Search and Annoy

Five years’ worth of complaints from Will Rogers World Airport reveal the often-strained relationship between the traveling public and those charged with keeping them safe.

By Adam Kemp and Phillip O'Connor
Published: November 24, 2013

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One passenger undergoing a pat-down asked for police to be called after he alleged a Transportation Security Administration worker sexually assaulted him.

A mother complained that a TSA employee took her 17-year-old daughter into a room at the airport, questioned her, searched her and told her to raise her shirt or remove her bra after she set off a metal detector.

A soldier accompanying the body of a fallen comrade home was angered when he was forced to remove parts of his dress uniform at a TSA checkpoint.

As Oklahoma’s largest commercial airport braces for the busiest travel week of the year, a review of hundreds of complaints filed against the TSA at Will Rogers World Airport in recent years shows a broad range of concerns, from unprofessional employees and inconsistent screening procedures, to damaged luggage and missing valuables to intrusive searches and travelers brought to tears.

“Our officers take their jobs to protect the traveling public very seriously,” said Kim Wagner, a TSA spokeswoman at Will Rogers. “Like any large organization, you have some people who are better with passenger interactions than others and we try and use them appropriately, but sometimes we have that disconnect.”

Nationwide, the TSA employs about 56,000 to screen more than 650 million passengers a year at about 750 security checkpoints in more than 450 commercial airports. TSA declined to say how many agents are employed to operate the two checkpoints at Will Rogers citing security concerns.

TSA officials note just .01 percent of travelers file a complaint with the agency.

Wagner said a new expedited screening program that gets passengers to their flights faster as well as conflict management and ethics training provided to TSA agents have helped cut the number of recent complaints at Will Rogers “to just a dribble.”

Passengers prepare to enter the TSA screening area at Will Rogers World Airport in Oklahoma City, Nov. 19, 2013. Photo By Steve Gooch/The Oklahoman

“We realize that we are the very last barrier between you and your flight,” Wagner said. “We understand you have all those stresses to deal with and sometimes those get dumped on our officers. They don’t have any intent to be surly, and they don’t have any intent to be rude.”

The TSA complaints from Will Rogers reviewed by The Oklahoman cover a five-year period ending in 2012. The Oklahoman requested the information under the federal Freedom of Information Act. The TSA took 15 months to provide the records, from which names and other identifying information were withheld. The records include customer comments submitted by telephone and email. Many of the complaints about TSA at Will Rogers echo those raised by travelers at airports across the country, according to a recent U.S. Government Accountability Office report.

Some of the most common gripes involved broken locks, damaged or missing valuables or luggage contents left in disarray. In many cases, the bags contained a notice of having undergone additional TSA inspection.

Passengers reported all manner of items missing from baggage, including cameras, laptops, lingerie, medication, baby teeth, a Bible, a box of cigars, a five iron and a lottery ticket. One woman reported having her silicone breast prosthetics cut open, even though a doctor’s note packed alongside explained what they were.

“Airline passengers have no choice but to cooperate with the TSA and security measures. TSA should not abuse passengers or their belongings, or hire personnel who cannot respect the people or property that they are there to serve,” one passenger wrote, summarizing the thoughts expressed by many.

In response to a few complaints, TSA administrators reviewed camera footage taken either at the baggage checkpoint or in a secondary screening area. No instances of employee theft have been discovered at the airport, Wagner said. The agency also, on occasion, reviewed footage when customers complained of receiving bags with jumbled contents.

Passengers with damaged or missing items typically received a form notice from TSA referring them to an airline, the airport’s lost and found or providing instructions on how to submit a reimbursement claim to the agency. In 2012, the TSA paid out less than $200 in claims for damaged items at Will Rogers, Wagner said.

FEELING VIOLATED

Many complaints came from travelers expressing concern and often outrage at what they considered overly intrusive searches.

In March 2012, a Federal Aviation Administration employee undergoing a pat down alleged that a TSA officer touched him inappropriately through the fabric of his clothing.

Shocked, the man said he asked to speak to a manager.

“The new agent cut me off and said that of course he would touch me there in that way,” the man wrote in his complaint. “Where did I think terrorists hide things?”

The FAA employee said he asked for the screener’s name and identification number to file a police report. A TSA manager at first denied his request, before relenting and providing the information.

The Oklahoma County district attorney’s office declined to file charges citing a lack of evidence.

In, 2007, a mother called a TSA complaint line to say her 17-year-old daughter had been selected for a random search after setting off a metal detector. A female security officer took the girl into a room, questioned her and searched her bag. The mother said the security officer also told her daughter to remove her bra or raise her shirt to determine what was triggering the alarm and also rolled down the girl’s jeans revealing her pubic hair. The additional screening lasted more than an hour, according to the mother.

In June 2012, a flight attendant with Pinnacle Airlines headed to Memphis on an early morning flight agreed to a public pat-down after triggering a metal detector. During the pat-down, the flight attendant claimed inappropriate touching by the screener and complained to a supervisor, who did not intervene.

“I felt no other choice but to submit to this public humiliation,” the flight attendant wrote. “This woman touched my private several times, and I know I was being molested.”

In another March 2012 incident, a woman said she was harassed by TSA agents who she said seemed angry after she opted out of going through the imaging machine because of medical reasons. She said a second pat-down in a locked room was “completely unnecessary and very disturbing.”

“I’ve never felt so violated in all of my travels,” she wrote.

In 2007, a soldier accompanying the body of a fallen comrade home complained about having to remove the shoes, belt, shirt and coat of his dress uniform even after explaining his mission to a TSA officer.

“The treatment I was forced to endure was absolutely inexcusable,” the soldier wrote. “We are, after all, defending your right to perform your job, however incompetently you may decide to carry it out. Give us a break for once.”

Passengers prepare to enter the TSA screening area Nov. 19, 2013, at Will Rogers World Airport. Photo By Steve Gooch/The Oklahoman

Another passenger complained that TSA officers tried to embarrass passengers by wrapping search notices around a bag that contained “adult entertainment items” inside checked luggage.

The passenger also claimed two of the adult items had been taken from the luggage.

“This is highly unprofessional behavior and one of the main reasons people have such a bad attitude towards TSA officials,” the passenger wrote. “Clearly the TSA agent thought I would not report this incident because of the nature of items vandalized and stolen.”

One woman said her treatment at a security checkpoint where an agent said she would have to surrender her water and hundreds-of-dollars-worth of perfumes and cosmetics left her in tears.

“I was so disappointed,” the woman wrote. “I told her that I wasn’t a terrorist. I’m a 50-year-old African-American woman going through menopause and the fact they had already taken my water was punishment enough for me. She didn’t give a rat’s behind about my feelings, my health condition or my belongings.”

CONDUCT UNBECOMING

Some complained of long, slow-moving security lines, missed flights and checkpoint operators who seemed indifferent to their plight.

One newlywed sent an email seeking an apology after missing an April 2012 flight on United Airlines despite arriving an hour and fifteen minutes early.

“We are on standby and may be stuck at the airport,” he wrote. “Great way to start our honeymoon.”

Others lamented items surrendered at checkpoints, including a salt rock lamp, snow globes, steak knives, tomato sauce and a pool cue.

Many travelers complained about the professionalism of TSA agents who they described as loud, nasty, surly and rude.

“He was obviously picked on as a child and found his outlet to be a power tripper in the form of a TSA agent,” a traveler wrote about a TSA supervisor in 2008. “You should be embarrassed to have such individuals working for your organization. Maybe he needs a vacation before he snaps.”

A woman traveling with her 7-year-old son in 2008 lost a bag during screening that contained more than $1,000 worth of electronics. When she asked a TSA agent for help, she said the agent screamed at her for approaching the imaging machine, grabbed her and pulled her away. When she reached her hand out for her son, the agent blocked her.

“I almost freaked out at this point, my momma bear, baby cub instincts were kicking in,” the woman wrote in 2008.

An agent eventually told her she needed to move on without her bag.

“She just wanted me gone without my belongings, and I honestly feel many passengers’ belongings could be stolen by TSA employees this way,” the woman wrote. “Another employee saw me crying and frantically ran over to look for me and said (the bag) had accidentally gotten stuck by the strap in another machine.”

The agents refused to give the woman their names or badge numbers.

In 2009, a woman going through security said she was asked to turn over a children’s cup she’d just bought for her 3-year-old daughter. When the daughter asked why, the woman said she responded by saying “they have silly rules.”

“The lady standing by the metal detector overheard this … and said ‘obviously, you don’t know anybody who died in the World Trade Center,’ and then said to the passenger behind me ‘I can’t believe that’s what she’s teaching her children,’” the woman wrote in an email complaint. “This is one of the many reasons the airline industry is failing. You are treated like crap by the TSA employees and have to take the abuse in front of children in order to fly.”

Others told of TSA agents making inappropriate jokes or comments.

In July 2012, a passenger complained after overhearing two male agents discuss “which women they enjoyed patting down,” and other comments the passenger considered in poor taste.

“These were not professionals working at the checkpoint; they were more like adolescents who had been given the keys to the liquor cabinet,” the passenger wrote.

The TSA identified and counseled the two men.

Passengers prepare to enter the TSA screening area Nov. 19, 2013, at Will Rogers World Airport. Photo By Steve Gooch/The Oklahoman

MEDICAL ISSUES

Several of the complaints came from people with medical conditions.

A woman traveling in May 2012 stopped for a pat-down told TSA agents she’d recently undergone breast surgery. The woman was taken to a private area where she was told to remove her bra. She offered to pull her bra out from her chest but refused to let agents touch her bandage.

“The caller said she was in severe pain and states it was the most embarrassing thing she has been through and that she has never been so humiliated in her life,” the complaint reads.

In the TSA’s response to the woman, the agency stated that officers are instructed to wear gloves when conducting physical inspections and can use a new pair of gloves when requested to do so.

Others objected to the handling of portable breathing machines, insulin pumps and other medical devices during screening. Several people with replacement joints and other implanted medical devices complained about what they considered embarrassing manual screening.

One man wrote in July 2010 about going through security with his elderly father, who had a pacemaker.

“He was absolutely humiliated by the screening,” the son wrote. “The screener was not friendly and did a very “thorough” job. When he got out of there, my dad said, ‘I ought to sue those people for that.’”

A handful of travelers admitted to being confrontational and uncooperative or to just having a bad day and taking it out on the security workers.

A few, after venting, thanked the TSA employees for doing a difficult duty.

A March 2011 traveler on Southwest Airlines wrote: “In the end, I am very grateful that TSA has dedicated officers doing what is probably not the most glamorous or rewarding job out there, but I’d rather put up with some discourtesy and rudeness occasionally if it means that I and my fellow citizens and passengers are safer when they fly.”

READ SOME OF THE COMPLAINTS

Oklahoma City TSA complaints by NewsOK