TSA misses guns and knives, but nails me for my cardiac device

tsa-pat-down-300My wife and I, along with friends, spent a wonderful week in Arizona.  We admired the Grand Canyon on a perfect April Day.   We toured Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture school outside Scottsdale.  We visited Sedona, the red rocks canyons, and, the picturesque mountains below Flagstaff.  On four evenings we watched the Cardinals play the Diamondbacks in a domed stadium where parking next door is just $12.00 and $8.00 gets you two and a half scoops of Cold Stone Creamery ice cream in a waffle bowl with fudge and caramel topping.  The week before we got to Phoenix afternoon highs were in the high 90’s.  Our week the thermometers never crept above 81○F.

The week verged on perfect…except for the bookend encounters with the T.S.A.

Yes, the Transportation Security Administration involves itself in every trip involving an airplane.  Once again, they did their utmost to ruin my vacation.

Back in 2009 a complicated chunk of metal and wires went into my upper left chest.  That creates two issues.  My Implantable Cardioverter Defibrillator has enough metal mass to set off a standard metal detector several feet away.  It also shows up as a black hole on a backscatter x-ray screen or a millimeter wave scanner used in airports.  Whether that hole is a lifesaver or the latest ISIS suicide toy requires a bit of investigation.  I understand that.

The second, more important issue is that it hurts like hell when my ICD is exposed to high energy electromagnetic devices.  A standard metal detector really gets my attention.  Those backscatter x-rays have almost taken me to the floor twice.  The millimeter wave scanner itself doesn’t use much energy in its scans, but, beneath the device the business part of the machine creates a pretty substantial field which I keenly feel.

On the afternoon of April 23 I went through T.S.A. at the main terminal at Lambert International Airport.  I had my driver license and my I.D. card, issued by the manufacturer of my defibrillator, in my hand when I told the T.S.A. agent that I needed a hand pat-down:  “We’re not doing that here today.”  No pat down, no option.  Wave good-bye to my three traveling companions or go through the millimeter wave scanner.

The tingling calmed down after about a minute, allowing me to put my shoes and belt back on before I had to walk to the gate.

The trip home came in two segments, Phoenix to Denver, then Denver to St. Louis.  Sky Harbor Airport will never be my happy place.

Even on a clear Saturday morning, the security line crept slowly.  Oh, off to my left they did do a long hand pat-down on a tall, attractive young blond woman in a tank top.  (After a long time in line even prurient entertainment is welcome.)  The T.S.A. staffers handling the item x-ray lines seemed a bit over zealous, even when iPads or smartphones or other items were very spread out in the bins.  The conveyor belt stopped, retreated and moved forward time after time.  That slowed the proceedings.

Finally, I got to the metal detector and millimeter wave machines where – as instructed – I asked for my hand pat down.

Now, T.S.A. agents don’t like pat-downs.  After all, they take more work than nodding as people walk through technology.  And, the job of a T.S.A. screener sucks.  The hours are long and the pay mediocre.  The people you screen won’t like you.  Despite limited representation by the American Federation of Government Employees, they serve pretty much at the whim of mid-level bureaucrats.  Per Glassdoor.com, full time pay for experienced screeners is in the $37,000 a year neighborhood:  who goes after a $37,000 job with a lot of hassles?  Someone making $25,000 a year in another job with a lot of hassles.

So, you have a mess of people struggling to stretch for the bottom rung of the middle-class watching people who can afford expensive trips to fun places saunter past you.  Putting travelers in their place is one of your few work place pleasures.

In Phoenix that meant I had to wait, crammed into a non-space between a x-ray conveyor and a metal detector as dozens of other travelers squeezed by me.  The wait is standard, the nine minutes in Phoenix pretty much standard.  Then things went downhill.

First, as they do, they isolated my bins off the x-ray belt from the good people’s stuff.  Only isolated isn’t the proper word.  My stuff was out of my sight (but within reach of all the other travelers) while the screener got up close and personal with all the inside surfaces of all my clothes, including my Dockers and my all-cotton briefs.  After being probed once in front of the crowd, the screener rubbed a special strip of paper over his gloves, then fed the paper into a machine – which gave him the wrong answer.  That meant a call for a supervisor, a move to a private room and a second, even more personal pat-down.

Meanwhile, my lovely wife was told she couldn’t fly because her stylish top had a metal zipper front.  That encounter got heated when her pat-down screener said she didn’t like my wife’s tone and the screener invoked the trump card – we can keep you from your flight.

In my little space they repeated the paper strip test, again failing.  The third pat-down was getting pretty close to my annual prostate exam.  The screener and supervisor then gave up.  They couldn’t get the machine to like the paper strips but they couldn’t find anything.  Besides, the loud lady in line was making them uncomfortable.  (They finally relented and let her head for the gate.)

We changed airlines in Denver.  Unfortunately, after disembarking at one of the fringe gates (meaning we had to walk through a snow shower to get into the terminal), we had to get our bags, re-check them and again go through security.

That airport security staff was not having a good weekend:  TSA Admits mistake after Amy Van Dyken-Rouen said she was ‘humiliated’ by agent at Denver airport[www.thedenverchannel.com  5/2/16]  Amy won six Olympic medals before an ATV accident put her in a wheelchair.  Still, she travels extensively as a motivational speaker.   As she put it, “They go around your breasts, they basically go under your butt and they just grab things, not grab, they touch things that are not appropriate…”

Again, crammed into the narrow space between electromagnetic energy emitting technology, I waited and waited and waited for a pat-down.  Then I waited some more.  I could see my friends and my wife across the terminal, watching for me to emerge.  My iPad, phone, wallet and other personal property was in some unseen place as scores of other travelers picked-up their gear and moved through.  I waited some more.  A gentleman came up behind me.  The screener/hall monitor asked if he wanted to go through the millimeter scanner.  “I decline,” is all he said.

With two of us filling the space, after a couple of more minutes, they finally brought over staff to do the pat-downs.

Last week The New York Times headlined a long piece, Catching a Flight?  Budget Hours, Not Minutes, for Security [ www.nytimes.com  5/2/16].  The article quoted the head of the Charlotte airport calling the T.S.A. ability to screen passengers on Good Friday a “fiasco.”  The number of screeners has declined by about 5,800 due to budget cuts.  Washington’s answer is to hire 768 screeners.  That will still leave airlines with unhappy passengers missing flights, “But, there’s not much airlines can do, except warn passengers to show-up three hours before takeoff…”

My group had almost three hours between flights in Denver.  Our overpriced late lunch got delayed while I waited and finally went through my pat-down.  The screener was less intrusive than his Phoenix colleague but added a new wrinkle.  My bins of items, including a canvas bag for under the seat with my Cardinals road hat, part of a newspaper, my iPad and other items were all spread out on a steel counter and individually examined:  what the screener hoped to see that had escaped many rads of x-rays baffled me, but it took another five minutes.

I was asked why I wasn’t TSA-Pre, paying the $85 to avoid some of the hassles (the theory being that people with extra money are less likely to blow-up airplanes?).  Well, my friends were TSA-Pre – and were signaled out for ‘extra screening,’ including pat-downs (even after they chose a line as far from me as they could).

When I was a kid I have a vague memory of an American propaganda film telling us how bad things were in the Soviet Union.  The prime example was that Soviets couldn’t move about their nation without special permission and special identification.  In the Clint Eastwood Cold War flick Firefox (1982), the hard part of getting old stone eyes in position to steal a revolutionary Soviet fighter plane prototype was getting him through the internal checkpoints with a dead man’s I.D.  (Yes, Clint’s friends wasted him for his I.D. but he was a bad guy so it was cool.)

Here we are in the United States now tolerating a system where low-level agents of the government decide if we get to exercise our constitutional right to travel freely.

Imagine if a Clayton cop stopped lunch time strollers on Central Avenue and stuck his gloved hands in other people’s pants in full view of other citizens?  His probable cause – they were on the street.

The Tea Party would start the demonstrations before happy hour.  As they should.

So let’s go over the Transportation Security Administration conundrum.  To protect Americans and the constitution we cherish, T.S.A. violates our personal privacy, ‘humiliates’ women in wheelchairs, put hands inside our underwear and threatens to prevent us from using our purchased airline tickets.   Kind of like destroying a village to pacify it, we let government violate our rights to protect them.

Yes, terrorism is real.  But is the response intelligent and effective?  Tests of T.S.A. effectiveness inevitably find mock guns and explosives getting through screenings.  The ‘intelligent’ part I think has been already answered.

And people wonder why I hate to fly.