TSA Screening at Airports

I am all for the TSA screening system at airports. In today’s world, you can’t be too careful. Overall, I have found TSA officials to be pleasant, professional, and courteous.

tsa screeners looking at the x-ray

However, I continue to be surprised at the inconsistent application of certain screening procedures. I travel a good deal and am in and out of airports all over the country. You would think that a federal program would insure that rules are applied consistently. Evidently not.Here are the inconsistencies I have found:

  1. Initial screeners. Sometimes this is a TSA official; sometimes it is simply airport security. Sometimes, they jot a mark on your boarding pass; sometimes they carefully compare you with your picture. The most annoying habit is when they ask you for credentials at the beginning of the line and then again at the end. It’s almost as if the second guys don’t trust the first guys.
  2. Secondary screeners. Sometimes a TSA official wants to see your boarding pass again, right after you go through the detection monitor. But not always. As a result, I always put mine in my right pocket—just in case.
  3. Shoes off or on? This is getting more consistent now, but for a long time, I left my shoes on when going through security in Nashville and a few other cities. Now, as a matter of standard operating procedure, I take my shoes off.
  4. Is paste a liquid? When you carry on your bags, you’re supposed to remove any liquids and place the containers in a one-quart plastic bag. According to the official rules, each container must be three ounces or smaller. And, you must use only one, zip-top, clear plastic bag. This seems straightforward and clear. The confusion comes over pastes, some gels, and a few other substances. For example, I have always left my toothpaste and deodorant in my suitcase. However, a few weeks ago, security in Colorado Springs, pulled these out of my bag and lectured me. I’ve flown since then and kept them in my suitcase. So far, no one has pulled them out. It would be great if TSA would clarify this on their site.

What inconsistencies have you found?

Again, compared to what I expected from a federal agency, the TSA is doing a remarkable job. I certainly don’t want to make their already demanding work more difficult. However, I think consistency would help them and the travelers they serve.

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  • http://pc1oad1etter.blogspot.com Nick

    Michael,

    Have you seen that TSA has a blog? They have been receiving complaints (and praises I guess) there.

    http://www.tsa.gov/blog/

  • Jess

    TSAs are terribly inconsistent – beyond the shoe thing you mentioned, we’ve noticed terrible inconsistencies in their comparison of items.

    The TSA at Phoenix confiscated my husband’s 3.5 oz hair product paste (a $20 product) but didn’t even question the 5 oz gel deodorant in the quart plastic bag with it (a $3 product).

    We decided that the balding TSA must have been jealous. :)

  • Bob DeMoss

    Mike,

    Here’s my pet beef. As you stated, the first security screener compares a passenger’s drivers license to a paper ticket. What’s the point of that?

    Think about it: the ticket could easily be faked using a laser printer and a page layout program. Unless the TSA agent compares an ID with an active passenger database—instead of a slip of paper that’s easy to forge—there’s no point to that part in the vetting process.

    As I see it, this time consuming step gives a false sense of security while bogging down the ability for travelers to get to their flights on time.

    Case in point. I was recently in Denver where the roped-off lines to herd the travelers zigged and zagged probably thirty times, then snaked down a hallway . . . all the way to the baggage claim area. Talk about creating a bottleneck. There was ONE GUY comparing the IDs to the ticket stubs. Insane.

    I understand that part of the reason this is done is to prevent folks who don’t have a ticket from advancing to the gates (as was allowed in the old days). But lest anyone think this somehow adds to the security of the operation, that’s a pipe dream.

  • http://jonarnoldmakesmusic.blogspot.com jon

    Similar to others here, a 3.5 oz bottle of my wife’s lotion (also, oddly enough, a $20 product) was confiscated by TSAs at the Phoenix airport.

    We had just flown days earlier from Nashville where their TSAs didn’t look twice at the bottle. Had they pulled it, the Nashville Airport (BNA) provides a mailing center where you can actually mail yourself your contraband items to prevent the TSA ending up with them. The Phoenix airport was not so kind and we lost the item.

    The inconsistency (and follow-up form letter email response I got to my complaint) are beyond frustrating.

  • Drav

    For me one of the guys compared my name on the boarding pass with my passport. I have a 25 letters in my real name (really!). 7 out of 10 times the person typing my name into the computer makes a mistake. Its something I’ve gotten used to.

    Well Mr. Security guy apparently thought that a one letter difference between my name on the boarding pass vs my passport was a huge security issue and I needed ‘extra screening.’

    I know he’s just doing his job but come on … 1 letter out of 25?

    He oughtta be more worried when whoever typed it gets it right :)

  • http://www.colleencoble.com Colleen Coble

    Oh this is a hot button for me! On the way to Hawaii last year, I suddenly realized I hadn’t checked to see if my license needed renewal. I pulled it out and sure enough it had expired six weeks earlier! (I’m a novelist, I don’t think about stuff like that much. LOL). At the Indianapolis airport, the screener noticed it but just had me go through a little extra screening. On the way back the Lihue screener caught it then sent me back to the ticket counter where they flagged my ticket in some way, then made me get in another line at the screener and be practically strip-searched!

    The only reason I’d thought to check my license is the exact same thing happened to my husband on the trip to Hawaii before that! LOL You’d think we would have learned. But the screener didn’t even make Dave go through extra screening on the way. You’d think they’d have a policy of looking at the expiration date if it’s really important.

  • Douglas Schultz

    An inconsistency that I see is with CPAP machines (used for treating sleep apnea) and some other unusual electronics (besides PC’s). Some airports want them out of the carry on bag or case and others are fine with leaving them in.

  • http://waynehastings.blogs.com/offtheshelf/ Wayne Hastings

    Mike,

    I agree the liquid screening is the most inconsistent part of most TSA posts. Nashville is lax while a place like COS or Orange County, CA is very strict. One thing I’ve seen in my travels is that airports close to major military installations, like COS, are very strict and slower than other cities.

    I am also amazed that many personal grooming companies are sticking with sizes like 3.5 oz. for many products. It seems they may not be reading the news or listening to customers.

  • http://www.advocace.com Paul Martin

    TSA: Uneven, yes. Some airports are consistently particular (specifically, Denver and COS) while most other airports are less so.

    Perhaps just my experience, when the TSA agent checks the boarding pass while walking through the detectors, he is looking for the ‘dreaded SSSS’. If that is printed on the bottom of your boarding pass, the traveler gets to *enjoy* a more thorough round of screening.

  • Larry

    Mike,

    The inconsistency that drives me the craziest is whether or not you put small bags in the plastic containers or directly on the belt. The following actually happened to me, believe it or not. I was in one airport. I had a small carrying case which I placed directly on the belt. The agent began busting my chops saying it had to be in a plastic tote. At the next airport, I dutifully placed it in the tote. The agent took it out, placed it on the belt and told me that all carrying cases must go directly on the belt!

  • http://www.motiveight.com Kyle Chowning

    My favorite (smirk) is when TSA in Nashville doesn’t require you to pull out the liquids, but Charlotte does, and then they proceed to lecture you about pulling it out.

    Has anybody else noticed that the level of sensitivity when going through the metal detectors varies? In Nashville I can wear a belt but in other cities, I can’t.

    You’re right Mike. Very inconsistent.

  • http://www.joewikert.com Joe Wikert

    These inconsistencies drive me nuts. I find it ironic that when the lines are long there’s a TSA agent barking out commands to try and keep things moving quickly. If they’d just apply the same rules from airport to airport they’d help themselves and all the travelers.

    My latest experience was on a return flight from a west coast trip. I’ve work fleece pullovers many times on flights and have never been asked to remove it at security. Sure enough, a TSA at SFO told me to take it off. The line was held up because I had to go back and find a bin and remove the pullover. I have *no* problem removing a pullover at every airport, but if the TSA is going to randomly make requests like this they’re only making the lines longer.

  • Guy

    Could the inconsistencies be deliberate? If the process was consistent would it be easier for an enemy of the American Way to exploit the screening system and cause harm?

    Or do I give the TSA to much credit?!

    • k.l.sabin

      BINGO! I understand the frustration of the traveling public. Trust me. I hear it everyday. "you guys didn't take this out in Boston…" The truth: each officer is a different person. Don't let the matching uniforms fool you. Each officer is to use his/her discretion while enforcing the rules set forth by the government and the FAA. Kind of like police officers that decide whether or not to pull you over for speeding. Does everyone that drives over the speed limit get pulled over? No. Does everyone that gets pulled over get a ticket? No. Hmmm. Interesting. Here's another example. You and I could be looking at the exact same shirt. The shirt is only one color. I say it is turquoise, you say it is blue. That is my perception vs. yours. Think about it…

  • http://www.davidpleach.com davidpleach

    Guess you struck a chord, Mike :-). I realized a few weeks ago that I’ve been carrying around a cigar lighter in my briefcase for over a year. It’s never been found by the x-rays. Now I keep it there just to see what will happen.

    And by the way, you can take ANY liquid through ANY airport in the country if it is on your person, the TSA can’t visually see it, and it’s not in a metal container.

    A TSA employee once shared with me that the reason what the metal detectors are doing is measuring quantities of metal (cumulative). So that’s why sometimes you can wear your shoes and belt and sometimes you can’t–it depends on how sensitive a particular airport sets its detectors. They are all different. Take off your belt and shoes and you can always get your cigar lighter through (and presumably a small gun).

    So the best way to win a free lighter or a good perfume is to take from the discards at the front of the line and put it in your pocket.

    • k.l.sabin

      Yes, let us encourage smuggling. Hate to tell you, but WHEN you get caught trying to take that item through (be it through random additional screening or just a very well intuned officer) you will get to talk to APD about why you artfully concealed an item. This will have you missing your flight and will also have you potentially paying fines up to $10,000.

  • Jimmy Lee

    Speaking of inconsistencies, how about the way people are singled out for extra screening.
    Just give the screener a funny look or reply, and you are off to be “closely examined.”
    My favorite is when they single out the elderly. On a recent trip from Florida, I watched as they hassled an old man (at least 85) who was on oxygen. His wife was trembling at his side through the entire ordeal. I certainly didn’t feel any safer for the efforts of TSA that day.

    • k.l.sabin

      We have to screen everyone. The elderly are not targeted, yet they must be cleared. The 85 year old probably was unable to walk through the metal detector and had to be screened (as well as his oxygen tank) by alternative means. Who's to say terrorists won't send the guy on his last breath to go blow up the plane? What does that guy have to lose?

  • http://www.inspiredbyhorses.com Maureen

    In the book, Fear Less, Gavin de Becker (security expert) talks about two categories of security precautions:
    Category I: Those implemented to reduce risk.
    Category II: Those implemented to reduce public anxiety.

    He cites an example of Cat II in the policy that Greyhound implemented after 9/11 after one of their drivers was killed by a passenger. They decided that passengers wouldn’t be allowed to sit in the seats immediately behind a driver. But rather than keeping the driver safe, that regulation meant there was no one nearby to come to a driver’s aid when the next bus-jacker attacked.

    Since reading this book, my husband and I have become more aware of policies that do some good and those that just create an appearance of control.

  • http://www.projectspossible.com Bill

    Airport inconsistencies abound. I’ve found even within the same airport that you get different service. At SFO I don’t use the scanner on the far right side because it is set so sensitive that I have to take off my neck chain and my belt or I end up setting the thing off… all of the others I can get through without a problem.

    And when you do set the thing off and have to be “inspected” I find that there are huge inconsistencies. How many airports actually “clear” your pants zipper? My experience is about 30% do and the remainder “pretend” to.

    I’m also a little bit curious about the whole quart size bag thing. What’s to keep me from clearning security a dozen times with 3 ounces of liquid each time. Absolutely nothing! If I really wanted to get some kind of explosive gel or liquid onto a plan I would just go through security a few times with 3 ounces each time. I just don’t see how that is going to stop anything.

    Anyway just my 2 cents…

  • http://www.tully.ca William Tully

    As a Canadian, I think the TSA has gone a bit overboard, and yes, you CAN be too careful to the point where you’re not even doing the job you’re supposed to be.

    On a flight from Buffalo to Charlotte, my toothpaste and shaving cream were confiscated, yet I boarded the plane with a knife and a lighter… I kid you not. On the way home, lighter was grabbed, but yet again the knife was allowed.

    I also, on occasion, travel with SCUBA equipment (specifically my expensive regulators as carry-on) which completely freaks the TSA out because it is ‘breathing equipment’.. The best part was when this lady called over people with GUNS to have a look at this bizzare equipment, yet failed to notice the 4″ knife attached to a piece of gear in the same case (I completely forgot about it and would have left it at home), unpacked it, verified all the gear was now safe, and re-packed the bag ensuring that the knife itself was carefully stowed so that it didn’t get damaged.

    Knitting needles? DANGER! Nail clippers? DANGER! Toothpase? DANGER! A small wrench used to service my dive regulators? DANGER! Knives and lighters? Welcome aboard!

  • EU passenger

    They forget about checking natural body holes.
    You never know what terrorists are planning :)

  • Juan Ignacio

    When I travel from Spain to USA, I follow some rules:

    1. Smile, smile and smile.
    2. Go well dressed.
    3. Sent all my stuff with other person or mail.
    4. Don´t thing about it.

  • Juan Ignacio

    Sorry… obviously “think”

  • J

    I was recently married and my wife had her temporary paper ID. In our homestate the TSA had no problem with it but flying out of San Diego they treated her like a common criminal. Not to mention after they searched her carry on they leaft nothing as it was.

  • Connie

    As a business traveler, I have been through the Charlotte Airport TSA several times this year. In March a pair of sunglasses and earrings were missing from my laptop case. I noticed them missing after I arrived back in San Diego. I always carry my laptop and luggage to avoid luggage problems and theft. In May my second pair of sunglasses disappeared, along with an expensive bracklet and earrings that I stored in my laptop case. The only time my property left my hands was through the TSA screening at Charlotte Airport. Has anyone else experienced this and found items missing from their luggage?

  • Loretta

    I have not traveled by plane since all this mess started as I am just afraid some one will select me for a search and I’ll tell them to stick it.

    Anyway I finally decided I was being silly so I have a trip planned and started reading the TSA ruses, etc. do you know they even suggest women not wear bras with underwire? What kind of problems is wearing an underwire bra going to cause me?

    Hubby travels all the time but obviously never had this issue.

    Thanks.