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Tsk, Tsk, TSA: A frequent flyer's experience with an airport prank gone bad

BY REBECCA SOLOMON

Published January 10, 2010

I consider myself an expert traveler at this point in my life. After four years and countless flights commuting between Philadelphia and Ann Arbor, I’ve mastered the art of packing and I can put my shoes on and my laptop back in its case in record time.

As winter break ended last week, I decided that despite my unshakable skills as a lone traveler I'd still get to the airport a little earlier, conscious of the inevitable repercussions in the wake of the failed Christmas-day bombing.
Check-in went off without a hitch, and once I reached the front of the security line, I was ready for my usual routine. I took off my coat and sweatshirt and put my scarf and shoes in the bins. I took out my laptop, placing it in a separate container, and sent it down on the conveyer belt.

I was the epitome of compliance and went through the detector without any problems. But as I reached to reclaim my bag, a TSA officer stopped me and wouldn’t return my things.

He informed me that that if I answered him truthfully, I’d be fine. Just be honest, he said. I panicked. Had I accidentally packed shampoo in my carry on? Did I keep my Swiss Army knife on my keys? I had been so careful when packing that I couldn’t imagine what I could have done wrong.

Then he reached into my computer case and pulled out a small baggie of white powder. Before I continue, I’d like to review my thought process as he said the words “where did you get this from?”

My first thought: I left my bag on the floor when I was reaching for my license to show the attendant. A terrorist slipped bomb-detonating powder into my bag. The terrorist wants me to get through security and then once I’m airborne, he’ll find me, reclaim the substance and blow up the plane. I’m going to be responsible for a terrorist attack.

My second thought: This is a bag of drugs. I have just been made part of a drug smuggling ring. Someone saw my open bag, dropped it in and now I’m going to jail.

I immediately told him I had no idea where the bag came from and that I hadn’t left my bags unattended— a cardinal sin in airport security. He let me stutter through an explanation for the longest minute of my life. Tears streamed down my face as I pleaded with him to understand that I’d never seen this baggie before.

But as I emotionally tried to explain that I couldn’t explain, he started to smile, an odd reaction to such a monumental find in my things. Then he waved the baggie at me and told me he was kidding, that I should’ve seen the look on my face.

Really?

As politely as I could, I explained to him how unfunny I thought his prank had been and gathered my things to leave. I was clearly outraged and upset, yet, most of the people around me didn't offer to help me or commented on this completely unprofessional and mean “prank.” Two other TSA officials went about their jobs and a man in front of me walked away after hearing the entire ordeal. Only one woman behind me was as infuriated as me and followed to see if I was okay.

I ran from the line and cried to this stranger who was kind enough to play the role of my interim mother. I had been terrified and disrespected by an airport employee. He’d joked about the least funny thing in air travel, and through my tears I decided to take action.

I asked to speak with the director of security. The supervisor met me at my gate and I explained what I’d just experienced. I identified the employee, who, to my shock, was not immediately removed from the floor, and filled out a complaint form.

While writing my incident report, I was told that the guard who’d done this to me was dressed differently than other TSA employees because his job was to train the staff to detect bombs and other contraband. Here was a man at the forefront of our fight against terror, making a joke about one of the most serious issues facing our country right now.

And that was it. I got on my flight and landed safely in Ann Arbor.

Sure, the airline was apologetic, but instant action wasn’t taken. Two days later I received a call from the airport — only after I had first called them — informing me that disciplinary action had been taken.

As passengers and patrons of airports, we have a lot of responsibility to comply with airline security. Our safety depends directly on how well we follow the rules. This same standard needs to be applied to the staff.

Cooperation is necessary for successful system operation, especially on a scale as large as an airport. In order to cooperate with airlines, I want to believe that they will show me the same respect I show them as I comply with their rules and regulations.

One man's actions aren't enough to tarnish the reputations of the many hardworking airline personnel, but it does open my eyes to how small mistakes can have big consequences.