Where do TSA agents learn their bad manners?

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By Christopher Elliott

If you’ve ever been browbeaten, barked at or belittled by a TSA agent — and let’s be honest, who among us hasn’t? — then you’ve got a friend in Sen. Harry Reid (D.-Nev.).

The Senate majority leader last week made the equivalent of a 911 call to Miss Manners. He suggested airport security workers “smile” and “say hello” instead of indulging their drill sergeant fantasies.

“People who work for our government have to be able to do it with a smile on their face,” he said.

Reid plans to ask Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to tell airport security workers to be nicer. Specifically, to international travelers, who often spend hundreds of dollars on visas and feel a little ripped off when they get to the Land of the Free and discover it’s actually the Land of the Rude TSA Agents.

And while Miss Manners is at it, she might try to fix a few more problems with the agency assigned to protect America’s transportation systems.

TSA screener poured hot coffee on pilot

Like the TSA screener who poured hot coffee on a pilot after an argument. No kidding.

The incident happened early last week at JFK Airport, a place not exactly known as a hotbed of etiquette. American Airlines pilot Steven Trivett reportedly asked a group of TSA agents who were arguing outside a terminal to tone things down.

But his request that they “conduct themselves more professionally in uniform and not use profanity or the n-word,” didn’t go over well.

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One screener, apparently not used to being challenged by anyone at the airport, told him to “mind his own business”. He then unleashed a barrage of profanity. In the ensuing altercation, TSA agent Lateisha El, reportedly pushed Trivett and tossed a “full cup” of hot coffee on him, according to police.

EI charged with harassment and misdemeanor-assault

El was arrested and charged with harassment and misdemeanor-assault. Trivett wasn’t seriously injured.

Complaints about the TSA’s manners are common, and they date back to the agency’s inception. The earliest mention of a rude TSA agent can be traced back to early 2002. A Washington Post reporter noted that confrontations between flight crews and the then-fledgling agency were on the rise.

“The problem is that flight crews do not like taking directions from low-paid guards. They object to the idea that they must receive the same scrutiny as passengers,” the reporter wrote. It seems like he is buying the TSA’s spin on the the new problem.

Ten years and countless incidents later, the American public isn’t quite as trusting. Just last month in a Congressional hearing, representatives griped about ineffective and rude agents.

“Barking orders” only undermines good work

“We’re not cattle,” said Rep. Gerald Connolly, D-Va. “Barking orders” undermines the good work of the Transportation Security Administration, according to one report.

The TSA’s bad manners were also called into question by Nebraska Senator Ben Nelson. He introduced a bill that would stop the agency from enabling another rude checkpoint behavior: cutting in line.

The Air Passenger Fairness Act of 2012 would “promote fairness for all air travel passengers” by barring airlines and airport operators from using express security lines that allow for certain groups of air passengers to cut to the front of the TSA security screening line at the airport, according to Nelson.

Airport security screening line ensures traveler safety

“This bill is about fairness,” he said. “Regardless of whether you have a first-class ticket or have reached a certain frequent flier status, the purpose of the airport security screening line is to ensure traveler safety. Allowing a select few to cut in front of those who are waiting patiently, just in order to provide a perk, has nothing to do with safety.”

I’ve had run-ins with rude TSA agents, too — always at arm’s length. I’ve seen other passengers get yelled at, gestured at, herded, prodded, and ordered around as if they were children, or at the very least, developmentally-delayed adults (“Take everything out of your pockets!”). Do you know how to handle the TSA when you travel?

Fortunately, they’ve never done it to me. Maybe it’s because I always try to read agents’ name tags. I make eye contact with them, and greet them by name: “Good morning, Bob.” After that, they tend to behave. Or maybe they just recognize me and don’t want to end up in this column.

Why are some TSA agents rude?

Part of the reason is that they have a thankless job, screening thousands of passengers a day in ways they probably would rather not. That’s often reflected in their attitude.

In a commentary back in 2008, Walter Williams, a professor of economics at George Mason University, suggested air travelers are partially to blame for agents’ obnoxious actions.

“Americans have been far too compliant,” he wrote. “And that has given the TSA carte blanche to treat travelers any way they wish.”

But at the end of the day, the TSA’s workforce and the managers who give them permission to act like little Napoleons are responsible for their own actions. And they must answer for them.

For those of you reading this who say it’s unpatriotic to question the actions of an agency that stands guard against terrorism, let me ask you the following question: What if a real law enforcement agency or a branch of the military treated the civilian population like this? Would that be OK?

Of course not.

Even the Georgia State Patrol officer who pulled me over on Interstate 95 just outside of Savannah a few weeks ago said, “Good morning, sir,” before writing me up for doing 76 miles an hour in a 65 zone.

It’s hardly unreasonable to ask TSA agents to smile and say hello instead of pretending they’re the prison guards, and we’re the inmates.

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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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