Wake up daily to our latest coverage of business done better, directly in your inbox.


Get your weekly dose of analysis on rising corporate activism.

Select Newsletter

By signing up you agree to our privacy policy. You can opt out anytime.

Jan Lee headshot

Congress: TSA Needs Transgender Sensitivity

Words by Jan Lee

Thirty-two members of Congress have written letters to the Transportation Security Administration asking it to upgrade its screening policies. For a federal arm known more these days for intractable gridlocks than unified action, the letter is notable in itself. But so is the topic that the lawmakers have taken up: updating screening policies to ensure that transgender individuals get equal and fair treatment.

Last week Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) and colleagues from Massachusetts, New York and other states submitted a letter to the TSA's administrator, Peter Neffenger, calling for a "complete and thorough review of [TSA's] current procedures."

The letter came in response to a report that a transgender individual had been subjected to humiliating treatment while attempting to board a plane. The agency said in response to the complaint that screeners "are trained to properly screen members of the transgender community" and that a review of the video taken at the time "indicated personnel followed TSA's strict guidelines."

Airport security screening protocol

What the response didn't say is whether the guidelines were in keeping with what American travelers would expect as part of their traveling experience, or that it took into consideration the sensitivity that people often have to procedures that single out a person who doesn't fit the anticipated profile.

Flight security has never been a popular concept, certainly not in the United States. For much of the American public, flying in comfort is an assumed right; being subjected to probing questions, delays, pat-downs and changing criteria for boarding is not.

That's often a problem for the TSA, whose employees are tasked with figuring out whether a passenger could be a terrorist or another potential security threat -- while striving to follow what may seem to some as excessively narrow, and often incomplete, guidelines.

But as congressional members have pointed out, procedures that were acceptable in the past don't always keep pace with a changing society. The members have called for better public education about procedures and the public's rights; information that Shadi Petosky, the transgender flyer mentioned above, said was not made available at the time.

TSA: A history of challenges

This is not the first time that the TSA has found itself in hot water about its screening procedures.

  • Last year the American Civil Liberties Union filed a complaint that black women with afros were being racially targeted for hair inspections. With mounting scrutiny and pressure, TSA discontinued the practice of hair pat-downs, apologizing for the tactic and announcing in April 2015 that it would implement new training procedures. Interestingly, it was never disclosed as to why this procedure had been initiated at several airports across the nation. According to the TSA, however, screeners are required to follow precise guidelines.

  • Twitter has become the go-to place for gauging how the public feels about the treatment they receive at TSA security inspections. And apparently, the response isn't all warm and fuzzy. Airports in California lead the pack when it comes to negative experiences, which range from complaints about being searched, to delays in getting on the plane. One ingenious step the authors used to determine the root of flyers' angst was to track the most common words used in tweeted complaints. "Search" (in 25 percent of the tweets) and "confiscate" (approximately 12 percent) were at the top.

  • Search methods, such as the manual shoe search that was introduced in 2001 following the arrest of "shoe bomber" Richard Reid, continue to prompt debate. In earlier screening instances, unarmed screeners were, in some cases, required to hold the shoe up to his or her face and examine it visually for evidence of incendiary bomb-making materials like the kind Reid had attempted to light mid-flight. At screening posts, law enforcement officers such as local police were supposed to step in quickly if there was a device detected and an arrest to be made -- not the security personnel facing down the suspect. The manual methods were later suspended, replaced by X-ray scanning machines. It doesn't seem to have lessened the complaints about taking off one's shoes.

  • There have been plenty of attempts by members of Congress (and the general public) to change the way the TSA handles security.  The most recent include legislation entertained in 2014 to prohibit TSA personnel from "barking" orders at the public; a May 2015 letter signed by 133 members demanding TSA allow knives on board; and just recently, legislation by Rep. Thomas Rooney (R-Fla.) to prohibit any TSA employees "who are not sworn law enforcement officers with arresting authority" from calling themselves officers. It was introduced after an assailant opened fire and killed an unarmed screener. The incident was summarized by TSA Chief John Pistole as receiving "good response time" by local police and that "the tragedy could have been worse." The incident has prompted a re-think about TSA response procedures.

Flying without TSA?

The response to the most recent PR debacle by Congress, however, had a more terse tone to it. "We cannot countenance a security protocol" that subjects individuals to "indignity," wrote Rep. Pocan and his 31 colleagues. Those are powerful, if not intimidating, words to any agency that relies upon Congress' ink to ensure its existence. Could they mean the end to airport security? Some would hope so.

The truth is, the U.S. needs an agency like the TSA -- one that will conduct the difficult business of making sure planes, trains, and other business and personal transport are safe for the public. And oftentimes, accepting that fact may be a harder pill to swallow for Americans than whether we have to stand in line and subject ourselves to an inspection that the guy before us didn't have to endure.

There always will be controversies and debacles when it comes to public security. The job of airport screeners is to search and identify potential threats as a means of keeping passengers, crews and airplanes safe. And that means asking questions and subjecting people to searches that seem invasive and often controversial.

Solving the U.S. security experience: A two-way road

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) pointed out in February 2015 that the TSA excels in analyzing data and coming up with answers to public concerns. Where it often fails is considering the input of all stakeholders in its fact-finding efforts. Perhaps that's what passengers who lodge complaints like the Twitter storm that took off after Petosky's experience are really saying: They want to be able to give input in matters that have unique consequences to their lives.

But perhaps it's not just the TSA that needs to listen to feedback. Oftentimes we forget that that the airport screener's only personal protection is his cognition, training and exceptional skill in recognizing a threat before it can occur. No other federalized security personnel are required to do their jobs without the ability to protect themselves, nor in a setting where the murder of an unarmed security officer is termed as an acceptable loss in the face of a greater potential tragedy.

Obviously, security protocols must be able to keep up with a changing society. But I wonder if the reverse is also true and whether Homeland Security should consider a more vigilant public relations program that educates the traveling public about why the TSA does its job. Awkward questions that fumble on insensitive personal matters and time-consuming screening procedures are often the sign that, however difficult the process, someone is looking out for the passenger's safety.

Image credits: 1) R. Pavich; 2) Jun Seita; 3) Daniel Lobo 4) Buzz Farmers

Jan Lee headshotJan Lee

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

Read more stories by Jan Lee

More stories from Leadership & Transparency