My Day with the TSA

global entry card
Your Global Entry card works great as an ID card. Not so much as actually getting the promised TSA Pre privileges.

I got to spend nearly an hour with my new TSA pals at the Omaha airport the other day. It’s tempting to blame the TSA for their widely reported incompetence, and I’ll get to that in a moment, but first, I have to take a little time to pull Frontier Airlines up short as well.

As I wrote a while back, Kris and I are now proud members of TSA Pre, which allegedly allows you to skip the more onerous parts of the TSA security process. Unfortunately, for some reason, in order to take advantage of the short lines at security, your airline has to participate in the program and print “TSA Pre” on your boarding pass. Frontier, which could be called the American version of Ryan Air (not a compliment, btw,) collected our Trusted Traveler numbers, but their system doesn’t translate that to printing “TSA Pre” on our boarding passes.

So, when we showed up at the line in Omaha, we both had in our hands our Homeland Security-issued cards that showed we were Global Entry/TSA Pre certified. We stupidly thought those cards, which we figured must have been issued for some situation just like we were now encountering, would be good for entering the TSA Pre line.

But no. It seems the airline is the arbiter of whether or not you get to use the TSA Pre line, not the TSA itself. “Sorry, it has to be on your boarding pass,” we were told.

“So why do they issue these cards, then?” I asked.

“Well, you can use them as your government issued ID,” she answered as she scanned them. “You don’t have to show your drivers license.”

“Gee, thanks!”

She then shunted us over to the regular line where we were promptly instructed to do all the stuff we normally get to skip, such as taking off shoes and belt, laptops and liquids out, and the x-ray machine.

Since I’ve already had enough x-rays in my life, I always opt out of going through the scanner machine and ask for the frisk. Kris recently started doing that as well.

So, after the obligatory wait while a couple of agents come back from their breaks so they could frisk us, we stood on the red footprints and got the lecture we’ve heard so many times about how they are going to frisk you. You can't opt out of the speech, though, no matter how many times you've heard it.

They run their hands all over you, as they told you they’re going to, and, to make it seem less invasive, use the backs of their hands as they approach your “sensitive” areas, as they also told you. Then they swab their gloves and run the swab through the sensor machines, as they told you, to make sure you don’t have any explosives residue on your person.

Or body lotion. They don't tell you that part.

It seems that certain body lotions can give a false positive reading on the chemical sensors. Since it is winter in the midwest, Kris and I had both used St. Ives Oatmeal and Shea Butter lotion on our sere skin that morning. I'm not sure if it was the oatmeal or the shea butter that was explosive. Or maybe it was the combination. I have heard of oatmeal being good for your “regularity” but I don’t think that could bring down a plane.

But, we were happy to give at least one of the TSA agents a big thrill. “Wow, this is the first time that we’ve had a husband and wife both set off the sensors!”

So glad we could make her day.

When you set off the sensors, here’s what happens. You get to stand there while they swab everything you were carrying–which means they’ll be completely unpacking all your carry ons, right down to the handful of change you’d dumped into your bag before getting to TSA. (Yes, I did see the agent swab a quarter.) At least they leave it all out for you so you can repack it yourself–which is more than they do with your checked luggage. More on that later.

And, you get a second pat down. But this time, instead of the 20-something kid who did my first one, I get an older supervising agent. And, because I was now flagged as a potential whatever, he didn’t have to use the back of his hands over my “sensitive” areas. I got the full grope. But, as long as they’re going to feel you up to that degree, at least they take you into a private room to do it. I was wondering how much further I was going to have to get undressed, but luckily, the full frontal pat down was enough.

While Kris was in her room, she asked the agent what would happen if we didn’t pass the second pat down. The answer to that was, “We call the police.” Luckily it was Kris who had asked that, because if I’d got that answer, I’d probably have said something like, “And they’ll charge us with attempting to board an airplane while wearing shea butter?” However, I remembered some of the best advice my father ever gave me: “Never argue with someone who makes minimum wage and wears a badge.” So I only asked, “What happens if we miss our plane?”

The basic answer to that was, “There will be another one.” They left out the clear implication that there won’t be any planes leaving from Guantanamo if you set off the sensor again.

But luckily, we both passed. And, the lens cleaner in my camera bag was also free of dangerous chemicals.

Our checked bags weren’t so lucky, though. It seems that both our checked bags were also subject to extensive search, which I could tell by the insert they left in the bag and the general state of disarray it was left in–including not re-closing the outside straps on my soft sided bag so they’ll be sure to flap loose and catch in the baggage handling machinery and rip off. Also, all my carefully rolled clothes had been unrolled and stuffed back in haphazardly. My kit containing my toiletries had also been opened and moved to the top of the bag, where it could be conveniently smashed as they re-closed the bag and/or as it passed through the above mentioned baggage handling system.

This allowed my toothpaste tube to pop open and about half the contents of my brand new tube to cover everything else within the kit in a thick layer of blue goo.

I wonder if they swabbed that, too.

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17 thoughts on “My Day with the TSA”

      • I feel your pain Tom.

        I was pulled into a room and the TSA had a special code to bypass my security log in on my laptop. (So he said).

        I was accused of having pornography on my laptop. First, I didn’t have porn on my laptop and second I asked him to describe what was considered pornographic? In Maylasia a female nursing pig is considered pornographic. The TSA would not show me the evidence. Then, the TSA said he was going to confiscate my $4,000 laptop and I really wanted to scream murder. I was helpless of course. I stood my ground and kept demanding to see the evidence and after interrogating me for 30 minutes he gave me my laptop back.

        • Wow, Arlo. Sounds like someone was making stuff up. Do they get to search laptops, btw? Of course, with the current state of affairs, we don’t really have a fourth amendment any more.

          • I don’t know if TSA has the legal right to do a lot of things they do. All I know is if they decry “cause for suspicion” they can do anything. This happened at the Minneapolis airport when i was returning from Asia. I called the person in charge of the TSA for MPLS and make a complaint. I’m sure it did no good. How do you like knowing that under probably cause the TSA can confiscate your laptop, iPHONE, IPAD, etc., and take it for themselves in the name of “evidence”. They’re pirates and all this got started in my belief, the hoax of 911.

  1. Corinne, the object of the TSA is not to really make us safe. If it were, they wouldn’t have spent so much time on me, who had cleared a much more rigorous program when I got Global Entry in the first place. The object of TSA is political, so the government can claim they’re keeping us safe.

  2. I don’t care if I start glowing in the dark, I’m going through the scanner–which, of course, only decreases (but does not eliminate) the possibility of a pat down. So get this, when we flew from PHL to SFO last month, when the first TSA guy checked my ID, he put a pre-screened sticker on my boarding pass and then I didn’t have to take off my shoes, etc. I’m not in the Global Entry program. Do you think they are doing random acts of kindness or something? I was actually kind of worried. What if I were Richard Reid’s cousin or something and they gave me a random pass?

  3. Someone I know was told to take off his belt.

    “I can’t,” he said. “It’s sewn into the trousers.”

    (He’s English. For him, pants are underwear. Hence the trousers.)

    “Take off the belt.”

    “I can’t.”

    And so on, back and forth several times until he said, “Fine,” and started to take off the belt, and the trousers it was attached to. The security guard started yelling at him to stop, he insisted he had to go on, everyone got activated, and when they finally did convince him to leave his clothes on, they let him through the scanner with his belt and trousers still on.


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