Readers frequently write me complaining of their interactions with the Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) front line Transportation Security Officers (TSO). For the most part over the past few years my interactions with the TSA’s front line agents have been generally been fairly uneventful … even pleasant at times … although I knew at some point I’d end up interacting with one of the front line TSOs that make traveling unpleasant. Not the kind of unpleasant that is caused by a TSO who is mistaken in the policy of prohibited items, but unpleasant because the person wearing the uniform is working on their own agenda, not that of the TSA.
While I frequently write about the TSA, sometimes unfavorably, generally I stay positive about the front line agents, those who passengers interact with on a daily basis. I like to think that much of my positive experience with the TSA over the past few years has to do with the airport I most frequently choose to fly from, tiny little Tweed-New Haven Regional Airport (HVN), in New Haven, Connecticut. What makes Tweed my preferred airport, aside from its convenient location from my home, is that it is small … and I mean small. The airport flies five flights per day, all the flights are 37 seat Bombardier Dash-8-100s, operated by US Airways Express.
The US Airways Express staff, technically Piedmont Airlines employees, tend to be extremely helpful, easy going, and if you’re at the airport, in the TSA screening area, 11 minutes before the scheduled departure time … you’re pretty much guaranteed to catch your flight.
Along with the US Airways Express staff I have always found the TSA TSOs at Tweed to be the nicest and easiest TSOs to deal with … of all the airports I have ever travelled through. Today however, there was a significant dynamic change in the TSA’s interactions with passengers at Tweed. Not only did I notice it, but passengers could not stop talking about it and even two US Airways Express agents commented on it as well, apologizing to passengers for it.
So what happened this morning? Its hard to define on the whole … but I’ll try … this morning the security screening for the 32 passengers boarding US Airways Express Flight 4297 took the TSA more than more than 40 minutes. This is an unacceptable screening time for an airport that only needed a clear a total of 32 passengers for a flight of less than one hour.
From my experience, the slow down was as a direct result of a single TSO with an attitude frequently referred to by frequent flyers as “Respect My Authority.” I watched passengers one after another in front of me get pulled aside to have their shoes rerun or their bags pulled aside and pulled apart.
My direct experience was this … I placed my items on the X-Ray belt and walked through the walk-through-metal-detector (WTMD). I sounded no alarms and waited for my items. As my shoes reached the end of the conveyor belt there was a hold up due to two passengers in front of me having their bags checked, so I picked my shoes up … which is when I was berated by the TSO x-ray operator for taking my shoes off the black rubber conveyor belt and informed me that now my shoes needed to be rerun since I had broken the ‘sterile field‘ (the actual words he used).
Keep in mind, I had passed through the metal detector, set off no alarms and my shoes passed through the x-ray with no problems, but now they needed to be rerun through the x-ray machine.
I didn’t argue, there is no point in arguing in these cases, however once my bag came out, I was told it needed to be hand searched for possible prohibited items. The x-ray screener asked the TSO performing the hand searches to come look at the x-ray screen … I could hear the whole conversation where the secondary hand search TSO stated to the x-ray TSO “those just look like lenses, but I’ll take a look,” which is when my encounter with the TSA this morning really took the first of two bizarre turns.
The first bizarre turn is that while my backpack was opened and searched one of the two side vertical pockets that contains the lenses in question was not opened, inspected or swabbed. The purpose of the hand search was due to the presence of two big lenses. The large glass in many professional camera lenses can’t easily be seen through by airport x-ray scanners, so a hand search is not uncommon. However I had to wonder what the point of the search was if the side pockets with lenses was not being searched.
The second bizarre turn was as I was repacking my bag the x-ray TSO made a comment about the FlyerTalk bag tag hanging from my backpack … he stated “You FlyerTalk people are all just a bunch of whiners who can’t follow the rules.” (I may have some of the wording incorrect, but that is essentially what he stated).
This caused me to laugh and be irritated all at the same time. I had to laugh because just last night I made a comment on Twitter that some people on FlyerTalk like to argue just for the sake of arguing … and I was irritated because it seems my shoes were taken from me and run through x-ray a second time and my bag was placed through a secondary hand search as a ‘retaliatory search.’
By the time the time I was walking across the tarmac to my awaiting flight, US Airways Express was paging passengers who were still in the TSA screening area. The three passengers behind me in the TSA screening area had all been in line with me; all of us were in line for screening by 6:35am for the 7:15am flight … and now the flight was being held for passengers in screening that arrived with plenty of time to make the flight on-time.
Will I hold this one incident against Tweed-New Haven Regional Airport or the TSA TSOs at the airport? No, it was one incident … but none the less; this incident does little to further the image of the TSA’s front line agents, especially those who are professional, courteous and who are not pushing their own personal agenda through the execution of their job.
As I sit here in seat 4A on board US Airways Express Flight 4297, 40 minutes into my short flight, the announcement to turn off all electronics is coming on and I can still hear four passengers discussing their negative encounter with the TSA at Tweed-New Haven … there is something wrong with that.
Below are photos of tiny Tweed-New Haven Regional Airport’s entire pre-security lobby, the lens in the side pocket of my backpack that was never inspected and my limited edition FlyerTalk “Fly For The Cure” bag tag.