Airport search complaints prompt calls for on-site advocates

NEW YORK Sun Dec 11, 2011 5:43pm EST

A Transportation Security Agency (TSA) worker runs her hands over the head of a traveler during a patdown search at Denver International Airport, the day before Thanksgiving November 24, 2010.  REUTERS/Rick Wilking

A Transportation Security Agency (TSA) worker runs her hands over the head of a traveler during a patdown search at Denver International Airport, the day before Thanksgiving November 24, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Rick Wilking

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NEW YORK (Reuters) - Two New York politicians urged the Transportation Security Administration on Sunday to provide passenger advocates on site at airport screenings after four elderly women complained of intrusive searches by security agents in recent months.

Senator Charles Schumer and State Senator Michael Gianaris told Homeland Security Director Janet Napolitano and TSA Administrator John Pistole in a letter that an on-site passenger advocate would help strike the right balance between security and protecting vulnerable travelers.

"I appreciate the TSA's work to keep air passengers safe, but passengers should not be humiliated and degraded during their travels," Gianaris said in a statement accompanying the letter.

The call came after several elderly women came forward in the busy travel weeks around Thanksgiving to complain they were "strip searched by TSA agents", including three at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport, the letter said.

On Sunday, the TSA denied on its blog that the women had been strip searched.

"TSA does not and has never conducted strip searches, and no strip searches occurred in any of these incidents," the official statement posted by TSA blogger Bob Burns said.

He said the TSA was in the process of establishing a toll-free phone number dedicated to travelers who may require assistance during screening and which could be called to "get guidance and information about screening."

Schumer and Gianaris asked instead for a member of the screening crew to be trained as a passenger advocate who could intervene as problems arose. They also asked for an investigation into the women's complaints, which were detailed in the letter.

In one case, the letter said, Lenore Zimmerman, 85, of Long Beach, New York, said TSA agents took her into a private room in late November to remove her back brace for screening after she decided against going through a scanning machine because of her heart defibrillator.

"Zimmerman said she had to raise her blouse and remove her undergarments for a female TSA agent," the letter said.

The same day, Ruth Sherman, 88, of Sunrise, Florida, was asked about a visible protrusion from her waist band, which she identified as her colostomy bag.

She was "escorted to another room where two female agents made her lower her pants for an inspection. Sherman raised concerns that the agents would disrupt her colostomy bag, causing pain and potential damage," the letter said.

A third woman, Linda Kallish, of Boynton, Florida, said that after she revealed she was a diabetic with an insulin pump in her leg, she was escorted to a separate room where she was told to remove her pants so the agents could check the pump, the letter said, without saying when that incident took place.

Last June, the daughter of Lena Reppert, 95, reported that TSA agents would not let her mother board a flight from Fort Walton Beach, Florida, to Detroit because her incontinence pad set off alarms, the letter said.

"We truly regret these passengers feel they had a bad screening experience," the TSA said in its blog.

The TSA blamed some of the problems on "a bit of miscommunication" and noted that JFK officers were receiving refresher training on "how to respectfully and safely screen passengers with disabilities or medical conditions."

(Reporting by Barbara Goldberg; Editing by Cynthia Johnston)

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Comments (19)
Who better to provide a sensitive, people oriented person than a faceless government bureaucracy? What recourse would a passenger have if this passenger advocate determined a TSA employee had exceeded his or her authority or the limits of discretion? This is madness. Those who really understand security at checkpoints such as those found at airports will tell you that profiling, background checks, pre-arrival screening and other less obtrustive checks made prior to a passenger’s (or airport employees for that matter) arrival at the airport would make us safer. Yet, we kow tow to this wholly unnecessary and arguably creepy system of bodily searches in the interest of egalitarian idealism. We have padded flying expenses, inconvenienced millions, established a now impossible to deconstruct bureaucracy and impinged upon the liberties of free people to the detriment of us all. I say we all protest by donning home constructed and full colostomy bags prominently displayed in support of our fellow citizens who are dragged into closed rooms and searched for no reason other than for the pleasure and ignorance of the state.

Dec 11, 2011 6:07pm EST  --  Report as abuse
dboz555 wrote:
TSA is full of crap with their denials. I flew out of California a few years ago and forgot to pack some cosmetics of my wife’s in our checked luggage. They were expensive cosmetics and a TSA agent made us throw them away. As we were waiting to board our plane that TSA agent went and got a female agent and she ruffled through the garbage. She took out only the expensive cosmetics that we were forced to throw away and walked away. When I got home I called the main TSA and they told me they would look into it, but it was probably a misunderstanding. I was then told that TSA agents are trained to take large items out of the trash to help with the control of trash. If that is the case why did the female TSA agent only take the small items of cosmetics and not larger items?

Something else to consider I have seen more elderly people stopped and patted down than any other social group. I have seen a lot of film and Internet footage on terrorists, terrorists training camps, terrorist attacks, and other terrorist activities; not once did any of this footage have elderly people in it. So why is it the TSA is targeting elderly and not people who fit the description of terrorist?

What I am saying is if you are not going to do the job right and if you cannot even keep control of your own agents’ maybe you should not even be there at all.

Start by requiring everyone no matter destination or social group to use a passport to get on a plane. Also require mandatory background checks that are only good for 90 days; paid for by the person flying.

Dec 11, 2011 6:25pm EST  --  Report as abuse
HAL.9000 wrote:
I have refuse to fly. The indignation is just not worth it to me.

Dec 11, 2011 7:06pm EST  --  Report as abuse
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