It’s not often that I learn something completely new about TSA policies, but I was definitely caught off-guard last month when I was told at London Heathrow that I was required to answer some questions in order to board my flight to New York by airline security contractors. Half asleep from a day and a half of flying prior, I encountered the first in the AAdminal’s Club, who I, at first, paid no attention to, but when questions changed from, “Where are you flying?” to “Was your trip for personal or business purposes,” and “Where were you since you left America,” I asked if the questions were necessary, and was told yes. I refused, was referred to an AAdmiral’s club employee, and was allowed on my way.
The purpose of having this security guy in a lounge turned out to be “convenience.” As I got to my gate, I learned that some passengers had “stickers” on the back of their passports, meaning they had completed one of these so-called “security interviews,” and if I had complied in the lounge, I would have had a sticker. So, being stickerless, another security contractor starts interviewing me, this time asking only 2 questions: where I was flying, and how long I’d be staying there. I gave him a funny look, and he said, “Oh, you live there,” put a sticker on my passport, and let me through.
I immediately complained to AA via e-mail (before I was even in the air), and the next day I had a response that the security interviews in London were TSA-mandated. I asked them to clarify what the procedures were and what happens if a passenger refuses, and was told the procedures were Sensitive Security Information (SSI) and I should contact the TSA. So, I did.
Today, a few weeks later, the reply from the TSA is that security interviews are required as a part of the airline’s TSA-approved security program, that they are indeed SSI, and that failure to comply would result in being denied boarding.
I’m leaning towards filing suit against this policy. Here’s why:
- First, it should be clarified that this is *NOT* a border search, a search by Customs & Border Patrol (or their internationl equivalent), or an airline/airport security procedure (the TSA’s phrasing it as the airline’s security program neglects the fact that they forced them to adopt such a program). This is the TSA forcing you to answer questions before you can return. It turns out that not even CBP can force you to answer your questions, if you’re a U.S. citizen.
- As an American, I have several rights that cannot be exercised together as a result of this policy. The right to remain silent, the right to travel, and the right to be re-admitted to my homeland are all clearly defined. The TSA is now basically saying, “pick two.” (But, I choose all three, thanks.)
- This program is entirely secret. Google for “international security interviews TSA” and see what you get. It’s all about domestic stuff relating to Pre-Check and trusted traveler programs. The contents of this program, as admitted by the TSA and airline, are SSI, have never been disclosed to the public, and even surprised a frequent international traveler and TSA troublemaker like myself. (I’ve had the “sticker” before, but I had never thought anything of it because they had never asked anything more than was printed on my boarding pass.)
- My flight was returning home to my family on Christmas day. If the second interviewer had asked the same questions as the first, I would have again refused and been denied the ability to see my family on a holiday because of a secret interview of which I had no notice of a requirement to comply. I don’t want that to happen to me or anyone else in the future. I shouldn’t have to guess whether “none-of-your-business” type questions will be forced on me as a condition of traveling internationally.
- Finally, this has to be one of the most useless security measures ever. Like the TSA’s somewhat-abandoned SPOT program, all one need do to defeat it is calmly lie — or print out a sticker in advance.
So, what do you guys think? Is a lawsuit in order here? I’d also love to hear any interesting stories if you’ve been through one of these interviews.