If you thought the TSA’s reputation as America’s worst federal agency couldn’t get any worse — and after its recent PR disasters, I wouldn’t blame you — you might want to think again.
Last week brought fresh evidence that our airport screeners are working even harder to be reviled by the public they’re assigned to protect.
Both incidents involve young passengers with disabilities. The first one happened to a young deaf passenger traveling to a conference in Louisville. He alleges agents belittled him (I can’t repeat the exact words they allegedly used), stole his candy, and devoured it in front of him.
The second incident involves a cancer patient on his way to Disneyland, having his prosthetic leg screened by a TSA agent. A photo of the search provoked widespread outrage. My colleague Lisa Simeone covered the fallout on the watchdog site TSA News.
The TSA issued a statement on its blog, denying the deaf passenger was mistreated. It said it had the pictures to disprove it.
“After a review of the video, TSA found no footage that matches the information in the blog post, such as Officers removing food during any bag search and eating it, or anything to indicate that they were pointing at and ridiculing a passenger,” it said.
A blog post written by the deaf passenger has since been removed, and the author has asked other media outlets to unpublish the article.
TSA hasn’t commented on the photo of the child being screened. It doesn’t really have to. No one seems to care what the agency has to say anymore.
Was that a doctored photo? Was the deaf passenger harassed by agents? What does it matter? They just wouldn’t put anything past the TSA.
Just in case you’re one of the three readers who are still concerned with the facts, here are a few to chew on. The TSA has a long history of targeting the disabled, as I documented in a post last year.
Since then, it’s kept the most defenseless air travelers in its crosshairs.
In May, radio host Laura Ingraham reported a legless Afghanistan war veteran being given a very thorough once-over by TSA agents at Baltimore-Washington International Airport. Our vets, she added, “deserve better.” (She’s right.)
A few weeks before, it aggressively screened a 7-year-old female passenger with cerebral palsy, causing her family to miss their flight. The girl, Dina Frank, was waiting to board a flight departing from JFK Airport in New York to Florida, when agents insisted on conducting a thorough search of her and her crutches — this was at the gate, after the girl had already gone through security at the checkpoint.
Elderly passengers with mobility challenges are also a favorite target. Just a few days before they went after the disabled girl, a passenger flying out of Palm Beach International Airport claims agents refused to let her walk through a magnetometer and gave her an invasive pat-down.
Her crime? Using a cane.
“I was groped inappropriately in all strategic areas, hands placed down my pants in a manner I never imagined possible for a middle aged woman with a cane,” she wrote on a consumer complaint site. “The point was very clear; to punish and retaliate against me because I opted out of the non-metal scanner.”
When it comes to the way TSA treats disabled travelers, is any horror story true until proven otherwise? I can’t fault the flying public for thinking so.
To the agency’s credit, it has changed the way it screens some passengers as a result of recent complaints. A few months ago, the TSA declared that passengers 75 and over could keep their shoes and light jackets on at the screening area. But to many critics, the agency just created yet another class of “special” passenger, which some disability advocates find offensive. Their goal is to be treated like everyone else — no better, no worse.
Pope John Paul II once said that society can be judged on the basis of how it treats its weakest members. Last week, the TSA added insult to injury for its most vulnerable passengers. And it seems passengers have already judged them for it.
Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate and syndicated columnist. He has covered the TSA since its inception. Christopher writes for the TSA News, which is featured every Tuesday on CAA.