“From where I stand, this thing between me and TSA only ends 1 of 2 ways: (1) I win the war by being able to go through those lines without having to deal with their invasive searches, the unnecessary removal of clothing, and their total disregard for my personal belongings or (2) they win by way of me never taking another flight originating out of the United States” – an excerpt from Triumphs & Tribulations XI
It’s no secret to those who know me that I once had a very personal, very intense war with the Transportation Security Administration. A cool, calm, and collected person for the most part, some of my most fiery moments have been in those security lines at American airports.
My beef with the TSA started on May 22, 2007…my very first time at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. As I was waiting to go through the line ahead of my flight to Seattle in order to connect to my port call for Tokyo, there was a young boy and his mother in front of me. The kid had to be no older than 3…4 at the most. The TSA agent did what I thought was an unnecessary search of the kid…going through his legs, passing through the crouch area. I objected to it and told the agent that it was unnecessary and that the kid didn’t even pose a threat. The agent—a woman—told me to mind my own business and that’s when it got real. After I successfully passed through the line, I muttered “punk ass top flight security” loud enough for her to hear me to which she responded “what did you say”. I responded with a “you f***in’ heard me” as I headed for my gate. She and 2 other agents approached me, ended up taking my name from one of my IDs and had some supervisor give me a talking to for harassing TSA agents. Fast forward to just over a year later, in June 2008, when I was connecting on a flight from Tokyo to Birmingham via Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. After passing through customs and immigration as DFW was my first entry into the country, I headed towards domestic connections where I had to go through TSA lines again. In addition to my checked bag, I had 2 carry-on bags with me: my backpack, which had my notebook PC in it and my Adidas duffle bag, which had my PlayStation 2 in it. The TSA agent was out of line with the handling of my duffle bag, tossing it on the conveyor belt like it was a rag doll. I objected to it and gave him the business, subjecting myself to one of those full-on “random” searches. Again, they took my name from my ID and I got another talking to. The 3rd incident between me and TSA happened at LAX in May 2010, as I was returning back to the United States from my Air Force assignment in Tokyo. I objected to the lenses for my Nikon D90 going through the scanner. The agent countered that the scanner posed no threat to the lenses and I countered with a “you didn’t pay $1000 for those lenses…they aren’t going through that scanner”. I got pulled out of line and walked into this back area, where a TSA agent not only thoroughly searched each of my 3 camera lenses…he also thoroughly searched my shoes, my Brooks Brothers jacket, and the entirety of my checked bag and my other backpack. He purposely took his time too, wasting 11 minutes and 38 seconds of my time. I called him out on that and he responded with a “I’m just doing my job to keep you safe, Mr. Thomas”. The 4th incident—and perhaps, the most egregious in my book—occurred on December 3, 2010 at BWI Marshall. The TSA agent was performing one of those invasive searches on me in the same manner as they did that young kid 3 ½ years earlier and I objected to it once I felt it was over the top. I cursed out the agent and drew clenched fists, challenging the agent to touch me again. A supervisor was called in and I was once again taken to the back halls of TSA land. This time, the agent said that he was flagging me because of this incident and all the prior incidents. He said that if I go a year without any incidents, the flag would be removed. So basically, I was put on probation by the TSA. As I was in the sky on my way to Atlanta, that’s when I wrote the journal entry of this post’s epigraph.
The first few flights I took under the flag, the TSA agents didn’t hesitate to send me into certain lines where they knew I would be subject to additional “random” searches. After all, when they scan the IDs, everything about the passenger shows up in that computer at the desk. After going through that 4 times between December 2010 and March 2011, I decided to one-up them by wearing the military uniform in the security line. As much as I hated unnecessarily wearing that uniform, it proved to be a game changer. I didn’t have to take off shoes or belts and I didn’t have to go through those f***ed up “random” searches. I did this for the 7 other flights I took the rest of the year that originated out of an American airport.
After December 2011 came and went, I thought the flag was gone but it wasn’t. I didn’t discover this until June 2012, when I was going through Customs and Border Protection preclearance at Vancouver International Airport on my way back to Seattle in order to catch my port call to Seoul. CBP held me in isolation for like 30 minutes before their agent came in and explained that I was still being flagged by TSA. He cleared the flag off and though I was officially clean, I was even more pissed with TSA for still having that flag on me 7 months after it was supposed to be gone. I swore that I would get back at them for it. The thing about it was that I would have to wait a year to do it since I didn’t have to go through security in Seattle and I wouldn’t be back in the United States until the beginning of my terminal leave from the Air Force in May 2013. True to my word, I got back at them by being extra petty. I had been in Los Angeles for a week kicking it with my cousin after spending the previous week in Vancouver after leaving Seoul. Before I left my cousin’s place, I did all of the following: (1) I put a penny in each of my socks, (2) I put on a chain necklace made of metal that I tucked underneath my shirt, (3) I put on an ankle brace just for the hell of it, and (4) I put ink pens in every available pocket of my cargo pants. When it was my turn to go through security, I put my backpack and shoes on the conveyor belt as usual. When the agent told me to remove everything from my pockets, I put my cell phone and wallet on the belt and then went through the metal detector. It beeps so I go back. Off goes the belt. I go back through and it goes off again. Out comes the ink pens. Back through again and back I go. Off comes the ankle brace. At this point, the agent is getting pissed and I got this duck-face look going on. Once more I go through and once more, the machine goes off. This time, I take off the chain. At this point, she just pulls me from the line and has another agent scan me with the wand. She was visibly pissed. While he’s scanning, I let out a brief laugh to which the agent asks “what’s funny”. I reply with a “your girl over there…she mad, huh”. I finished the scan—he amazingly didn’t scan my socks, which would’ve turned up the pennies—and I got my stuff and headed to my gate.
Fast forward to just a few months later, in September 2013. I had to do a profile update for my U.S. Government Common Access Card and as part of that, I had an opportunity to sign up for the TSA Pre✓. Under the Pre✓ program, which I used immediately as part of my trip up to Toronto for TIFF and the accompanying Niagara Falls trip, I didn’t have to take off my shoes, belts, or jackets…and my notebook PC and tablet stayed in my bags. The first time I went through, I gave the fist pump in victory as I got my stuff off the conveyor belt. I had defeated TSA. I won the war. And in the time since, I’ve been able to breeze through security in no more than just a couple of minutes. In fact, I even pushed back my arrival times at airports because of the ease I experience in getting through security.