Wednesday, June 02, 2004

Those shoes are comin' off

While on my recent trip to Dallas for a friend's wedding my SO and I had the pleasure of being screened by TSA employees twice. My SO owns a pair of black John Deere work boots that look like they could have a steel toe or metal shank in them, but they don't. The boots have gone through metal detectors without setting off alarms at least three times, and my SO has never set off the alarm while wearing the boots. Even though my SO informs screeners of this, the screeners usually insist that the boots be removed before going through the metal detector. This has always riled up our blood, since the TSA says that removing shoes is optional but the screeners never put it that way.

While getting screened in Las Vegas this weekend my SO was, once again, asked to remove the boots. When my SO politely responded that the boots are able to make it through the metal detector just fine, the security agent said forcefully, "Those shoes are comin' off." The boots came off, and we went on our flight without problem. We did both decide, however, that it would be fascinating to test what would happen if we didn't remove our shoes. In case you're curious, the reason my SO and I wear boots on flights is so that they don't take up half the volume of our suitcase, instead choosing to pack our much smaller biologist-issue Birkenstocks.

Two days later in the Dallas airport we had an opportunity to run our test. My SO, still wearing the same boots, moved quickly through the screening point and was not asked to remove the boots. No alarms went off and my SO exited the security area wearing the boots without problem. My boots, however, caught the screener's attention. My boots are well-worn brown leather Timberland hiking boots that usually don't attract the attention of screeners; their sole is a bit thicker than normal tennis shoes, but nobody would ever confuse them with heavy steel-toed work boots.

What follows is the entire exchange at the security station. To give some background, before approaching the screening station I took all items out of my pockets and put them into my backpack. The screener asked the person in front of me to remove his belt, and upon seeing this I also removed my belt, in front of the screener, and put it into a basket to be X-rayed. The interaction starts as I remove my belt.

SECURITY 1: "We suggest that you take off your shoes, sir."
SECURITY 1: "They'll set off the detector."
RADAGAST (politely): "They don't set off the metal detector when I have no other metal on me."
I observe that the metal detector is not blocked, so I turn and slowly walk through it.
Security 2, who was watching the earlier exchange, moves into my path about a foot after I've gone through the metal detector and points to a roped off area just past the metal detector, which a friend aptly named the "penalty box." Security 2 says nothing at first, only speaking after observing that I understood his clear and concise directions and have started moving towards the penalty box.
SECURITY 2: "Stay there."
Security 2 walks to the end of the baggage screening ramp (about 10 feet away).
SECURITY 2: "Which are your bags?"
RADAGAST: "The backpack, and the brown belt."
Security 2 grabs the backpack, and holds up a belt.
SECURITY 2: "This the belt?"
RADAGAST (never having realized how difficult it is to identify a belt from 10 feet away): "Uhh."
SECURITY 2: "There's a lot of belts." (Well, duh. Guess that happens when you ask people to remove them.)
Security 2 makes no attempt to bring the belt closer, but does hold up another belt which looks vaguely like mine.
RADAGAST: "Yeah, that's it."
Security 2 moves my bag and belt to another table, then walks back next to me.
SECURITY 2: "Wait here."
Security 2 and I wait in the penalty box for about a minute while the two people who were screened in front of me finish assembling themselves.
RADAGAST: "Did I set off the metal detector?"
I was going to follow up, but at that time a third security agent approached from the screening area.
SECURITY 3: "Sit in that chair."
I sit, smiling with the knowledge that this entire exchange will be going on my blog within 24 hours of my return (OK, so it ended up being 48 hours).
SECURITY 3: "Raise a foot."
I raise a foot, after deciding that jumping about 1/3 of a meter into the air is probably not what Security 3 desires. Security 3 proceeds to wave his metal-detecting wand at my shoe.
METAL-DETECTING WAND, when placed near shoe: "Beep."
SECURITY 3: "Remove your shoes."
I remove my shoes, taking no pains to hurry. Security 3 takes my shoes and puts them in a basket for the X-ray machine, after which he returns to my chair.
SECURITY 3: "Please raise a foot."
I lift a foot and watch as Security 3 proceeds to wand the entire foot, then lift my other foot as Security 3 wands that foot as well.
SECURITY 3: "Please stand up. Face your bag."
I do so.
SECURITY 3: "Hold your arms out."
Security 3 proceeds to wand me on all sides, starting at the head and traveling down my right side. He then proceeds to feel me up with the wand between my legs, and continues wanding my left side. Once finished with my side, he asks me to turn and wands my back and then my front.
METAL-DETECTING WAND, when placed over my non-belted waist: "Beep"
RADAGAST: "That's odd." (Especially odd since I have no metal there other than a small zipper, and the detector wasn't going off over the zipper. I decide that I must have an alien implant in my abdomen.)
Security 3 takes the opportunity to feel me up once again, this time fingering my abdomen. Apparently he doesn't find the alien probe and stops his search.
RADAGAST (while being felt-up): "Why was I searched?"
SECURITY 3: "You set off the alarm."
RADAGAST: "I did not."
SECURITY 3: "For security reasons we cannot discuss passenger screening protocols."
I continue politely looking at Security 3, making sure the silence at the end of Security 3's last statement is as awkward as possible.
SECURITY 3: "But, in reality, we weren't wanding anyone and you were the next one in line."
Finding that the screening is over I assemble myself with as little haste as possible and then leave the screening area. I proceed to find a seat and jot down notes on the back of the paper boarding pass holder for the next 10 minutes.

While the sample size is obviously low (n=1), it seems likely that the only reason for my supplemental screening was that I defied an "optional" request of the screeners. The explanations I was given for the additional screening were both bogus: I know for a fact that I didn't set off the alarm, and considering that I had to wait for two other people to complete their wanding before I was wanded, it seems relatively obvious that I wasn't picked solely because the screeners were bored. There was no indication on my boarding pass that I was to be screened more carefully, and security agents 1, 2, and 3 never saw my boarding pass or communicated with the boarding pass screener in any way that I saw. Certainly this could have been a "random" check, but I'll never know if that was the case or not.

The TSA "shoe screening policy" makes it clear that removing shoes is optional:

"Passengers are not required to take off their shoes before going through metal detectors. However, if your shoes set off the metal detector, you will undergo secondary screening until the screener can locate the source of the alarm. If you know your shoes contain metal, you may voluntarily take them off, place them in a bin, and allow them to be x-rayed."
My SO has been ordered numerous times to remove boots, a friend on another flight to Dallas from Vegas over the weekend was told that if he set off the alarm after refusing to remove his sneakers he wouldn't be allowed to fly (he removed his shoes), and when I refused to remove my shoes during this screening I was immediately selected for "secondary screening", which included shoe removal. The TSA claims that shoe removal is voluntary, but they clearly have the power to arbitrarily select individual people and force them to go through additional screening, including taking their shoes off, even if they have not set off the metal detector.

As it is, what we have are policies that are arbitrarily and inconsistently applied by people who have total power over passengers with minimal oversight. People comply with these annoying and demeaning screening procedures without protest out of fear that they'll miss their flight, be screened more thoroughly for acting "suspiciously", be molested by screeners, or even be arrested. This hardly seems like a fair and just security policy.

I could support strict screening procedures if they were effective in preventing weapons from getting onto planes. However, our current screening protocols regularly fail to find the most obvious of the items they're searching for, as detailed in this March 2002 CNN report,

"In hundreds of undercover tests conducted between November and February [2001-2002], security screeners missed 70 percent of knives, 60 percent of simulated explosive devices, and 30 percent of guns. Overall, screeners failed 48 percent of the time."
I will close with the immortal words of PZ Meyers that rang through my head as I was being screened: "I shall splutter about it on a weblog. That'll teach 'em."

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