TSA Mistakenly Suspects Me

by ericaeller

Egyptian airport security - Imgur

I incidentally left Istanbul, where I live and work, on the day of the terrorist attack at the Atatürk International airport (June 28th). My flight departed at 6am, and the attack occurred at 9pm. I left for a vacation comprised of numerous one-way tickets to random west-coast destinations like Anchorage, Seattle, and San Francisco to visit different family members and friends. My longer flights have also had layovers. Naturally, I’m being held suspect by TSA. In Rome, before the incident even happened, I was patted down and called in for special screening at the security check-point. I had to answer questions about the nature of my travel from Istanbul. I explained that I live and work in Istanbul as a teacher for the SAT and IELTS and I showed them my work visa. My Minneapolis flight gave me similar results. However, nothing compared with the airport treatment I received in Anchorage on my way to Seattle, in the middle of my visit home, yesterday (July 7th). 

It started at the baggage checking point. Since I had extra time, I tried to get information from my Delta representative about the status of my flight back to Istanbul which includes a flight path Delta has not been servicing since April (JFK in NYC to Istanbul). This change had occurred before the recent terrorist attack and I had already tried following up about it twice already. The first time I spoke on the phone for a long time to a Delta representative, but the follow-up email of an alternate flight never came. The second time, I was purged from the line after a forty minute wait on hold. Today, I started out inquiring about the status of my return flight as I was checking luggage to fly to visit my sister in Seattle. The first representative checked my flight in the back room of the Delta office and then returned with the details of my flight, an explanation that there was no information on file about the flight, but the original one had been cancelled. He also had a phone number for me to call about international reservations to find out more info. I asked to speak to a manager in hopes that I could solve the problem and understand the status of my flight with a face-to-face conversation rather than calling over the phone. 

After a long wait for the “manager” to come out, a pert looking woman with straightened silver hair approached me. She explained that there was nothing she could do, and that the other rep had already done everything possible. I retorted that he had not called the number he had given me on my behalf. I persisted, since I felt it was the company’s responsibility to give me a clearer answer and I also explained that I didn’t want to be put on hold for forty minutes to solve this issue. The pert woman called me ‘difficult’ and claimed that as the customer it was my responsibility to follow up by calling that phone number myself.

When, if ever, from the perspective of good customer service is it the customer’s foremost responsibility to hold a company accountable, when a company should work to please and retain a customer?

I asked if she could call it for me, but she was unwilling to make the extra effort. Eventually, she left for the back office again and after I waited for several more minutes, she returned with a flight number from Air France that was apparently my replacement ticket. She claimed that it was no longer Delta’s responsibility and that I should follow up with Air France. The logic is of course absurd, since my original ticket was purchased through Delta, which I still hold responsible for the fate of my return journey. To make matters worse, she again accused me of being difficult, and waived me off, like a fly. I walked away irritated, but happy to have some additional information to follow up on (again). I simply want to ensure that I can get back to Istanbul before August 1st, when my existing work visa will expire as I wait for my next work visa to be processed, which is why I pressed the issue.

Next, I had the ordeal of being targeted by the TSA (again). You’d think that after several instances of having my person thoroughly screened, TSA would have the panache to waive my record of presumed malice. When I got to the first security check-point, I could tell that Anchorage wasn’t used to dealing with “terrorists” like me and brought over six security agents in full uniform. They had to clear and designate a central security aisle just for me and guide me through my rights. On this flight, I happened to be carrying a tote-bag full of children’s garments to deliver from one niece to another such as hand-me-down princess dresses along with my backpack filled with books and my electronic devices. I had the gall to warn them that I did not want this to result in the confiscation of my laptop, which had happened to someone I knew on Facebook. They apologetically assured me that it would not happen to me. When they asked me to turn on my aging laptop, I had to explain that sometimes I need to use the cord because it doesn’t have enough battery power to light itself up. This initiated a group discussion among me and four security agents about what to do. Ultimately, I tested my laptop and it auspiciously lighted up. 

Then, I was basically used as a TSA Guinea pig for trainee security agents who were learning how to properly and gingerly pat me down and scan each and every pink blanket and stuffed animal I had with me. I asked them why it was necessary to do this to me at each airport since it happened in Rome and Minneapolis, too. They said I was probably flagged.’ The joke is on them this time, since they spent about fifteen minutes searching though sparkling toddler-sized sneakers, finding nothing incriminating. I did feel proud to be carrying a Naomi Klein book, “The Shock Doctrine,” that criticizes the excess of private security organizations that have been called in to expand the government’s industry that apparently fights a “war on terror.” From my perspective, an excess of uniformed officials without clear answers due to an overly complex chain of command merely seems to fuel more terror. Later, my name was called again to have my passport checked at the desk of the boarding agent, and finally another red light went off when my ticket was scanned. I got in the habit of just flashing my passport instantly at every stage of the boarding process with a smug look on my face. 

However, apart from any benefit that these screenings did for the public to unnecessarily protect against me, we should recognize that this treatment of unnecessary searches and seizures of property generates discontent. We cannot deny that discontent is a clear byproduct of “security measures.” Furthermore, I personally feel that the discontent I experienced could have and should have been avoided. Not only am I already discontent due to having witnessed the city I live in be dampened by mourning following the wake of a tragic attack on terror, but I am also discontent due to the inadequacy of security systems. Security agents trust their equipment’s judgment so much that they wouldn’t be able to tell a rose from a bomb, by smell.   

Of course, I’m also upset with the system that operates under the guise of “efficiency” according to the TSA website, since clearly there were no need for so many attendants to service my perceived threat: 

Security Screening

TSA has evolved from a one-size-fits-all security screening approach to a risk-based, intelligence-driven strategy designed to improve both security and the passenger experience. This approach permits us to provide expedited screening for trusted travelers and to focus on high-risk and unknown passengers at security checkpoints.

TSA officers may use risk-based security measures to identify, mitigate and resolve potential threats at the airport security checkpoint. These officers may ask you questions about your travel to include identity, travel itinerary and property. TSA may use a variety of screening processes, including random screening, regardless of whether an alarm is triggered. In addition, TSA uses unpredictable security measures throughout the airport and no individual is guaranteed expedited screening.

I don’t quite agree with the statement that TSA uses “unpredictable security measures.” For instance, now that I have been flagged as a “high-risk” traveller, the continued screenings have become quite predictable. However, the part of my experience that I have particular qualms with is the fact that under no circumstances should someone be surrounded by six security guards without concrete cause for suspicion. Nor should I have been ushered through like a celebrity, attracting everyone’s attention, heightening the communal sense of suspicion around the airport. Such actions provoke a sense of danger, rather than subdue it. 

The excess of security applied to me, personally, has assured me that we do live in a world of “big-government” the same kind that republican tea-partiers warn against. The problem is that they always seem to exclude defense or security from their austerity measures, choosing to apply it liberally to things like education and social security. It is this preference for precaution against random terror incidents at the expense of precautions against the assured pitfalls of ignorance and aging that makes me cringe. I especially feel this way when any of my relatives or other republican-minded acquaintances start waxing nostalgic about the virtues of independence from government control. They don’t realize that the supposed status quo of independence that they defend does not exist. We are living under lock down. 

Another issue I have is the suspicion that my Delta representative may have been the one to “flag” me this time, since this flight is not directly associated with my travel from Istanbul. If that were the case, any ill-willed employee could hijack the entire security system to perform their own disruptive “counter-terror” measures at the whim of their mood. Yet, I’m not sure that that is the case, so I won’t pursue this complaint further.

Since I am old enough to remember airports before 9/11 when liquids were just liquids, I reminisce about the simplicity of old-school security. We didn’t even need passports flying across the border of Mexico in my dad’s Cessna (just birth certificates) and we passed by with loads of souvenirs stuffed in the cargo that must have bored the border patrol attendant to death, if they bothered to search them. With grandma aboard, we were the perfect cover for something more illicit than family fishing trips to La Paz, I’m sure. Now, however, second-hand sparkling shoes for toddlers are potential threats if you travel anywhere from the Middle East. An entire region is targeted, in spite of the worse threat of crime by average pedestrians in the U.S. compared to Turkey. For instance, in 2016, Turkey ranked 75th for a crime index compared to the U.S. which ranked 45th. The crime index measures the overall level of crime in a given country. 

On a positive note, there is a way for people who don’t wish to engage in illicit conduct to be “pre-checked” by TSA. Since it involves a wait and a scheduled interview, I probably won’t be able to manage it during my trip, though.