Know Who To Blame At The Airport, Its Not Always TSA

Travelers in the United States have come to blame everything on the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). It seems no matter what the issue, the TSA is blamed, be it parking enforcement, gate agents, police, passport control … it all seems to land squarely on the TSA’s shoulders.


Does the TSA deserve to be blamed?  At times, yes they do, however blaming the TSA seems to roll off people’s tongues as easily as asking for a Kleenex or a Coke, and muddies the waters when discussing the real issues of the agency.


A few years back a photographer posted a photo they had shot of a Los Angeles County Parking Enforcement Officer, then went onto to claim the TSA agent in the photo had prevented them from shooting photos at the airport. The person preventing them was an LA County Parking Enforcement Officer, not a TSA agent.


Not long ago a photographer in New York had a run in while photographing at JFK Terminal One. They claimed the TSA prevented them from shooting in the terminal. In fact, this person was stopped by Terminal One’s Director of Security, a former New York City Police Officer, who oversees the terminal’s security operations. As JFK’s Terminal One is privately operated it has the right to limit photography of certain areas of the terminal. The TSA was in no way involved in preventing this photographer from shooting within the terminal.


One of the stranger complains I have heard of was a person stating a TSA agent threw their bag into the cart with a total disregard for the fragile sticker on the bag. This incident happened at the curb at Los Angeles International Airport. The traveler stated the TSA agent met them at the trunk of their car and described them as wearing a red hat. The actual person who grabbed the person’s bag was a SkyCap, a private employee that handles checking in baggage and at times issuing boarding passes. SkyCaps are in no way related to the TSA or involved in aviation security, and are generally employed by an airline.


The most common confusion for international travelers entering the United States tends to be mixing up the TSA with their Department of Homeland Security (DHS) cousins, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP).  With more than 21,000 Customs and Border Protection Officers, this large security agency is found in every international airport, has extensive powers of search and seizure without a warrant, and dates back to the creation of the U.S. Customs Service on the 4th of July 1789.


This morning while following a Facebook thread on the TSA, I came across a frequent traveler from the United Kingdom stating this:


Last time I was at ORD [Chicago O’Hare Airport] I had a great TSA agent who was “human” and had a personality. Conversely, the previous occasion (also ORD as it happens) the agent was clearly enjoying his moment of power, was rude (when one could understand him) and seemed to want to make things difficult. As a result it took nearly two hours for our flight to clear immigration. Then there was the LAX operative who didn’t understand the concept of a road trip and demanded hotel details for every 15 nights of my stay. Sorry to say this but the TSA is killing the US tourism industry. “


These complaints are frequent and the attitudes many foreigners frequently encounter at U.S. points of entry do reflect poorly on the United States. These complaints however are incorrectly attributed to the easy scapegoat, the TSA.


Upon entry into the United States travelers passing through immigrations and customs at an airport will encounter a number of agencies and services. The first primary law enforcement agent most travelers will encounter is passport control, handled by the CBP’s immigrations officers. After passing through passport control, travelers will then encounter CBP’s customs agents, and possibly agents from the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (in conjunction with the USDA) or the Food & Drug Administration (FDA).  Under some circumstances, a flagged traveller may encounter Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE).     While all of these law enforcement entities, except the FDA, are under the umbrella of the Department of Homeland Security, none of them are the Transportation Security Administration.   These agencies are law enforcement, where as the TSA (with limited exceptions) is charged with administrative search duties for aviation security, not inbound immigrations and customs duties.


So … next time you have a complaint regarding an airport experience, consider directing your complaint in the proper direction.  The TSA can cause problems all on their own and does not need to shoulder the ire that should be reserved for others.


Happy Flying!





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