Saturday, June 30, 2012

Our adventures with TSA...the trip home to Phoenix

Coming home from Texas didn't go quite as smoothly as traveling there.  If you remember my previous post about traveling to Texas, I mentioned how smoothly it went going through security and getting to our gate.  Not in Austin.

Let me just say that I am not against TSA.  I understand the need for airport security and I appreciate their efforts at keeping us safe when we fly.  However, I think they are poorly run, understaffed, and very inconsistent.  And now I am adding to that list bad at communicating.  Here's what happened...

We got to the podium where the lady checks our boarding passes and things (this was the first failed opportunity for communication) and that's where things first were weird, but we didn't think anything of it.  The lady looked at our IDs, made us look at her, then asked us both to say our first and last names out loud.  I thought that was a little strange, and I looked to the podium next to us to see if that lady was also doing the same thing.  I just wrote it off as that this lady takes her job seriously and whatever.

So, then we start unpacking all our carry-ons.  We took out our computers, drank our water, tried to find someone to tell that Sadie's bag has liquid medicine and pureed food in it (unfortunately there was NOBODY... which was also strange).  We put all our stuff in separate bins and took off our shoes.  Brian is told he has to take off his hat, and we prepare to go through the scanners as all our stuff is neatly taken through on the conveyor belt.

Now, here's missed opportunity #2 to communicate with us.  There is one (very old) TSA guy standing at the scanners guiding people through.  Like most airports now, there are 2 scanners, the old ones, and the new ones.  I'm not convinced that the new ones are safe when you're pregnant due to the radiation they emit, so I refuse to go through the new ones while pregnant, because the goal is to NOT have another child with special needs.  So I stood their with Brian and Sadie in the wheelchair and waited to go through the old one.  The (very old) TSA guy was helping some kids go through and he was asking their age.  The first one said he is 12 and the guy told him he didn't need to take off his shoes.  Then the second one also said he's 12, so the (very old) TSA guy directed them through the old-type scanner.  Well, the first kid beeped, so then there was a whole big discussion about his shoes having metal zippers.  So, he did have to take off his shoes after all.  Meanwhile, the line behind us is getting longer and longer because for some reason nobody can go through either scanner without the (very old) TSA guy's help.  We just stood there patiently and waited, knowing the wheelchair would require special assistance anyway.

As the (very old) TSA guy was finishing up with the kids, he directed me to the new scanners.  I told him I'm pregnant and would like to go through the old one instead.  He asked me to wait with Brian and Sadie for the wheelchair assistance/pat-down/whatever they were going to do to determine we didn't have a bomb.  But I insisted that I needed to go through because my stuff was down there waiting for me.  He finally shook his head like he just couldn't deal with the complexity of my request and told me to go through.  This was where it would have been helpful to explain to me why I needed to wait with Brian, because already at this point they knew, but we didn't, that they'd severely inconvenienced us.

I went through, packed up all my stuff again (which wasn't an easy task as everything had a specific place so that it all fit perfectly back into our back pack).  My mother in law was there with her stuff and ours and I asked if they needed to check Sadie's medicine, because they usually want to, and she said no, nobody said anything.  So, we moved out of the way and waited for Brian and Sadie, who were just now coming through and being led to the pat down area.

I set down the heavy stuff and then went to stand near, but far enough away that they wouldn't think I was a threat, Brian and Sadie.  The guy who brought them over looked at me and asked if we were all together.  Initially I said no, because I didn't need to be patted down, I had already gone through security.  Then we were like, "well, technically, yes, we're traveling together..."  The TSA guy started to get a little flustered and said like he was irritated, "I'm asking the questions, just please answer them...are you all together?"  I repeated myself that yes, we were a family traveling together, but I had already gone through security.  He looked at me and said, "I'm gonna need to search your bags."  I asked him why since I'd already gone through security and packed everything back up, and he FLEW.OFF.THE.HANDLE.  He was like, "you know what?  That's it!"  Then I tried to calmly explain that I just wanted to know why he needed to check me again when I had already been to security.  He kept interrupting me, he was yelling in my face telling me procedures had changed recently, he told me I was giving him attitude, and that he was going to call his manager to deal with it. I continued to tell him as calmly as I could, which was not very calmly at that point (why do people get so upset when you just want an explanation?!!), that he asked his question, now I wanted to ask one of my own and why wasn't that okay?  But he was so upset that he was not willing to listen to me at all.  He was full on yelling at me all because I just wanted to know why I needed to be checked again after I had already gone through security.  He was saying something about a security exception and procedures had changed (apparently just in the week since we had flown to Texas), but couldn't just answer my question.  And I kept trying to explain that I'd already been through security and that it was only Brian and Sadie that needed to be checked, because I thought maybe he didn't understand.

See what I mean?  Miscommunication.

So, then the cop that was standing behind the pat-down area stepped in and explained that the manager had been called and would deal with the situation.  He was calm and nice, so I was able to calm down and I told him there wasn't a situation, I just wanted to know why and that guy started yelling at me!  Needless to say, that was missed communication opportunity #3...but if someone had explained to us the procedural change even as far back as at the podium, we would have been prepared and could have avoided the whole "situation."

The manager finally comes up and asks what happened.  Brian says that the guy told us I needed to be searched and we told him no, because I had already gone through security.  I cut in and said, "I asked him why I needed to be re-searched and he started yelling at me."  The manager goes, "did you tell him no, or did you ask him why?"  We never told him no, and I explained that I just don't want to unpack everything that I already unpacked and repacked when I already did it once, so I just wanted a good reason.  He said I wasn't going to need to unpack everything, that they just needed to swab inside our carry-ons, and swab our hands because we have a child with us who couldn't walk through security by herself.  So, I went to get our carry-ons that were sitting over by my mother in law, and gave them to the new guy, who proceeded to UNPACK.EVERYTHING. and swab it all.  (Oh, I should mention that while I was standing talking to the manager, another passenger came over and told him they had been waiting a half hour to get their stroller through security.  Again, that guy would have probably not been so upset had ANYBODY in his journey through TSA explained to him why they needed to wait. Even the manager standing next to me just told him to keep waiting and they were dealing with our situation right now, when he could have just told him briefly that they needed to go through checking the stroller a certain way and right now they were checking ours.)

Meanwhile, they patted Brian down, examined Sadie and her wheelchair, and swabbed all of our hands, and Sadie's feet, as well as unpacked my entire carry-on bag that I had already repacked painstakingly.  I asked about repacking it and made it clear that I'd like to repack it myself because everything has a specific place so that it will all fit and nothing will get smushed or ruined.  And while we were standing there watching the guy swab everything, I asked the manager what the first (angry) guy meant when he said procedures had changed.  He told me that they had to make a security exception for our family because we have a child under 12 in a wheelchair, which meant that we had to be re-examined, along with all our property.  I said, "why couldn't the first guy just tell me that instead of getting all angry and yelling at me?"  He said, "well, I'll obviously need to have a talk with him."  I wanted to say, "how about tell him that just because he has a blue shirt that says TSA doesn't mean he can demand respect without respecting others?  How about tell him that he needs to stop acting like he's better than other people, especially me, just because he works for TSA?  How about telling him that offering up a little communication can go a long way, especially when you're demanding that somebody do something that they think they've already done?"  This would have been opportunity #4 to explain to me what exactly was going on...which I thought he did explain, but later I found out, even the manager didn't tell me exactly why we had to be rechecked after I had already gone through security.  As they were finishing, I'm pretty sure I muttered (loud enough for the manager and the cop to hear) that because we have a child with special needs, we get flagged as a security threat.  I was feeling a little discriminated against, obviously.  They both ignored me.

While we were doing this, my mother in law, who has experience talking to law enforcement, and can get information calmly and without involving emotions, got our answers.  I heard her talking to them while we were all being swabbed, so when we were all done and seated at our gate, I asked her what they said.  Here's the real story, and what I would have been perfectly fine knowing at any stage in the process.  Apparently TSA has gotten flack about patting down children under 12 (which is why the (very old) TSA guy was asking those kids how old they were and sending them through the old scanner), so now when they have a child under 12 who needs to be patted down (ie. in a wheelchair), they have to assume that the parents, or whoever is with the child, is using the situation to smuggle explosives through security.  So they had to recheck our bags due to their vulnerability in a situation like this (hence all the swabbing).  So, because of their vulnerability, we were inconvenienced.  And I think the reason we avoided this situation in Phoenix when we left is because they let us carry Sadie through the scanner...there wasn't even mention of that in Austin.

All in all, I understand the situation, but I definitely think it could have been handled better.  A simple 2 sentences from the lady at the podium, "just so you know, it'll probably be easier if you're both patted down instead of going through the scanners.  And we'll also have to swab all your belongings to double check for explosives because we can't scan the wheelchair."  That probably could have prevented the whole situation.  I also think a little sensitivity toward a family who has a child with special needs could have gone a long way.  Just because you have a blue shirt on that says TSA does NOT mean you're better than me, and humbling yourself in the face of a mother who already has it rough might have meant a lot.  Some people just don't get it.  In fact, I might write a little letter to the Austin TSA manager just to remind him of how this situation could have been avoided and to remember that everybody deserves respect, and a blue TSA shirt doesn't mean you deserve more.

Either way, we made it home safely.  Our flight was pretty smooth despite a little bit of screaming and being upset from Sadie.  She did sit in her car seat for take off and landing this time, like a big girl.  And we are all happy to be sleeping in our own beds.  (Sadie is especially happy to be back in her Chill Out Chair!!)


  1. Oh my, TSA is stressful enough without child. I was so nervous even while reading through this.

  2. Oh Christie...I am so sorry that you had this's such a bummer when something negative happens on the return portion of your trip...glad to hear everyone is happy to be home!

  3. Please, I hope you filed a complaint with the TSA. Also, please forward this story to your Congressional representatives!!!

  4. Yes, file a complaint. It's very frustrating when they don't explain what is going on. Everyone is tense enough traveling they don't need to make things worse.

  5. Yes, I would most definitely bring this to the attention of as many people as possible to avoid any special needs families being put thru similar hell. That is just ridiculous!