirpy TSA woman.

What’s going on here?

Does the TSA really believe we’re going to commit a terrorist act with a snowglobe or a cupcake? If it does, then it’s a lot stupider than it looks in those dashing, law-enforcement style uniforms Congress is allowing its agents to wear.

A far more plausible explanation is that this is just another dark act in TSA’s ongoing security theater. It’s an episode that repeats itself every Thanksgiving and Christmas, and is intended to remind American air travelers that there will be no peace on earth, no good will to anyone, until the war on terror is won.

Sure, taking away our pies, cupcakes, snowglobes and cheese dip is a relatively minor thing compared with the blatant violations of our civil liberties that take place every day at the airport, including the invasive pat-downs and dangerous body scans.

But it is, on another level, equally troubling.

TSA’s actions chip away our holiday cheer, which in recent years has been in short supply. They don’t make us feel safer. Instead, they annoy us, sadden us, even demoralize us.

It’s like getting a Christmas card from Al-Qaeda.

Thanks for nothing.

(Photo: Clare and Dave/Flickr)

43 thoughts on “TSA Watch special report: A Christmas card from Al-Qaeda

  1. “Maybe this is the low point of your day and everything gets better from here,” said the chirpy TSA woman.

    MAYBE this is the low point of your day?  More often than not, dealing with the TSA is the low point of your day.

    Having said that, I have a TSA story to share.  Remember the Seinfeld episode where George picked the eclair out of the trash.  Well, that happened to me in real life.

    It was about 2004.  The airport in Lincoln, NE.  Not a hot-bed of Al Quaeda activity.  My flight to O’Hare was delayed, so I went in search of a snack.  Well, there’s not much in that airport, but I ended up buying a Klondike bar. Then they suddenly called my flight.  I’m walking back to the gate.  When I get to the security area, this rather large TSA woman informs me I can’t take an unscreened ice cream bar to the gate.  So I go to put my ice cream bar on the belt.  No go.  Can’t send it thru the machine.  So I toss the Klondike bar, still wrapped, in an open-top trash can.  I walked about 30 feet.  I don’t know why I turned around, but I did.  Just in time to see this TSA agent fish my Klondike bar out of the trash and start eating it.  I walked back to the screening area, and, in the snottiest voice I could muster, asked her if it was good.  She gave me this dirty look and I turned my back on her and walked to the gate.  To this day, if I throw out any food or drink at security, I will not thow it away unwrapped.  I actually once poured an entire 20 oz pepsi in the trash and then threw the empty bottle in after it.  The look on that TSA agent’s face was well worth the price of the soda.

    1. “What would you do for a Klondike bar?”

      Maybe you should send that story to the manufacturer for use in their next advertising campaign.

      1. I understand the feeling about the TSA taking snow globes, but they are pretty clear about the 3.5oz rule.  Nothing hidden about that rule.  While I don’t agree with the liquid rule, I don’t see where people really have cause to be to upset with the confiscations.  They are told only 3.5oz.  Now if the globe was less than 3.5oz and they had no other liquids, well then they shouldn’t be taken.

          1. 3.5oz is less than 1/2 cup.  Unless it is a really tiny globe, it is going to be well over that amount.

        1. How about the guy on my recent flight from Vegas who had to ditch a souvenir bottle opener because it had a glitter-filled bubble of liquid on the front of it? It was way less than 3.5oz. He said they wouldn’t let him put it in his ziploc bag.

  2. Merry Christmas everyone.

    I’ve never really had any problems with TSA.  One time I had a gate pass to accompany someone who might need some help at the gate.  I’d remembered to leave my Swiss Army knife in my car, but I forgot about certain things, such as iron powder hand warmers and a Zippo lighter (I don’t smoke but I sometimes keep a Zippo in my pocket).  It’s strangely enough not illegal to take a lighter into the secure area, but you can’t take it on a plane.  The TSA screener was an older woman (possibly retired from her original career) and seemed to be more intelligent than most TSA screeners I’ve encountered.  She actually looked at the collection of stuff, mentioned something about “Hand warmers and a lighter?  If you knew what I knew….”, then let me through without having to go back to my car.

    I have had issues with Customs – typically because we brought back food that they have no clue about.  There were certain things that were checked as an agricultural inspection and they had no problems with, such as dried vegetables and some  fresh abalone (was packed only in a couple of napkins) at various times.  However, I remember once bringing back some cooked meat pie from an Asian country, which should be legal.  However, the agent sternly asked what it was and started (I kid you not) poking it with his pen to see what it was inside the flaky crust.  He let us keep the rest, but basically we weren’t going to eat it after he dismantled it with a writing instrument.

  3. Here’s a cute idea… 50 years ago, when I was in Elementary school, Mr. Holley, our gym teacher, had the charming habit of rifling through our lunches and stealing desserts (My hand to God). After it happened to me a couple of times, my mother had the wonderful idea of very carefully cutting open one of those old ‘hockey puck’ moon pies, loading it up with cayenne pepper and tabasco sauce, and sealing it up again. She put it in my lunch the next day, and damned if old Holley didn’t steal it. Not a word was ever said, but no more desserts disappeared either. The beauty of this is that if you were to throw a ‘red hot’ moon pie in the trash at the behest of TSA and one of their drones fished it out and took a bite, they couldn’t do a thing to you. After all, YOU threw it in the trash!  🙂

    1. I’ve heard about people who were so tired of their coworkers stealing their lunch stored in communal refrigerators that they’ve taken to intentionally lacing their lunch with laxatives as a surprise for those pilfering their meals.

      Apparently one case got someone fired for deliberately trying to make a coworker sick.

      1.  I did something like that once.  My co-workers would never re-fill the ice cube trays even though there was a sink about five feet away.  So I filled the trays and then waited until they were partially frozen.  Then I poked a hole into the unfrozen center and dumped out the water and added added a few drops of vinegar.  Waited until that froze and then covered it with fresh water.  So the ice cube would release it’s vinegar into the drink only after it melted down part-way.

        1. Contaminating your own food is one thing.  Doing it to a communal supply is unacceptable.  While we don’t know the full details of y_p_w’s situation with his co-worker, your action would be worthy of dismissal and possibly boarding on criminal.

          1. It wasn’t anything I’ve done personally. However, look up the terms “stealing lunch laxatives” in a search engine and you’ll see plenty of suggestions for revenge planning and a few articles on people who have done it.

            I had someone accidentally throw out my lunch thinking it was his week-old stash (we used similar containers) and offered to buy me lunch when he realized it was my lunch.  I’ve also stashed soft drinks in a company fridge.  Someone once took one during the weekend when stores weren’t open in downtown, and gave me $1 when I got back.  I don’t find reasonable accommodation to be all that bad, but knowingly taking some else’s stuff without some sort of acknowledgement or compensation is unacceptable.

          2. I agree with you.  In regards to the situation you mention about someone spiking their own food and getting dismissed, we don’t have all the information to decide if the dismissal was just. 

            My real complaint was when someone like Cybrsk8r purposely contaminates a shared food supply, such as ice cubes, that crosses the line and is wrong.  That type of action is deserving of dismissal.

          3. Well, first, it wasn’t communal.  I brought the ice trays in.  Second, I asked people nicely to re-fill them. and third, I added vinegar, which, while it will make a soda taste pretty bad, isn’t going to hurt anyone.

          4. From your response, it sounds like you told others that they could use them and thus, they became communal.  If you were upset others weren’t refilling them, you should have removed them, not contaminated the ice.  Just because they didn’t follow your rules does not give you the right to spike the contents.

          5. I recently had my lunch stolen stolen out of the fridge at work.  While I’m sure you think this is “communal property”, I don’t see it that way. I’ve started spitting on my lunch as I pack it in the morning.  I write a warning on the bag that the food has been spit on.  Does this meet with your approval?  BTW.  People don’t swipe my food anymore.

  4. hey chris – are you able to find out how many signatures were on the White House petition to abolish the TSA?  we got a self-serving reply from the head of the TSA but no real justification for their ever-changing rules and inconsistent enforcement (as a former airline employee, I feel for them in having to deal with often crabby passengers, but I also don’t think they are doing anything to make the skies safer – sad but true)

    1. I received an email reply of Pistole’s response. Now I’m feeling thoroughly intimidated that TSA has me on a list of people who dared to criticize them. He has sent me an email. What’s his next move? Will the Bozos in Blue show up at my house?

      Well, his intimidation has worked on me. I’m not likely to sign any more petitions on the White House website.

  5. This constant complaining about TSA outrageous stupidity is completely understandable.  Come on folks… what do you expect when you give enormous responsibility to people who earn $8.37 per hour?
    Did you think you’d get an Einstein?
    Israel pays the equivalent of $26.46 per hour

    1. Well: According to the TSA website’s job postings:

      “Full-time security salaries can range from $23,600 to $35,400 depending upon experience, plus locality pay.

      They also receive federal benefits including health insurance, life insurance, retirement, paid vacation and sick leave.

      Part-time security salaries will depend upon a screener’s work
      schedule.  Hourly wages can range from $11.30 to $16.96 depending on
      experience, plus locality pay.  Part-time security screeners also are
      eligible for federal benefits including health insurance, life
      insurance, retirement, paid annual (vacation) and sick leave.”

      So full-time screeners are making far more than $8.37/hour, especially considering that federal benefits are fairly generous. Part-timers make quite a bit more than that, too. My guess is that Israel pays even more because the job is inherently more risky in a region where suicide bombings are commonplace (unlike in the U.S.).

  6. I can throw one better than Cybrsk8r (though he/she has a really good story, I gotta say)…  

    I was coming back from Dublin with my son with a layover at JFK.  I had bought a jar of Irish  made jam at the Dublin airport, purchased AFTER going through security.  This was September last year and I was permitted to carry it on the plane with me leaving Dublin.  When we went through security again at JFK the TSA agent took it from me.  I had said to her, “But I was allowed to board the plane with it in Dublin.”  She said, “Well you ain’t in Dublin anymore.”  To which I replied, “Obviously…”Then, imagine my SHOCK when she bent down, picked up a shopping bag she kept at her feet, filled with other “goodies” obviously “confiscated” and said as she dropped my jar into it, “My grandkids will like this on toast.”I asked to speak with a supervisor about it, he was apparently standing nearby and met me as I exited security and his response was, “Once it’s confiscated, there’s nothing I can do.”Nice racket they have going on at JFK.

    From now on, I’ll take a page from Cybrsk8r’s book and open things up.  Had I had the ability to see the future on that jam, I’d have spit in it first and THEN handed it to the TSA agent.

      1. Easily…  Easily…

        These people really take the cake, literally and figuratively.

        I wonder if they’d have had kittens if I’d opened it up in front of them.  It’s always good to know what we can get away with BEFORE doing it.

    1. Next time, please, please try to get the name of the screener and the supervisor, or at least the checkpoint and lane; then, contact the Federal Security Director (“FSD”) for JFK with the information, submit a complaint with TSA (which will be ignored but shows you went through proper channels) and submit it to Chris or to another website like Consumerist.  At least it will get traction that way. 

      In the email or letter (always in writing) to the FSD, make sure to tell them to preserve the video of the encounter.  Tell her/him the date/time, checkpoint, of the encounter.  Do this as soon as possible.   Otherwise, TSA will destroy it without any repercussions. 

      I know it sounds like a lot of work but many of us will thank you for it. 

      1. I’ll make sure to do this the next time.  I always carry a small notebook in my purse for making quick notes and this will probably be enough to get their attention…

        And while it is only a jar of jam this time, who knows what they’ll pull with empowerment of the “sheep” (like me) doing nothing.

  7. I flew internationally out of JFK and had forgotten a “swiss army knife” about 1 inch in size was in the carry-on (I had not used that piece of luggage for many, many years).  Of course it showed up, was confiscated (as it should have been) and once through security and shopping for a paperback book in a drug store I discovered they sell swiss army knives. 

  8. I cannot reiterate too often–if they want to take any of your food, spit on it first. If they want your snow globe or your               engagement ring, drool all over it. 

  9. It’s obvious that the TSA steals travelers goodies everytime they’re hungry for a snack, or need a gift for someone.

    A friend of mine was once traveling to Jamaica fron NY and was carrying an apple. The TSA agent told her she couldn’t bring it on the flight because you can’t bring raw fruit into Jamaica. My friend politely told her she wasn’t going to bring it into Jamaica, but rather was going to eat it on the plane. The TSA agent insisted she not bring it on the flight and leave it behind. My friend knew that she was lying and just wanted to steal her snack, but didn’t have time to argue and request a supervisor, so my friend smiled and took two huge bites out of the apple before giving it up.  I guess thatwas the low point of the day for the hungry, food stealing TSA agent!

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