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Confused and abused by the TSA

By Christopher Elliott
Friday, November 19, 2010; 11:25 AM

Just a few days before the busy holiday travel period, the Transportation Security Administration has decided to change the rules of flying - again.

At the beginning of this month, the agency began enforcing its name-matching requirements for airline tickets. Passengers must now provide their full names as they appear on a government-issued ID, their date of birth and their gender when they book a flight.

After a terrorism scare involving explosive devices shipped by cargo, the government banned printer cartridges from luggage.

And the TSA started implementing several new screening measures, including an enhanced "pat-down" protocol for air travelers who opt out of a full-body scan.

The agency appears to be phasing in these new procedures unevenly, leading to frequent confrontations with air travelers. At some airports, passengers are being randomly asked to go through the scanners, while at others, they must all be screened by the machines or by hand. At one airport last week, passengers were both scanned and frisked.

As a result, air travelers aren't sure what to expect when they fly. In a Consumer Travel Alliance poll conducted last weekend, more than half the respondents - 56 percent - said they were more confused than ever about the TSA's new rules. About 41 percent said they were about as confused as before, and only 3 percent said they were less confused.

Pat-downs are by far the biggest problem. When I first reported on these aggressive screening techniques in the spring, the TSA insisted that it hadn't changed the way it checks passengers and that it wasn't punishing air travelers who refused the scans. But it turns out that the agency was testing the controversial frisking procedures at several airports, after all.

The pat-downs, which are being introduced nationwide this fall, have been widely interpreted by passengers as retribution for refusing to walk through the new full-body scanners. One of them is Meg McLain, a graphic designer and activist from New Hampshire, who declined both the scan and an enhanced pat-down in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., last week. McLain told an Internet radio show that she was yelled at and handcuffed to a chair. In response, the TSA released video surveillance footage that called her account into question.

A few weeks ago, Michael Roberts, a pilot for ExpressJet, a regional carrier for United Airlines, also balked when he was asked to submit to a full-body scan at Memphis International Airport. He refused a manual screening and was not allowed to go to work. Roberts is suing the TSA.

TSA officers have even threatened to fine passengers who protest the new pat-downs. The agency can fine passengers up to $10,000 for behaving in a manner that is so uncooperative and disruptive that it physically interferes with the screening process, according to the agency.

Pilots' unions have lined up in opposition to the new procedures, citing concerns about the radiation exposure and the enhanced pat-downs. In a letter to the 11,000 American Airlines pilots he represents, Dave Bates, the president of the Allied Pilots Association, called pat-downs "a demeaning experience." Some passengers are upset, too, and have organized a "National Opt-Out Day" on Nov. 24 - one of the busiest travel days of the year.

Most travelers, however, are trying to take the new rules in stride. Mac Irwin, a financial consultant from Dallas, has gone through the full-body scan and says that it's "no big deal." But he's confused by the inconsistent way the TSA's rules are applied from one airport to the next.

"Some demand that you take off your belt, others do not," he says. "I just returned from New York, and I had to hold my boarding pass out. At Dallas-Fort Worth and Charlotte the week before, I was told to put it away. Some want you to put your shoes in a bin, others on the belt."

The scans are a big deal to another subset of passengers: parents, particularly those with young children. Should they send their children through the machines, exposing them to radiation, or allow them to be frisked?

"Forced to make a choice between the lesser of two evils, I am seeing many parents traveling with children opt for the full-body scanner," says Philip Farina, a travel security expert. "They do not want their kids touched by strangers."

Asked about the safety concerns some parents have raised about the full-body scans, Greg Soule, a TSA spokesman, said that the "technology is safe for all passengers, including children and pregnant women."

But the scans aren't the only source of confusion. Consider the experience of Timothy O'Neil-Dunne, a travel technology consultant. "If you have a name like mine, it's a nightmare," he says. TSA and airlines can't seem to figure out what to do with his hyphenated surname in their reservation system, sometimes leading to an inexact name match between his ID and his ticket. On several occasions, an agent has had to override the system to let him board.

For most passengers, ensuring a matching name and not packing printer cartridges is fairly painless. Putting up with the TSA's randomness takes a little patience. But deciding whether to be scanned or patted down? That's not an easy choice at all.

Perhaps the TSA's timing could have been better. Coming just a few weeks before the busiest travel season of the year may have put undue pressure on travelers, not to mention its own officers.

I also think that the TSA has been spending too much time around airlines, which generally prefer imposing punitive fees to offering incentives. Rather than punishing passengers for refusing to be scanned, the agency should be rewarding them for being scanned by offering a faster track through the security line. If travelers thought that they could get through a checkpoint more quickly, they might fall all over themselves to get scanned.

What if TSA doesn't listen to the passengers it's trying to protect? In addition to feeling confused, many passengers are upset by this ill-timed confluence of events executed by what they view as an incompetent federal agency.

"I'm mad as hell," says Anchorage radio show host and frequent traveler Scott McMurren. If TSA can't get it right, there's only one solution, he adds: "Dismantle the TSA and send the screeners back to Wal-Mart."

Elliott is National Geographic Traveler magazine's reader advocate. E-mail him at celliott@ngs.org.

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