Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

October 22, 2015

One morning in October

Filed under: Aviation Security — by Philip J. Palin on October 22, 2015


0618-0632 LOCAL TIME (rough estimate)



Lines are short.

Two TSA officers are checking tickets and identifications. Mine is pleasant and apparently thorough.

Two luggage check-lines are operating.  No significant back-up.

As I unload my pockets into my carry-on, the TSA officer on the other side of the conveyor addresses a colleague beyond the security-line. “[Name no longer remembered], what’s with the boots, active duty in uniform?”

I look behind me to see a man in army fatigues unlacing his campaign boots, it’s taking a while.

The TSA officer working the line answers with something like, “He can keep the uniform on, but the alarm says the boots come off.” The response sounded smug to me.  The guy closer to me mutters something inaudible, but unhappy.

Whatever the regulation might actually be, the guy asking the question was shut down, at least for the morning–probably longer.

I walk toward the standard screening gate, but am told I have been randomly selected for advanced treatment.  I proceed to the millimeter wave scanner where I am politely told to assume the position.  As I exit the same polite TSA officer asks me to hold.

Another civilian — a woman — is standing with us.  I soon realize the male TSA officer is needing a female TSA officer to check the full-body image of the female who had preceded me.

He calls for his boss, who is answering a phone.  He calls the name of the nearest female colleague, who seems to purposefully ignore him. He calls for another female colleague who just shakes her head.  Then his boss is off the phone, but disappears seeming frantic, into the increasing hubbub.

My polite TSA officer captures the attention of the one female to his right, but she insists there are plenty of females to his left. One of the females on his left approaches (out of curiosity?).  He explains needing her help. She responds that she’s on break.  He implores.  She says its a management problem.  But when he asks, “Do you approve the image? (I think that’s the line), she glances over his shoulder and — reluctantly, it seemed to me — says yes.

The female civilian is released.  I’m not sure he looked at my image before apologizing and letting me go.  At least five more were waiting on the other side of the Imaging Cylinder.


If I had been more mindful, I should have taken names. I should have, at least, told the polite TSA officer his efforts were appreciated. Instead I just gathered my bags from the now crammed conveyor and scurried to my plane.

In the midst of this mildly Kafkaesque scene the polite TSA officer was an effective agent of sanity, hope, and progress.  It was not yet dawn and there must have been parts of his limbic system feeling under attack.  Yet he was civil to everyone and persistent in his efforts to free us to be about our day, even as he tried to do his job.

Many worry our entire aviation security system teeters on the absurd or worse (it was Kafka who wrote, “Evil is whatever distracts”). But especially if this is true, how do we better develop systems to support and empower this civilized man and others like him?  So much of what we do seems more likely to create the very attitudes and behaviors he was struggling to overcome.

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Comment by William R. Cumming

October 22, 2015 @ 2:44 am

Once again Security should be designed to cover the entire airport not the passenger line!

The current design is totally flawed.

Comment by William R. Cumming

October 22, 2015 @ 7:45 am

Is it really necessary for family and friends to get into the terminal?

Comment by Anonymous

October 23, 2015 @ 2:40 pm

Mr. Palin, Your story is making the rounds at TSA, at least at DFW and apparently elsewhere. First, it helps when anyone notices. Second, it would help more if TSA management would not treat its employees like idiots. Effective enforcement would improve if available human intelligence was organized and applied. Most (if admittedly not all)of my TSA colleagues are good and capable people who begin to behave as you would expect (and have described)after ongoing bureaucratic abuse.

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