Checked Twice

In my last post I described my (mis)adventures of going through the TSA’s enhanced security screening process.  A few hours after I wrote that post, I was selected for scanner screening at the Greater Cincinnati – Northern Kentucky International Airport (CVG and yes, that’s the full official name of the airport, which is actually located in Kentucky) and flat-out refused, knowing that it would mean a pat-down.  Honestly, I wanted to see how CVG handled the pat-down process.  My verdict: TSA screeners in Cincinnati are some of the nicest, most professional people I’ve ever encountered in all my travels.  Here’s my account.

Prior to leaving for the airport, I changed from my somewhat baggy work clothes to a black snug-fitting blogt-shirt from Mellow Johnny’s and my First Ascent climbing pants, which fit closer to the body than jeans or khakis.

I removed everything from my person except my wedding ring, LIVESTRONG wristband, and my hearing aids, and placed them in a small zippered travel bag I bought Friday over lunch, just for the occasion.

After refusing the backscatter scan, I successfully passed through the metal detector and my bags successfully passed the X-ray process and waited as a 1-stripe male officer (Agent Dollison) approached me putting on those blue gloves.  He and a 2-stripe female supervisor explained the entire pat-down process in detail: how he would use his hands and where he would put them.  Agent Dollison made sure I understood that he would run his hands up my legs to my groin area “until contact is made.”

“Are you OK with a public pat-down?” he asked.

“Yes.”

“Are there any areas of your body that are sensitive to touch?”

“My entire body,” I replied.

Agent Dollison laughed and then proceeded with the pat-down, which was done with a gentler touch than the heavy-handed grope I experienced in Denver.  Very professional.  He then walked over to an explosive detection machine, picked up a swab pad, wiped the front and back of both his hands, and put the swab in the machine and started the explosive residue test.

Red lights.  Alarm sounds.  A 3-stripe supervisor comes running over.

Oh crap.

[NOTE:  You can identify a TSA agent’s rank by the number of stripes on his or her epaulets.  1-stripers are the agents most of the public is familiar with, with 2-stripers being the mid-level supervisors that are usually hovering around the edges of airport screening areas.  3-stripers are usually the team leads that oversee the entire scanning operation, and will get involved in a specific screening if there is real reason for concern.]

I’ve tested positive for explosives before, but always on my carry-ons.  The TSA agents usually completely empty my laptop bag and re-swab it, and I always get the green light.  This time, like the others, I expected my bags to be searched.

[NOTE:  After looking back on my past positive explosive tests, I realized that I almost always have bike grease residue on my hands.]

The 3-stripe supervisor informed me that I would be subjected to an even more thorough pat-down search, and that it would be done in a private screening room.  I told him and Agent Dollison that it was fine with me to conduct it in public, as the previous pat-down had been.

“I’m sorry sir, that’s not an option.”

Uh…

At this point I didn’t know what to expect and I was a bit nervous.  Agent Dollison’s gloves tested positive for explosive residue, and those gloves had just been all over my body.  Was I going to be asked to strip?  Was my luggage going to be emptied and searched?

A third agent gathered my shoes, suitcase and laptop bag, which had been set off to the side during my pat-down, and I was escorted to a private room just off the screening area.  The brightly-lit screening room was 6 feet by 9 feet, or roughly the size of a jail cell.  A plastic chair was in one corner, a long metal table was against one wall.  An explosive detection machine identical to the one that recorded my positive test moments earlier was on the end of that long table.

The 3-stripe supervisor came in and explained that he was going to conduct a more thorough search, this time including an enhanced groin check.  The pat-down was the same as before, with the addition of the supervisor running his hands left and right across the front of my groin, and then up and down the front of my groin.

Now I can say I’ve had my “junk” felt up, down, inside, outside and sideways by TSA.  But hey, they were polite about it!

Once again, the gloves used during my second pat-down were scanned for explosives, and this time they returned a yellow “inconclusive” result.  The 3 TSA agents said I was free to go.  I thanked them for their professionalism and on my way to the terminal tram, I stopped by the elevated TSA supervisor’s platform and thanked them as well.

All together, it took me 20 minutes to clear security in Cincinnati last Friday, from ID check to being released from the second pat-down.

Truly, the TSA teams in Cincinnati are some of the nicest people I’ve ever met.

Has my position on security screening changed because of my experiences last week?  No.  I disagree with TSA’s attempts to force everyone to go through scanner screening, and the pat-down process isn’t fun, no matter how professionally it’s conducted.

Many of you readers have encouraged me to continue my defiance, others of you want me to just shut up and go through the scanners.

In all journalistic fairness, I’ll go through the scanner tonight so I can get the full experience.

I do have some ideas on how to fix the entire screening process, and I’ll share those with you in my next post.  But here’s a hint:  Abolishing the TSA would be a serious mistake.

It’s Better If You Just Cooperate?

On Monday of this week I had an experience with TSA at DIA eerily similar to John Tyner’s experience in San Diego last weekend. I was one step from entering the metal detector when I was asked to go through the AIT scanners.  I declined because such scanners have previously caused interference with my hearing aids, and I mentioned this to the TSA agents.  I was asked to remove my hearing aids, which I also refused to do, and I successfully proceeded through the metal detector and was told I’d have to receive a pat-down.

TSA would not let me touch my bags until the pat-down was complete.  The agent conducting the pat-down was courteous, but he put his hands inside my shirt and down my pants, in addition to feeling up the front and backs of both legs, making contact with my groin 4 times.  To say that this was a humiliating and degrading experience is an understatement.  The agent did not describe how he was going to conduct the search prior to starting it.  During the search I asked a lot of questions and a TSA supervisor came over and tried to answer my questions.  Again, he was willing to listen and was courteous, but he said I was under scrutiny because I “might be a terrorist.”

I went through 9/11, I was working in Chicago that week and we expected to be hit next.  I remember downtown Chicago being evacuated and the eerie silence each day that week: no planes were flying overhead at all, and at night, very few people ventured out.  I understand the need for increased security.  But in my opinion, the level of security that is in place now, should have been in place following 9/11, not 9 years later.

As a frequent traveler, I’m allowed access to the premier passenger line at DIA (supposedly designed to move passengers to the screening lines faster), but every Monday morning I stand in that line for 45 minutes to just have my ID checked, and then screening usually takes another 15 minutes.

When the CLEAR Registered Traveler Program arrived at DIA 2 years ago I was one of the first to sign up.  Both the TSA and the CLEAR program have a full set of my fingerprints and iris scans, and I have undergone 2 FBI background checks (once for CLEAR, the other 17 years ago during the interview process for a CIA job right after college.)  My identity and background have been vetted as thoroughly as pilots.  The Registered Traveler program can and should be used to expedite demonstrated frequent fliers through the screening processes.

I’ll share more of my experiences in a future post, but for now I have to go catch my flight home.