Going through airport security manned by the TSA is an unpleasant at best, panic-inducing at worst experience, and it definitely helps to know what to expect and what you can do to ensure that you are harassed as little as possible. The TSA is absolutely horrible at informing travelers as to the procedures they will face (often times declaring that they are “sensitive security information” and therefore cannot be published) and those working the checkpoints often misrepresent the rights and responsibilities of travelers (sometimes to be intentionally difficult, but generally because they were poorly trained).
So, here’s what every traveler should know before they collect their boarding pass at a U.S. airport:
- You have the right to opt-out of the body scanners and request a pat-down. Unless your boarding pass indicates that you are subject to heightened security, which will be denoted by four S’s in big bold letters, you may simply tell the person running the body scanner that you “opt out.” Try to keep a close eye on your belongings while they find someone to pat you down.
- You have the right to take pictures, video, and audio recording. It can be comforting to many to know that they may document their interaction, especially if it looks like there’s going to be a problem. You can take pictures, video, and audio recordings of the entire screening process with the following two exceptions: a) you can’t take pictures or videos of the x-ray monitors, and b) you can’t hold your belongings (including a camera) while you’re walking through the body scanner or metal detector, or while receiving a pat-down, but you can have a travel companion who has already been cleared do so on your behalf. If the TSA ever denies you the ability to record your interaction other than for those two exceptions, please contact me.
- You have the right to request the TSA’s video of your experience! Video from security cameras is almost always a public record covered by the federal Freedom of Information Act or similar state laws. Generally, the video is in the possession of the local airport authority, so your request should be made to them, but I highly suggest sending simultaneous requests to both the TSA and the airport. How? Read about submitting FOIA requests to the TSA.
- You have the right to carry medicinal liquids as a carry-on, even if they are over 3 ounces. Any liquid that you need for a medical purpose must be permitted through the checkpoint. It does not have to be a prescription, and you do not need a doctor’s note. If you have diabetes, you can easily justify a bottle of Gatorade. If you have a baby, you may bring breast milk. You also need not detail your condition for the TSA; simply take the items out of your bag to be separately screened and let the screener know that the items are medical liquids.
- You have the right to fly without ID. If you forget, or lose, your ID, you may still travel. They will simply verify your identity by calling in your information. Leave extra time for the process, but fear not. Note that if you can, but simply refuse to, show ID, the TSA’s policy is to refuse to screen you, although that policy does not exactly square with court rulings.
- You have the right to speak to a supervisor. Blue-shirted TSA screeners come in 4 varieties, represented by 0 through 3 stripes on their shoulders. 0 = trainee, 1 = Transportation Security Officer (TSO), 2 = Lead TSO, 3 = Supervisory TSO. If you have a problem and the person with whom you are speaking has less than 3 stripes, ask for an STSO. If the STSO still gives you trouble, ask for a Transportation Security Manager (TSM), who will be wearing a suit. A TSM is required to be on duty in the airport; do not believe any assertions that one is not available — they are. Finally, if the interaction with the TSM is still unsatisfactory, you may ask to contact the Federal Security Director (FSD), who is a regional airport director and may not be on-site but generally has staffers who are. Another resource is the TSA’s national “TSA Cares” hotline. While the name is a misnomer, as the TSA certainly does not care, they may be of assistance at (855) 787-2227.
- You have the right to make a complaint. Ask for a comment card on your way out, and the name of anyone who made your TSA experience more unpleasant than usual. You can also file your TSA complaints online, but it makes them more nervous when you ask for a paper copy.
- You have the right to request a police officer supervise. Did the TSA just ask to conduct an invasive search on your person? Feel free to request that airport police supervise the situation. Most, but not all, airport cops understand that the TSA is a disaster and that 0% of the times the TSA has demanded absurd levels of screening has the target actually been a terrorist. As the saying goes, “‘I just caught a terrorist!’ said no TSA employee ever.”
- You have the right to refuse to take off anything but outer garments. This includes, obviously, your clothes, but also includes any medical devices, prostheses, etc. The TSA is not permitted to conduct strip searches. If you are asked to do anything to the contrary, contact a supervisor and airport police.
- You have the right to refuse screening. I cannot stress this enough: if the TSA demands that you continue screening in a private room, you should refuse. You may miss your flight, but think about it: if the TSA does what you see at the checkpoint in full view of the world, you can only imagine what they will do if they determine you need “private screening.” And, if you can’t imagine, let me fill you in: they will be touching your genitals with the front of their hands. Know also that the TSA has not successfully leveled a fine or any other penalty against anyone for refusing screening, and their current policy is to simply escort the traveler out of the checkpoint. Your airline will almost certainly re-book you at no cost. It is your body, and your choice — do not let the TSA persuade you otherwise. Just remain calm and firm.
Finally, if you have a negative experience, please don’t keep your story to yourself. I would love to hear your story and may be able to help you to find resources to help. Be in touch. And, please share, print, and distribute to help others avoid TSA assholery.
“Jon Corbett is a civil rights advocate known for filing the first lawsuit against the deployment of TSA nude body scanners, as well as defeating the body scanners live in “How to Get ANYTHING Through TSA Nude Body Scanners. Presently a law student, he continues to advocate for travel and privacy rights. Twitter: @_JonCorbett, Web: https://professional-troublemaker.com/“
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Thank you for giving people a place to publicly share the reality of this invasive patdown.
June 2, 2020, I received the patdown at San Diego airport. To save time, I will not go into full detail and just give you highlights.
After going through the full body scanner, they pulled me aside and said something in my crotch area set off the alarm and they needed to do a patdown. Fine. I have had pat downs in the past, and never had any issues.
So, I agreed to the patdown, not knowing that they had changed their procedure. She goes down my buttocks, even into my crack, splitting the cheeks. That was a shocker in of itself. But, assumed it was an accident. She went up my leg, which was fine. But, she didn’t stop where past searches normally stopped. She went upto my labia, paused and moved center into my labia and split my labia flaps. That was when I told her to stop and loudly told her that my labia and buttcrack were off limits.
I told them I would be more open to stripping and my “splitting” the folds open for them so long as they didn’t touch me. They said that they couldn’t have me strip and they had to touch me. More back and forth happened with my trying to negotiate other options… guess who won.
In the end, they made me repeat the whole ordeal again in a private room with someone watching (didn’t help my discomfort… at all). Luckily, this time, she didn’t put her hand in my buttcrack, but my labia was still touched and breached.
Obviously, they found nothing. So, I cried for over an hour on the plane and over an hour on my husband’s shoulder.
I have 2 young daughters. We have made the decision that if any of us fly, we will deny any form of touch and we are to make time for a backup plan if TSA insists.
The idea that people and children should be trained to allow such contact from strangers will instill a very dangerous place for sexual assault victims, more so than what they have to deal with now. If a child (or anybody) is told to accept others to cross certain physical boundaries, the risk of future unwanted sexual assault will rise. Telling someone “no” or to “stop” is already very hard to do. All this, and most people will be too frightened to come to authorities for help (because police made it clear with TSA that sexual assault is okay).
Thank you again for opening up this forum.
Thanks so much for this. If the TSA insists on confiscating something stupid, am I allowed to demand a receipt of forfeiture of some kind?