By Mary Ann Akers
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 19, 2009
Last week, Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) made headlines after he set off an alarm by opening a secure door at Washington Dulles International Airport. This week, Rep. Peter A. DeFazio (D-Ore.) is in the spotlight after he was overheard complaining to airport security workers in Portland about their "stupid" rules as they pulled him aside for additional screening.
And this from a man who helped create the agency that makes those rules.
DeFazio, who has served on the House Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee on aviation since 1986 and helped establish the Transportation Security Administration in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, admitted yesterday: "I'm a grumpy traveler. But I don't think we have here airport rage."
DeFazio balked when he was singled out for additional security screening by rubber-glove-wearing TSA workers at his connecting gate at Portland International Airport after he had already gone through regular X-ray screening in Eugene, Ore., where his United Airlines flight originated.
"I said, 'This is really stupid. What are you going to find here with rubber gloves that you didn't find in primary security with the X-ray machine?' " DeFazio recalled of his Monday-morning schlep from his district back to Washington.
And he said he offered up that he was "kind of an expert on airport security," telling the TSA screeners: "I helped create the TSA. I'm in Congress."
That was construed by an anonymous passenger -- a Republican operative, DeFazio presumes -- as a "Do you know who I am?" rant against the TSA workers. The anonymous tipster told Roll Call newspaper that DeFazio was visibly angry and used a curse word, which the congressman says he doesn't recall.
Indeed, DeFazio's incident doesn't appear to approach Vitter's, which sparked a formal review by the TSA. But his rebuke of the four TSA workers in Portland is a case of bad timing and underscores the deep-seated frustration felt by frequent fliers, including members of Congress, over the hassles of seemingly inane airport security measures.
Unlike regular travelers, DeFazio was able to get a meeting with TSA officials on Tuesday to get an explanation of the agency's newly implemented random security checks at gates on certain flights. (The practice was ended in 2003 but has recently been reinstituted as a pilot program for classified security reasons, according to DeFazio.)
DeFazio says the TSA gate screening measures "make a little more sense" after his meeting, but he argues if additional random screening truly is necessary, "they need to do it with sophisticated, state-of-the-art bomb-detection equipment" rather than with rubber gloves.
Rep. Earl Blumenauer, a Democrat from Portland, was standing about five people behind DeFazio in line to board the same plane to Washington. He deemed the randomized rubber-gloved security search "weird" and "nuts."
Asked whether DeFazio had lost his cool with the TSA workers, Blumenauer said, "There was no road rage -- he didn't raise his voice, no abuse, nothing inappropriate. He was more frustrated and embarrassed."
"And I've seen on occasion members of Congress be quite rude" to airport security employees, "sometimes with no good reason," added Blumenauer, who, like DeFazio, flies home almost every week.
Lawmakers certainly have had their fair share of airport exploits.
Most notably, perhaps, was Larry Craig (R-Idaho), whose June 2007 arrest in a men's-room sex sting at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport and subsequent guilty plea forced him to retire from the Senate.
Rep. Bob Filner (D-Calif.) followed shortly thereafter. Filner was charged with misdemeanor assault and battery in August 2007 after he allegedly pushed a United Airlines employee at the baggage-claim area at Dulles. He later entered an "Alford" no-contest plea, and his charge was reduced to trespassing.
Similarly, then-Rep. David M. McIntosh (R-Ind.) was charged with assault and battery in 1996 after he tried to muscle his way onto a plane bound for Indianapolis at Washington National Airport. Charges were later dropped.
Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.) was caught on camera charging through a metal detector and into a security worker at Los Angeles International Airport in 2000. And Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.) reportedly threw a tantrum on a 1998 Continental Airlines flight from Washington to Houston because the airline didn't have the seafood meal she wanted. (The carrier suggested she start flying Delta.)
Darryl Jenkins, a veteran aviation analyst who has worked for nearly all of the major airlines, said he sympathized with DeFazio up to a point.
"We've all acted like DeFazio has. We've all been yanked out of line and subjected to all sorts of humiliating experiences," Jenkins said. "But DeFazio should know better."