How to tell the TSA how to do its job – and how to get it to listen

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By Christopher Elliott

If you’re afraid a TSA agent might bungle your screening when you fly somewhere this summer, maybe you should do what John Klapproth did when he was traveling from Seattle to Anchorage recently.

Like many air travelers, Klapproth declined to use the TSA’s full-body scanner, and was sent to a holding area for an “enhanced” pat-down.

“I told the TSA agent that was no problem,” he says. “I explained to him that I was a retired state corrections officer with 25 years experience doing pat-searches in a maximum security prison and knew what to expect. Then I also told him that I knew a proper pat-search could be performed without touching my genitals or anal areas and that I did not consent to be touched on either area.”

And guess what? The screening happened by the book.

“The result was a very proper and respectful pat-search conducted by the TSA agent,” says Klapproth. “It is a tactic that I will use in any future travels.”

As America gears up for the busy summer travel season, and some head to the airport, passengers are bound to ask how they can avoid an unpleasant screening experience. Is there anything they can say to ensure they won’t get unduly poked, frisked, prodded or microwaved?

Review the TSA’s written rules

The TSA spells out a lot of its own rules on its website. For example, if you’re confused about what kind of items can be brought on board, you can find out exactly what’s allowed at I recommend you read these shortly before your flight, since they change from time to time, and often without much warning to the public. Note: The TSA is known to disregard its own rules from time to time — if it does, you’re well within your rights to politely point out the inconsistency.

Know what words can make a difference

Even though the TSA likes to pretend it isn’t in the customer service business, it actually is. The agency is processing thousands of passengers a day through security, and how it does so matters — if not to the agency, then to the passengers who ultimately pay for the agency. Simple words like “please” and “thank you” can ensure you’re treated with politeness and courtesy. Being nice to your TSA agent shouldn’t be necessary in order to be respected, but it can’t hurt. And if that doesn’t work? Ask for a supervisor.

Know what you can’t argue

As tempting as it might be to debate the constitutionality or legality of the screening process with your screener, the airport isn’t the time or place to stage a protest. (At least not if you want to catch your flight.) Try the ballot box, instead. What you should know is that TSA screeners aren’t law enforcement officials, and they don’t have the ability to detain or arrest you. That is certainly an argument you can make if you run afoul of a screener. If you run into a problem you can ask the TSA to call the police.

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To Klapproth’s specific goal, which is to ensure the most professional pat-down possible, I have a few suggestions. But first, let me say: The TSA shouldn’t be patting anyone down, ever. There are better, more dignified ways of screening passengers than treating them like inmates. It doesn’t matter that a narrow interpretation of federal law seems to support the manual searches; common sense tells you that these kinds of screening methods cross a line. (Here’s how to handle the TSA when you travel.)

But I’ve stood where Klapproth has.

I can tell you what made a difference:

✓ Reading the agent’s name tag and saying, “Hello, [insert name of agent], how are you?”

✓ Refusing a private screening. There’s no telling what can happen behind closed doors.

✓ Being respectful. I realize you’re not in the military, but a “yes sir” and “no sir” keeps things polite and professional. And remember, your pat-down is being recorded.

✓ Your screener will ask if you have any injuries or medical conditions. “I’m not feeling well today,” will almost always ensure you’re going to get a light touch. The agents don’t want to catch what you have — whatever that is.

Bottom line? The TSA is far less likely to harass or detain someone who knows the rules and gives them no reason to hold them up. There’s a fine line between sucking up to the TSA — which I’m not advocating — and being cordial and professional. Klapproth says everything he did at SEA-TAC underscored the fact that “I was an informed traveler.”

And that seemed to do the trick.

Remember, if you ever run into trouble with the TSA, you can always reach out to my advocacy team. We’re always happy to help.

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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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