Six Little-Known Facts About TSA Screeners

A man who stripped naked at a TSA security checkpoint in April to prove he wasn't carrying explosives was found not guilty of public indecency last week. The judge ruled the strip act was a protected form of protest.

The ruling was met with groans from TSA officers, but then, they're used to opinions going against them.

It's no secret there's a lot of anger directed at the 50,000 men and women employed by the TSA. Some of the criticism is justified and I'm thinking of those officers convicted of theft at JFK. Other stories may be little more than "noise" - may be - but when a fellow fed such as Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., refers to the TSA as Thousands Standing Around or as one of the nation's "most disliked agencies," you know you have problems.

It got me to wondering how officers handle their unofficial status as the internet's "most popular punching bag." Imagine performing a job day-in and day-out that, if done right (such as a pat-down) could result in name-calling or worse; do it wrong (by letting a weapon slip through) and the consequences could be cataclysmic.

For more travel news and insights view Rick's blog at What follows is not particularly scientific. This is anecdotal evidence based on airport observations and casual conversation initiated by me or some of my colleagues, but it provides a glimpse of security officers in action and you might find some surprises.

1. Officers do get compliments

We know TSA officers get nasty comments, but many say the vast majority of passengers are perfectly nice and far more concerned about getting their shoes back on than engaging in either pleasant chit-chat or raging arguments.

But apparently compliments are not uncommon. An employee of mine saw this happen twice in a single security line not long ago. In the first instance, a stone-faced officer was told, "Thanks for the job you're doing, for keeping us safe," but he didn't react in the slightest. However, when another officer was complimented, he looked so startled he actually stopped what he was doing. Then he smiled.

2. Officers don't get a pass from security

If you think TSA screeners merely show government ID to be whisked through the security via some sort of "professional courtesy," think again. They go through the same procedures you and I endure every time they fly. And in case you're wondering - well, let's go to #3.

3. Officers sometimes make the same security mistakes passengers do

Back in August 2006, when British officials foiled a plot to blow up some planes, the TSA banned all liquids. A month later, it reverted to the 3.4 ounce limit we know today. Some security officers have privately complained passengers should know by now that water bottles are banned, but guess what? TSA employees screw this up, too. Even big shots like spokesman Nico Melendez who told me a while back, "Sometimes, you just forget." People are human.

4. Officers don't make up the rules they follow

From everything I can see, most TSA officers are hard-working and diligent, but I won't convince anyone who hates what they do. Remember, though, these officers don't make up the rules they follow; they just promise to uphold them. If you don't like the rules, speak to a supervisor, make a complaint, contact an elected official or maybe you too will want to take your clothes off in protest (though I don't recommend this). Or you can opt out of flying altogether.

5. Yes, there are bad officers - and bad passengers

As noted earlier, there have been "bad apples" working for the TSA - sometimes, criminally bad. But that is true of most professions. Imagine if all pilots were tarred by the actions of that SkyWest captain who was under suspicion in the murder of his girlfriend, then allegedly commandeered a plane at a Utah airport, crashed it and apparently killed himself. And let's not forget the JetBlue flight attendant who cursed out passengers before exiting the plane via the escape chute, beers in hand.

Passengers don't always behave, either. In the first two weeks of this month alone, TSA screeners found 56 guns in carry-on bags, all but five of them loaded. They also found hand grenades, smoke grenades, stun guns, fireworks and enough knives to open a cutlery shop.

Passengers make foolish comments, too. The TSA's Blog claims an irate individual at the New Orleans airport said, "I will get on a flight even if I have to blow up the airport and call myself a terrorist." I'm guessing that flyer did miss the plane, but while these are all good examples of bad behavior, thankfully they are very rare. 6. Please don't mention "naked photos"

A TSA officer once said he and his colleagues have become "numb" to their reputation which may explain why at least one screener I'm aware of sometimes fibs when asked what he does for a living. I'm told it's to forestall inevitable questions about "naked photos," a reference to those X-ray images from body scan machines, which these days are about as salacious as a gingerbread man cookie cutter.

One final thought: TSA agents I've heard from say they're proud of the work they do because they believe they're helping keep the country at least a little safer. But the question remains: Is there a better way go about this?