Saturday, November 26, 2011

How to travel with your rights intact (or, How much time have you got?)

Air travel in America--at any time of year--carries with it a certain amount of stress and worry no matter how well-prepared we are. During the holidays, however, airports are routinely more crowded and travelers more harried, with weather events causing flight delays and global events often leading to frequent changes in security procedures that are almost impossible to keep up with (and, to be sure, that are inconsistently applied, further adding to the confusion).

Those of us who do not wish to give up our civil liberties in order to get from Point A to Point B might face additional delays. The ACLU offers excellent guidelines for navigating airport security, but even they warn travelers that "opting out" of the notorious scanners, for example, will probably mean you'll have to wait for an appropriate agent to be located (or freed up) in order to perform the also-notorious "enhanced pat-down". And if you decline to answer a question during the so-called SPOT interview, you may well be selected for secondary screening. Meaning, more delay. From their website:

OPTION: Decline to answer

You can decline to answer questions or reply to each question politely with the simple words, “personal business.” However, if the TSA officer does not feel that you are answering his or her questions, they may select you for secondary screening.

Clearly, the vast majority of travelers are interested in getting to their destination (and out of that crowded, hectic airport!) as quickly and smoothly as possible. Thus, the TSA dangles the carrot of convenience over our heads: "Just go through the scanner; it's much quicker!" or else "If you refuse to answer more specifically, we'll have to send you through secondary screening, which is currently backed up and could take...oh, another forty-five minutes to an hour, at least".

Regardless of what your personal boundaries are when it comes to acceptable intrusions into your privacy, if you must travel by air, it makes sense to be as fully-informed about current security conditions as possible, and if you're flying with medical devices, medicine, or breast milk, to print out the TSA's own rules--you have the right to request that an office conduct a "visual inspection"--and carry them with you in case the agent you encounter doesn't appear to be terribly well-versed in them. (Although as observers will note, even doing just that--printing out the TSA's rules for medicines and milk, etc., and carrying a copy with you--will not always prevent your being unfairly detained and seriously delayed, as this unfortunate working mother discovered.)

TSA Newsblogger Sommer Gentry has an excellent post that further details what the TSA can and cannot do. She describes how she avoids the scanner machines in part by choosing her routes (and airports) carefully and provides a link to TSA Status, which is updated frequently (almost in real-time!) and lets travelers know which airports (and terminals) are using the scanners, and to what degree. She further reminds us that:

Every traveler has a right to refuse TSA searches

If the TSA tries to do something to you that you find offensive, you should say no. Although the TSA has threatened travelers with fines and tried to argue that walking away isn’t permitted, in practice the TSA has no power other than the power to deny you access to the boarding gates. The police do have the power to detain you, but that requires individualized suspicion, something that you do not exhibit merely by purchasing an airline ticket.

Since the TSA has steadfastly refused to describe exactly what anyone might be subjected to at a checkpoint, many travelers will find themselves pressured to bow to unpredictable and unreasonable demands. For instance, a handful of flyers report being physically strip searched in private rooms, and some women were coerced to bare their breasts to male screeners in a stairwell – would you comply?

Protecting yourself from invasive searches requires only willingness to abandon your travel plans and make new ones. United Airlines was wonderful and rebooked me for a later flight the same day from Reagan Airport, where there are no scanners in Terminal A. The United employee who helped me even agreed with my stance, telling me that he thought the scanners were “not decent. They shouldn’t do that to people, it’s just not decent.”

To my mind, the best (and perhaps most difficult-to-follow) security-related travel advice of all is this sentence: Protecting yourself from invasive searches requires only willingness to abandon your travel plans and make new ones.

Which means, research other flight options well beforehand, if possible, and plan your day accordingly. If you wish to avoid the scanners for privacy or health reasons (or both), build in plenty of extra time for the agency to locate that elusive special person to do the enhanced pat-down. If you're 100% opposed to being physically searched on certain parts of your body--and plenty of us are, for a number of reasons--understand that you may have to walk from that particular flight and take another one, perhaps from a different terminal or city, even.

As for me, I was thrilled to recently learn that Tampa has a lovely renovated and historic train station which is itself a "tourist destination"--where have I been?!--although I am not so thrilled to learn that the TSA has been conducting passenger searches and pat-downs, as part of the VIPR program, at Amtrak and bus stations too. And John Pistole is pressuring Congress to add 12 more VIPR units to the current 25 in 2012.

That's another post for another day.

Also at TSA News Blog.


  1. The upside to not traveling as much on business has meant that I don't encounter the TSA as much as I used to. On the other hand, the rare flights I do take these days reminds me how much I dislike the experience. Thanks for the helpful links.

  2. Just as supposedly every passenger is at some risk of terrorist attack, if every passenger were also subject to a backscatter screening, then the actual risk of deaths by cancer means the machines are "deadlier than the terrorists." (-Bruce Schneier)

    Remember - You have the RIGHT to OPT-OUT! Use of the scanner is OPTIONAL - Check the TSA website. Don't take a chance on Cancer.

    Remember - Government said Agent Orange was safe.
    They said x-ray shoe scanners were safe.
    They said Thalidomide was safe.
    They said Asbestos was safe.
    They said body scanners were safe.

    Get the message. Scientists estimate 100 deaths per year from body scanners. But the number may be more as some have estimated the dose at 10-20 times what the government is telling. Nobody knows for sure.

    How many people have terrorists killed on airplanes since 9/11 and before body scanners? How about NONE!

    Join us at All Facebook Against Airport Full Body Scanners on Facebook - 15,500 of us.

  3. The TSA is a criminal agency, and people who unblinkingly comply with it are abetting its criminality. They are also abetting the abuse of their fellow citizens.

    I stopped flying entirely last year. My last flight was in September 2010, a month before the gropes were instituted nationwide. But I still faced retaliation and harassment by the TSA before that flight because I opted out of the scanner.

    Millions of people can choose to do what I'm doing -- refuse to fly. (Obviously I'm not talking about people who are forced to fly for work or for medical procedures.) But those same millions either don't care about the abuse the TSA perpetrates, or don't care to put their money where their mouths are.

    Either way, millions of people are being bullied, harassed, intimidated, and assaulted because of this complacency.

  4. Welll.....shit.


  6. 12/5/2011, By Robert Johnson, Business Insider: The Pentagon Is Offering Free Military Hardware To Every Police Department In The US:

    The U.S. military has some of the most advanced killing equipment in the world that allows it to invade almost wherever it likes at will.

    We produce so much military equipment that inventories of military robots, M-16 assault rifles, helicopters, armored vehicles, and grenade launchers eventually start to pile up and it turns out a lot of these weapons are going straight to American police forces to be used against US citizens.

    Benjamin Carlson at The Daily reports on a little known endeavor called the "1033 Program" that gave more than $500 million of military gear to U.S. police forces in 2011 alone.

    1033 was passed by Congress in 1997 to help law-enforcement fight terrorism and drugs, but despite a 40-year low in violent crime, police are snapping up hardware like never before. While this year's staggering take topped the charts, next year's orders are up 400 percent over the same period.

    . . . “But then one or two years pass. They say, look we’ve got this equipment, this training and we haven’t been using it. That’s where it starts to creep into routine policing.”

    And with the Senate's passage of the National Defense Authorization Act, with nary a peep from millions of Americans, along with the routine assault of ordinary people just for showing up at an airport, with the approval of millions more, well, what the hell? "Gee, I don't understand how the Germans let those nasty Nazis develop! I just can't understand it! We would never allow anything like that in this country! After all, we're special!"

  7. God bless Mr. Fish:

  8. traveling has become a real burden on the already precarious and often maddening world of musicians. there is the "pre-check" option, which mainly involves paying a hefty fee to the airline to "cover the costs of background checks." the only effort they made was to make sure my checks cleared. i did a bit of checking of my own. on one of my applications to the airline, i lied shamelessly. i lied about where i went to college, i lied about the branch of the service i was in, and i lied about my occupation.

    approved. almost instantly.

    even with the pre-check option i often get singled out for a closer look because i have quit trusting my instruments and other baggage to the airline systems. i fedex that shit. too many times i would be in an airport baggage claim and find that what ever the airline had not handled roughly was not in the same city as i was.

    one of the things that makes taking longer term, nontravel gigs so attractive is that i spend far less time in airports.

    air travel is more expensive for less service. through in that you expose yourself to the whims of TSA pissants and it becomes more than an irritant, it is an offense to dignity and yet another encroachment on our severly eroded liberties.

    if there is ever an option, i take it. i would rather spend three days on a train than three hours in an airport.

    rather than the bullshit "high speed rail" projects that mainly run up costs, i would suggest that the transportation secretary concentrate on bringing our rail system up to the standards of say, 1885. that alone would keep them busy for several years.

    by the by my dear, email me with the address you will want for your truffle delivery. this year's batch promises to be epic in nature.