Tales of the TSA: Pistole apologizes, screeners scorned

First, an update on a story I wrote about here on Saturday: Pat-down leaves bladder cancer survivor covered in urine.

A few days ago I chatted with and wrote a story about Tom Sawyer, a retired special education teach and bladder cancer survivor from Michigan who ended up humiliated and covered in urine after a botched enhanced pat-down at Detroit Metropolitan Airport.

You can read the full story here, but here’s the update:

Today Sawyer got a call phone call from Transportation Security Administration chief John Pistole. “First he apologized,” Sawyer told me. “And I thanked him. Then I told him off a bit. He said, ‘Tell me more. What do you think needs to be done?’ ”

Sawyer suggested that TSA screeners undergo training to help them better understand travelers with medical conditions. He even offered to attend a meeting to show the staff what an ostomy bag looks like. “Pistole said he just may take me up on that.”

That’s an encouraging sign. And even some of the Transportation Security Officers I spoke with today while putting together a story for msnbc.com about the stresses of being a TSA worker said they thought Pistole did the right thing.

Here’s that story: TSA workers face verbal abuse from travelers.

Airline passengers aren’t the only ones complaining about the Transportation Security Administration’s new enhanced security procedures. Many TSA employees aren’t too happy, either.

The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), the union that represents TSA workers, is urging the TSA to do more to protect its employees from abuse from airline passengers angry over the new security methods. The union reports that some members “have reported instances in which passengers have become angry, belligerent and even physical with TSOs (transportation security officers). In Indianapolis, for example, a TSO was punched by a passenger who didn’t like the new screening process,” the union said in a Nov. 17 statement posted on its website.

Union President John Gage called on TSA to provide an educational pamphlet to each passenger describing both their rights and the details of the new procedures, which include full-body scans and enhanced pat-downs.

“This absence of information has resulted in a backlash against the character and professionalism of TSOs,” said Gage in a statement. “TSA must act now — before the Thanksgiving rush — to ensure that TSOs are not being left to fend for themselves.”

“Our concern is that the public not confuse the people implementing the policies with the people who developed the policies,” said Sharon Pinnock, the union’s director of membership and organization.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Monday the government will take into account the public’s concerns and complaints as it evaluates airport security measures. He says TSA procedures will continue to evolve.

Some travelers have vowed to disrupt airport security Wednesday in a protest timed for the busiest travel day of the year, as millions of Americans fly off for annual family feasts.

“TSOs are trained security professionals,” Pinnock said. “Despite this call for chaos and disruption, it’s our belief that our members and people we represent will respond as the security professionals that they are.”

Valyria Lewis, local president of AFGE Local 555, which represents TSA screeners in Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina, said TSOs are trained to screen passengers who opt out of full-body scans.

“But we’d like TSA to hand out pamphlets detailing what opt out means. When someone opts out of the X-ray scanners, they’re opting in for the pat-down,” Lewis said. “And once we explain what the pat-down is, you can’t go back and change your mind and say ‘OK, I’ll go through the scanner.’ We’d like that explained so officers aren’t caught in that crossfire.”

The National Treasury Employees Union, the largest independent federal union, has launched a campaign in support of the TSA to educate the public about the critical role played by TSA officers in helping secure the safety of air travel.

“We stand by them this holiday season and ask the American public to stand by them as well and respect the difficult job they perform to protect our skies and our country,” said NTEU President Colleen M. Kelley in a statement.

Complaints of verbal abuse

Full-body scanners are now in place at close to 70 airports and send virtually naked images of passengers to a TSA screener at a remote location. Those who wish to avoid the scanners must instead undergo a new, open-palmed pat-down that many travelers, and even some security officers, feel is too personally invasive.

TSA chief John Pistole said Monday on NBC’s TODAY show that the agency is reviewing its passenger screening methods to ensure they are as minimally invasive as possible. “We’re going to look at how can we do the most effective screening in the least invasive way knowing that there’s always a trade-off between security and privacy,” Pistole said.

Pistole noted that those getting body searches constitute “a very small percent” of the 34 million people who have flown since the new policy went into effect.

“Obviously our work force has received the brunt of the frustration from passengers but seem to be dealing with it quite well, as they have been reassured they are doing a critical job at a critical time,” said TSA spokesman Nico Melendez.

“The thing to keep in mind is that stress affects screeners as much as it does travelers,” said Tom Murphy, director of the Human Resiliency Institute at Fordham University. Murphy has provided customer-service training to screeners at many U.S. airports. “While senior government officials explore how to achieve optimum security in less intrusive, and therefore less stressful, ways my recommendation to travelers is to try to see this from the screeners’ point of view.”

A stressful job

Guy Winch, an expert on the psychology of complaining and customer service and the author of a forthcoming book, “The Squeaky Wheel,” is concerned with the stress levels TSA employees may be experiencing this week on the job.

He explains that the “emotional labor” TSA workers must do — “processing people regardless of hostile exchanges … and looking for explosives and weapons” — makes the stakes for performing their duties correctly “as high as they get.” Winch says the best thing TSA administrators can do for employees doing enhanced pat-downs is to provide an extra layer of managerial and supervisory support. “They need to convey the message that superiors are aware of the stresses the employees are under and are there to support them.”

Winch says having a mental health professional on staff or available as a referral “can be crucial in helping the people who did not make these rules but are charged with enforcing and implementing them nonetheless.”

Stewart Baker, who worked at the Department of Homeland Security as its first secretary of policy under President George W. Bush, suspects the new security protocols and the aggressive reaction of some passengers is hurting TSA morale.

“TSA has made a lot of progress in training its officers to be professional even in the face of unhappy passengers, but the latest protocols — and press coverage of the most inflammatory stories — have led to a much higher level of hostility,” said Baker.

“Instead of making this Wednesday National Opt-Out Day in which a bunch of self-appointed guardians of liberty slow down the line for everyone by asking for pat-downs,” said Baker, “maybe what we need is a day when everyone who goes through the line says, ‘Thanks for what you do.’ ”


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3 thoughts on “Tales of the TSA: Pistole apologizes, screeners scorned

  1. Ace says:

    “Thanks for what you do”???

    We’re not going to rest until these perverts are removed from our airports.

  2. Joyce Julian says:

    I have not yet needed to travel by air. If in time I need to do so, I have no problem with the screening except for the pat down only because I am being touched by gloved hands that have touched many others. Bacteria lives on clothing, including flu and cold germs. WHO is always concerned about spreading diseases. I believe this procedure will give a pandemic the perfect opportunity. What do you think?

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