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

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.

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“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. 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.

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.

But I’ve stood where Klapproth has, and 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.

Would you tell a TSA agent how to do his or her job?

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Note: Effective June 1, I’m moving my TSA coverage to TSA News, a blog I co-edit. I’m returning to this site’s main mission every Wednesday, with more consumer advocacy coverage.

41 thoughts on “How to tell the TSA how to do its job – and how to get it to listen

  1. The whole “they aren’t law enforcement, and can’t arrest or detain you” is a red herring. The screeners have relationships with airport police and there is always a officer or two in the screening area, and the officer is always going to side with someone they work with over some passenger. They may not be able to put the cuffs on you themselves, but a person who can is a second away.

    1. It isn’t a red herring. A law enforcement officer has the power to detain or arrest you, but he/she has to have a legal reason to do so. If either of them violates the law, take it up the line and into the courts if needed.

      No government actor should abuse his or her power. Yes, I know it “happens all the time,” but that doesn’t make it right and abuses should be exposed.

    2. In my experience, the TSA clerks threaten and bluster to try to intimidate passengers into compliance, but if you insist that a police officer be called and then tell the officer that you want to leave and keep asking “am I being detained? I just want to leave. I don’t want to be here. Am I being detained?” then the normal constitutional guarantees apply. The police can’t search you without a warrant or cause, and they can’t detain you without cause. The TSA also can’t search you if you refuse permission. So in practice, yes, if the TSA demands that you do something filthy or immoral (like they demand to put their hands down your pants, or to touch your child where his/her bathing suit covers), then just ask for the police and walk away from the checkpoint unharmed. Yes, you might miss your flight. There are worse things. Like letting a complete stranger sexually assault you or your children.

    3. Really….true. The Airport Cops want to work at TSA after they “retire”, and the TSA want to graduate to a real job some day. I’ve seen this time and time again with the airport cops not taking the side of the citizen on things like photography.

      1. You could always replace it with a picture of a woman in a bikini top. Not much of a difference except in the eye of the flagger. 🙂

    1. Oh my word! I guess you never watch TV, do you? Or look at magazines? Or billboards?

      I suggest you stay out of supermarkets, especially the checkout lines. You should also avoid drugstores, book stores, and convenience stores.

      Definitely don’t drive down the highway. Some of those bill boards will give you a coronary.

      But most of all you should stay off the Internet.

      Edited to add: Don’t go to the beach either.

      1. It’s not that the picture is shocking–that’s stupid. It’s that it was gratuitous and out of place. Raise your standards.

          1. God? Is that you? No? Then since your standards are apparently what’s on TV or in checkout lines, and you don’t find that photo stupid and out of place, you’ve not really made your case.

          2. Goodness Gracious! Such vehemence. And such a rash, judgmental attitude.

            Standards? Hmmmm….perhaps this one will ring a bell. Judge not, that ye be not judged. Or perhaps this one: Do unto others as ye would have them do unto you.

            Perhaps you could consider those the next time you decide to throw down the gauntlet over standards.

          3. which god? ….any point you had, died in the womb with your slam tactics. but this is speculative.

  2. ” And remember, your pat-down is being recorded.”

    By whom? TSA? Good luck with that. If their recording captures a TSA clerk doing something wrong, the recording mysteriously disappears.

    Recording the pat down yourself, however, does appear to restrain TSA somewhat according to this interview with Ashley Jessica.

    However, during this screening, the TSA screener still touched Ashley’s breast and vagina even though Ashley had already requested her not to do so and even though Ashley’s mother was recording the pat down.

    1. Daisimae, obviously I sympathize with this young woman. She was violated. But she needs to get her anatomy straight (as does the Daily Mail). I won’t say any more than that because it’ll get my comment flagged and the whole chain reaction that comes from that. Suffice to say that people can read the account themselves and figure it out.

  3. TSA employees sometimes have to be told how to do their job because often travelers know the job better than those who are forced upon us.

    Side story to share, since this will perhaps be the last close-to-appropriate chance to do so on this blog:

    I flew out of DIA early in the morning 10 days or so ago. They had not yet opened the screening area at Concourse A, so we had to go down to the main area on the 1st floor.

    As my wife is sent through the MMW machine, they didn’t like the image, so they were going to send her through again. Except then another TSA employee decides that the glass is dirty and they want it cleaned. As a result they just sent us through the metal detectors.

    Yep, at 6am, security was *so important* to TSA that they couldn’t be bothered to make sure the machines were clean before turning them on.

    How to tell the TSA how to do its job? Oh, let me count the ways…

    1. And these are the people who are maintaining these machines to be certain they are working safely? How long before someone is injured? I certainly would not trust my safety to these incompetent pizza box recruits.

  4. I have a metal shoulder replacement and cannot raise my arm to the height required for the scanner. Thus, I need a pat-down at each security point. Some TSA agents are polite, understanding and helpful, but there are those who cannot/will not believe that my arm just will not go over my head. Next trip my arm needs to be in a sling and I just can’t WAIT to see how the screeners react to that 🙁

    1. In almost every airport from which I fly there is a metal detector right alongside the invasive and irradiating scanner. If you tell them you cannot lift your arm over your head, they invariably send you through the metal detector and practically never pat you down. If someone requires that you attempt to raise your arm, do so to the last comfortable angle and then wince. In your case, of course they would probably deny you the use of the metal detector. If they do proceed to pat down, remind them that you have a prosthesis and that it is painful. For many many others, this is a workable alternative to receiving unnecessary irradiation or invasive body searching. MD flyer

  5. I usually have no issues when I ask for an opt-out… but I am noticing an increasing amount of not-so-subtle questioning (designed to suggest that I am not behaving appropriately) when I ask. On a previous trip, I was asked why I did not want to go through the metal detector… and specifically if I had a medical condition. I responded “no” and left it at that. Yesterday, upon going from DEN to MCO, the first response when I asked for the opt-out was “Oh, you can’t… oh.. okay.” He then radioed for a male assist and ignored me. And the best part was the agent who actually frisked me. When he walked up, he said, “So, you’re refusing to walk through the metal detector?” I responded, “yes.” I’m sure his choice of words is no mistake; there clearly is a formal or informal (or maybe both) coaching of the agents to suggest that passengers who opt out are unacceptably defiant and difficult (as Chris has alluded to in his posts). This is one reason I keep doing it. 🙂

    1. Tones, better answer to “So you’re refusing to walk through the metal detector?” would be “No, I’d love to walk through a metal detector. I am refusing to walk through a machine that irradiates me in order to send a nude sillhouette to your colleague in another room, and am opting instead to be patted down like a common criminal, guilty only of wanting to travel freely in my own country. So, Officer Friendly, what kind of music do you like? I like to get to know someone before we have intimate contact.”

      If you do use this answer, enjoy your enhanced pat-down, and I’m sure the airline will be able to reschedule you on a later flight! 🙂

  6. Agree about being polite, but disagree about “Yes sir, no sir” — “Yes please” and “no thank you” are sufficient. No need to give them a sense of power. And while I am always polite, I never say thank you to the person who pats me down. I chat politely, I wish them a good day, I smile and often get a smile back. But a thank you for violating my constitutional rights and performing security theater at my expect? No thanks! If I genuinely felt that TSA was keeping us safe, then a thank-you would be in order.

    1. They only get a sir when it’s warranted. I just speak to them in a clear steady voice that projects. They don’t mess with me. They never have messed with me.

      The TSA are like jackals, they go after the weak and the people they know they can intimidate.

  7. It’s hard for me to fathom, but after three years and millions of sexualized patdowns, there is still no clear answer to the obvious and very important question: “Will the TSA clerk intentionally touch my genitals during the patdown?” I’ve read literally hundreds and maybe even thousands of accounts of patdowns, and I have seen every variation on the theme. Some people say their genitals were never touched, as Klapproth says. Many, many people (more than half of the accounts I’ve read) say that they felt a screener’s hands through their clothing touching their nipples, vulva, testicles, penis, or anus. Dozens of accounts reported that TSA screeners had painfully hit, grabbed, squeezed, twisted, or karate-chopped their genitals. A handful of accounts I read described being penetrated vaginally or anally. A screener penetrated me with a handheld metal detector, but that was in the era before the enhanced patdowns. The oxymoronically-titled TSA Privacy Officer Peter Pietra told me personally that yes, screeners are supposed to touch your genitals. But Chris Elliott has always maintained his belief that a proper patdown isn’t going to involve sexual touching.

    It’s irresponsible and dangerous for the TSA to allow this to go on year after year without clarifying this basic element of consent. We can’t consent when we don’t know what we are consenting to. Does a patdown mean sexual contact or not?

  8. I agree with not being abusive. I do not agree with “sir”. That gives the TSA goons more respect and power than they deserve. Trampling the Constitution the way they do they deserve no respect. However I will not lower myself to there level. I will at least be civil to them.

  9. The reason they scare me is that they are known for not following their own rules, knowing their own rules, making up stuff as they go, and that they aren’t accountable to anybody.

  10. Don’t appreciate the cheap shot of a woman’s breasts, not relevant to the story. I read your stories about TSA because I am actively fighting to stop this agency from violating my privacy. If you have any doubts as to the extra heaping helping of sexual harassment women experience at TSA checkpoints, refer to the “Taking Sense Away” blog written by a former TSA screener. They have stupid little code words for their juvenile, annoying tactics of sexual harassment towards females. Women are routinely subjected to having their breasts touched, breast milk rules violated, breast prostheses made into public topics of discussion, and scars from breast cancer/surgeries probed in psychologically and physically painful ways. The last thing we need is sexualization of stories about TSA by linking “useful information” to gratuitous shots of breasts.

  11. I do not ask for public screening, because it is embarrassing to be patted down publicly, no matter how light the touch. Private screenings have two women officers and me and it becomes a non-issue. Better yet, Pre-check was just opened in Austin. No more pat-downs. Yay!

    1. Have you ever been allowed to go through Pre Check? I have signed up every which way I can, and TSA always says “you have to go through the regular line — this time.”

    2. Joyce, Pre-Check doesn’t mean no more pat-downs, as we’ve reported countless times and as the TSA itself admits.

      (You’re also more likely to be abused in private with no witnesses of your own.)

    3. I am sad you, and everyone else who wants to fly, is forced to choose how, not if, they want to be violated.

  12. When they asked me to remove my belt I told them I refused to because my religion advocates modesty, and removing a belt is immodest. I believe that 100%. I went through the scanner and the only area that showed up was (as usual) the area of my heart (not exactly sure why that always happens). They lied and said that they needed to feel around the belt because the scan had shown something there (which it hadn’t). They gave me a patdown, it was pretty painless, but a total waste of time considering my credentials and the fact I am a participant in TSA Pre.

  13. I always opt out of the full body scan, no exceptions. Accordingly, I always go to pat-down. And in all the numerous pat-downs I’ve been through, there was not a single one that was any different from others; not one where the agent would actually touch the genitalia. Their words and movements are always and everywhere, in all airports, absolutely the same, and can become an abuse only by your own imagination.

    I do think that TSA is 100% waste of money and security theater, but pat-down has nothing to do with sexual abuse. And I very much doubt that even one little move during that pat-down would be affected by anything I said.

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