[USA] Passenger turns down oatmeal, airline summons TSA
- More tales of airport-security abuse
August 3, 2018
Last week, I asked readers to share their tales of air-travel-security abuse.
Oh, people. It’s a jungle out there.
In 2013, Rob Albright and his wife were traveling home from Maine to Minnesota with their kids, ages 2 and 7. Their flight routed them through Philly but landed too late for them to make the connecting ride home.
While booking a new flight with a US Airways agent, Albright asked about his family’s bags and learned they were on the plane the family had missed.
“Is it a good idea to separate passengers from their bags?” he asked, confused. “It seems like a dumb security risk. What if someone had a bomb in there?”
Because his reasonable question contained the word bomb, he was arrested for making a terroristic threat. He was handcuffed and taken to a Police District holding cell at 55th and Pine. On the way, the cops made the rounds outside the airport, casually distributing water bottles to officers doing curb duty, chatting them up as they went.
Which shows how alarmed they weren’t.
At the district, Albright was fingerprinted, kept overnight, and released – after 20 hours – for lack of evidence.
Camera icon WAGNER FAMILY
Caryl and Michael Wagner
Then there are Caryl and Michael Wagner of Williamstown, Gloucester County, who were served breakfast on their morning flight from Philadelphia to Fort Lauderdale.
Caryl, whose diabetes and heart condition require dietary restrictions, asked to exchange her oatmeal for an egg dish. The attendant couldn’t accommodate the request and seemed put off by it.
When the plane landed, the Wagners were hustled off the plane by a TSA agent who’d been summoned to investigate the “disturbance” they’d caused.
“We were befuddled,” says Caryl. “We said, ‘Do you mean the oatmeal?’ When we told him what happened, he was disgusted that his time had been wasted.”
And there’s Lauren Ragland, a local attorney who apparently entered a police state when her flight from Montreal landed in Philly.
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Lauren and Michel Ragland
Ragland and her husband were with a dozen or so passengers ordered to stand inside a sweltering jetway while waiting for their carry-on bags, which had been stowed in the plane’s cargo hold. After 30 minutes, Ragland left the jetway to ask a gate agent about the delay – and was threatened with arrest.
“She was yelling ‘Security! Security!’ on her walkie-talkie,” says Ragland, who began live-tweeting the encounter to American Airlines’ Twitter feed.
Ragland’s bag appeared before security did, so she and her husband were able to skedaddle before things got any uglier.
Ragland, Wagner, Albright, and others reached out to me after reading last week’s column about Philadelphia airport passenger Rick Cardarelli, who sought help from American Airlines management after a ramp agent refused to let him retrieve medicine from his carry-on bag.
Cardarelli got his medicine – and was then charged with making a bomb threat. A judge eventually tossed the charges; a civil suit against AA is now underway.
>> READ MORE: Airline passenger asks for medicine, goes to jail | Ronnie Polaneczky
What these stories show is the ease with which airport employees can threaten arrest when travelers just plain bug them. And the threats come from employees of every rank – whether bag handler or TSA supervisor.
“Everyone who holds an airport ID badge has a responsibility to report any suspicious activity, and that includes threats or perceived threats,” says Jeff Price, a global-airport-safety expert and author of Practical Aviation Security. “There’s a lot of opportunity for abuse of power.”
So here’s the question I put to Mary Catherine Roper, deputy legal director of the ACLU’s Pennsylvania chapter:
Should all airport employees start wearing body cameras – the way more of America’s police officers are doing – to balance the scales of justice that currently favor a disgruntled employee’s word over a disgruntled passenger’s?
No way, says Roper. Civilians aren’t steeped in the law enforcement culture that requires continual documentation of their own activities. They’d wind up violating passenger rights, often without even knowing it.
The ACLU would, however, cautiously support body-cam use by airport law enforcement.
“Studies show that body cams can really cut down on police complaints,” she says, when their use is well-regulated and police are trained when to turn them on and off.
And they can protect law enforcement from frivolous complaints from the public, too.
Last year, Rep. Adriano Espaillat (D., N.Y.) introduced HR 1608, which would require immigration and custom agents to wear body cameras when engaged in official operations, including those at airports. The bill currently doesn’t have enough GOP support to pass.
If it ever does, it might protect airline travelers like reader William Roshko, whose request to make a complaint with the Philly TSA was met with this response from an agent: “Go, or I will call the cops and you will miss your flight.”
And like M.E. Roth, who was threatened with arrest after complaining about customer service when a flight was rerouted. The officer, Roth says, threatened arrest, proclaiming, “You can’t make complaints at the airport anymore.”
And Art Sweiforth, whose hearing isn’t great and was treated with sneering disrespect by a TSA agent.
“It was frightening,” says Sweiforth, “because I sensed if I made any sort of reply he would become even more disagreeable.”
Just because he could.
Ronnie’s recommended change: Body cameras for airport law enforcement.
Why we need it: Provides a neutral “third party” witness to encounters between the passengers and law enforcement.
What you can do: Urge your congressional representative to support H.R. 1608. To identify the name and contact info of your representative, visit https://www.house.gov/