14 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of TSA Agents

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Last year, more than 848 million people boarded airplanes departing or arriving within the United States. Barring any special security clearance, virtually all of them were filtered through the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), a federally-operated branch charged with screening passengers to ensure they’re complying with the rules of safe air travel.

Some travelers believe the TSA’s policies are burdensome and ineffectual; others acknowledge that individual employees are doing their best to conform to a frequently confusing, ever-changing set of procedures. We asked some former TSA officers about their experiences, and here’s what they had to say about life in blue gloves.  

1. CATS ARE THE REAL TERRORISTS.

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According to Jason Harrington, who spent six years at O’Hare Airport as a Transportation Security Officer (TSO), rogue felines have created more havoc and confusion than any suspected criminal. “Cats are a nightmare,” he says. “They don’t want to come out of their carriers, they scratch and claw, and they don’t come when you call them.” A cat that’s made a break for it and who hasn’t been patted down to check for weapons is technically a security breach, which a TSA supervisor could use as justifiable cause to shut down an entire terminal.

Dogs, however, are no problem. “A pat down on a dog amounts to going over and petting them,” Harrington says. “That’s actually pleasant.”

2. THEY HAVE CODE WORDS FOR ATTRACTIVE (AND ANNOYING) PASSENGERS.

Because TSOs are usually in close proximity to passengers, some checkpoints develop a vocabulary of code words that allows them to speak freely without offending anyone. “Code talk for attractive females was the most common,” Harrington says. An employee might say “hotel papa” to alert others to an appealing traveler heading their way—the “h” is for “hot.” Others might assign a code number, like 39, and call it out. Harrington was also informed by a supervisor that he could signal for a prolonged screening for an annoying passenger if Harrington told him that the traveler was “very nice.”  

3. FANCY HAIRDOS ARE A SECURITY RISK.

Any passenger coming through with an elaborate hairdo—either carefully braided hair or the kind of up-do found on women headed for a wedding—means additional inspection will be required, because piled-up hair can conceivably conceal a weapon.

“Just about anything can set off an anomaly in the head area, from braids to a scrunchie to a barrette to a bad hair day,” Harrington says. “And those body scanners are especially fussy when it comes to the head, giving false positives there more than any other area.”

4. THEY LIKE YOU BETTER WHEN YOU’RE EXHAUSTED.

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“Tina”—a former TSO in the northeast who prefers not to use her real name—says that travelers taking evening flights are typically more cooperative than morning passengers. “People are actually much nastier when they’re flying out in the morning,” she says. “The really late-night travelers are the best ones to be around.” (Also on Tina’s naughty list: business travelers. “They’re generally meaner.”)

5. THEY SOMETIMES LIE ABOUT WHERE THEY WORK.

Because public criticism of the TSA is so pervasive, Harrington has found that many employees stretch the truth about where they work when asked. “If I had to admit it, I’d say I was working for the Department of Homeland Security,” he says. “When I made mention of that on Facebook, I got a ton of officers who said they did the same thing.”

6. CHEESE CAN LOOK JUST LIKE A BOMB.

That giant wheel of cheese you’re bringing back from the holidays? It’s going to cause a lot of agitation among employees monitoring the x-ray machine. “A block of cheese is indistinguishable from C4,” Harrington says. “There is no difference on the screen. Meats, too. All organic products look orange on the display and similar to explosives.”

7. YOUR GENDER CAN CONFUSE THEM.

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When a passenger enters a full-body scanner, the device operator hits a button to tell the unit whether it’s a he or she. It makes a difference, since a female passenger’s anatomy would raise a red flag when the machine expects to see male-only parts, and vice versa. If a person's gender isn’t easily ascertained on sight and a TSO guesses, a pair of breasts could initiate a delay. “The machines detect things under clothes, and if it doesn’t match what’s been pressed, it means a pat down,” Harrington says.

8. THEY DON’T DO THE SAME THING ALL DAY.

TSOs typically get assigned to different stations (ticket taker, x-ray operator, shouting-at-you-to-take-your-shoes-off officer) at the security checkpoint, and never for very long: 30 minutes is typically the limit before a new officer is brought in. According to Tina, the revolving schedule is to avoid employee error. “After 30 minutes, you may begin to miss things,” she says.

9. OPTING OUT GETS THEM ANNOYED.

Harrington’s security checkpoint had a code word for passengers who “opted out,” or refused to submit to the full-body scanners—they were “tulips,” and they proved to be an annoyance.

“It slows down the whole operation and a lot of guys would hate it,” he says. “Now that it’s millimeter [radio] waves and people still opt out, they get annoyed, thinking the passenger doesn’t even know what they’re opting out of.” 

10. THEY’RE WRITING ON YOUR TICKET FOR TWO REASONS.

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Policies can vary by airport, but generally, security officers sitting up front and checking tickets are looking for irregularities in your identification: If something causes them to be suspicious, they’ll write something on your ticket that would prompt a more thorough inspection. “They’ll also write their badge number and initials,” Tina says, “so the airline knows they’ve been through security when they board.”

11. “CREDIBLE THREATS” STRESS THEM OUT.

According to Tina, turnover rates for TSOs can be high, and that’s due in large part to the perpetual stress of preparing for a hazardous situation. “In 10 months’ time, we went through active shooter training three times,” she says. “Another time, we were told there was a credible threat against the airport and not to wear our uniforms to or from work.” 

 12. THEY HATE WHEN YOU ASK THEM TO CHANGE GLOVES.

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“The most common complaint [from TSOs] is when passengers ask them to change their gloves before a pat down,” Harrington says,” because we change them all the time. We might have changed them just before getting to someone and passengers will still insist they use new ones in front of their face.”

13. IT’S REALLY HARD TO GET FIRED.

TSOs undergo regular training and performance reviews where they're expected to simulate a screening in a private room for supervisors. After two years, the probationary period is over, and employees are generally set. “They’d call it being a ‘made’ man or woman,” Harrington says, referring to the mafia term for acceptance. “It’s really hard to get fired at that point. The only way to lose your job would be to commit a crime.”

14. THEY DON’T GET AIRPORT PERKS.

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As federal employees, TSOs don’t enjoy any perks from airlines: Accepting a gift could be cause for termination, according to Tina. “But there’s a loophole,” she says. “If you’re friends with a pilot or have a personal relationship with an airline employee, you can accept it.”

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March 11, 2016 - 11:11am
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