Journalism in the Public Interest

TSA Reveals Passenger Complaints … Four Years Later

It took the Transportation Security Administration nearly four years to respond to our public records request for passenger complaints against the agency.

Transportation Security Administration agents screen passengers at Los Angeles International Airport on May 2, 2011, in Los Angeles, Calif. (Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

From intrusive pat-downs to body scans to perceived profiling, the Transportation Security Administration always seems to be the target of complaints.

Here's another one: It took the TSA almost four years to tell me what people complained about — in 2008.

In my first week at ProPublica in June 2008, I filed a public records request for the agency's complaint files. Such records can provide good fodder for investigations.

For example, amid the brouhaha over the agency's introduction of intensive full-body pat-downs in 2004, I requested complaints and discovered an untold story of the pain and humiliation suffered by rape victims and breast cancer survivors. In one incident that I found from that request — while I was a reporter at the Dallas Morning News — a woman complained that a screener asked her to remove her prosthetic breast to be swabbed for explosives.

When I made a similar FOIA request in 2008, I assumed the TSA would respond in a few months. Government agencies have about a month to respond to public record requests, though they often take longer. I figured even if their response took months, I'd be able to repeat it regularly to get a timely, inside look as to what passengers were complaining about and find out about incidents that required some more digging.

Boy, was I wrong.

After waiting and waiting and narrowing my request and some more waiting, the files finally arrived this week.

The information is now four years old — but it echoes much of what people are still complaining about.

For instance, an elderly woman in a wheelchair was asked to walk through security and fell at Orlando International Airport.

In another case, someone expressed concerns about a lethal plastic knife that can reportedly pass through metal detectors. (This was two years before the TSA widely deployed body scanners, which can detect plastic.)

In another complaint, a man flying to Cancun demanded an investigation after finding that the bottle of Jack Daniels he packed in his luggage was empty by the time he arrived.

Rather than let the files gather dust at the bottom of my desk drawer, I'm posting them for your perusal.

Why did the files take so long to release? Various FOIA officers over the years blamed the delay on the agency's backlog and on the volume of the records that had to be reviewed. It turned out to be 87 pages.

When I reached out again today to the TSA, spokeswoman Lorie Dankers provided a statement pointing out that the agency has received an average of more than 800 requests annually over the past four years. Then the TSA apologized.

"TSA should have responded to ProPublica's request sooner," the statement said. "TSA currently is working on 12 requests that are more than three years old. The agency is working diligently to finalize and respond to these requests."

I just filed my request for the 2012 complaints.

Hopefully, we won't have to wait until 2016 to see those.

Lisa Simeone

May 4, 2012, 8:28 a.m.

Michael Grabell, thank you. You are a hero for staying on this. While the United Sheeple of America just bleat and keep their snouts stuffed into the grass, thank god there are some of us out here ringing alarm bells.

Nina van der Roos

May 4, 2012, 9:04 a.m.

Two years ago my wife and I won a Disney Florida holiday for our family but we ended up giving the holiday away because of the prospect of our handling by America’s TSA. My wife is a rape survivor, and also has a number of metal plates, bolts and scrws in her pelvis, face and hands as a result of the extensive trauma she suffered. She would set any metal scanner off and raise numerous alerts on any of theose seriously flawed back-scatter machines. Given how the TSA were treating its own citizens who had anything out of the ordinary about them I was not about tempt fate putting Judith through such unecessarily intrusive measures. I was certainy not going to tolerate her sexual assualt at the hands of what for the most part appears to be little more than hired thuggery. I know we are not the only family no longer considering the USA as a travel destination which begs another question for the USA, aside from the fantastic cost of those useless “security” measures what is the cost in lost visitor earnings. The TSA is little more than costly theatre, both in terms of $$ and civil liberties.
Regards from,

Well, the TSA is what you get when you say, “someone has to do something about this.”  It’s…something.

The last flight I bothered with, I was pulled out for screening on a basically empty flight with an overnight bag.  After going through what amounted to dirty underwear and a hairbrush, I asked what triggered the search so that I could, y’know, avoid wasting everybody’s time on future flights.

The answer was, “damned if I know.”

That was after the audits stopped.  You know, the audits that showed that the TSA could only detect (on announced tests) a fake bomb somewhere around one in four times.  The solution to those dismal numbers was to stop testing.

That was also before it was revealed that TSA agents on the west coast (at least) are (at least) occasionally bribed to let piles of drugs through the screening.

Of course, the whole thing is a sham, like Nina says.  We solved the problem of terrorists by locking the cockpit.  If you can’t use a plane as a weapon, there’s no reason to bring weapons, if you’re a terrorist.  There are far easier, scarier places to kill more people that we don’t secure nearly as well (schools and malls come immediately to mind, in terms of terror).

(The other good solutions are metal detectors, for obvious reasons.  I’d also include “explosives sniffers” at the entrances.  If they get triggered, lock down that entrance and call the cops, plain and simple, and with much less economic or political cost.)

And the TSA knows that, which is why they don’t bother to do background checks on their agents.

Don’t get me wrong.  I know there are people in the TSA that are good-natured and trying to do their best for the country.  I’m not knocking them.  I am, however, begging them to find another job where they’re doing less harm than good.

There are federal regulations that specify governments required response time for FOIA request.  What are the penalties for not complying if any?  Shouldn’t the head of the agency be held accountable for employees not complying with the law?

Jeremy Thompson

May 4, 2012, 9:41 a.m.

Thank you, Mr. Grabell, for staying on top of this. TSA’s refusal to work with the American people is obvious in so many ways. I’ve never seen a group of so many people working in concert against Americans, as the TSA does every day, in all of my life. It’s shameful.

Diane E Schenker

May 4, 2012, 12:09 p.m.

Thank you for your tenacity.  As a mere member of the public, I requested similar information from the TSA last year and never got a response at all.  When the TSA proudly rolled out the new full body scanners at Anchorage’s airport last December, Ms. Dankers was on hand to tout how much they would improve efficiency by reducing the number of “pat-downs” (intrusive body searches).  She claimed this with a voice of certainty, as if it were based on actual facts, but TSA has refused to provide any statistics as to how many false alarms are triggered by the machines.  (I thought she was a local employee but figures that the agency with the $8 billion budget wouldn’t think twice about flying her up here to read us a page of propaganda.) 
As a co-director of Alaskans Freedom to Travel USA, I protest the TSA weekly at the Anchorage airport.  Each week I hear stories about travelers being subjected to the invasive body searches AFTER going through the full body scanners. Some examples of the ‘reasons’ for the body searches after scanning include:  a thick head of hair sets of the scanner; a hair band sets it off; a plastic comb sets it off; a fold of material sets it off; some people have areas of ‘thick skin’ or “tissue” that set it off…  Of couse, we all know that people with medical devices, prosthetics, or other health-related issues are frequently, if not ALWAYS subjected to the body search. Oh, and even if you go through the scanner and do NOT set it off, you still get groped if you are wearing a dress! If you look Middle Eastern, you may be singled out 100% of the time.  Your odds of this treatment seem to increase the darker your skin, according to travelers with this experience.  I have talked to more than one couple who travel together frequently, one light-skinned and the other darker, who report that the darker skinned person is singled out for extra searches EVERY TIME (not due to anything detected by the scanner), while the lighter skinned person is never selected. What are the odds?  Another unexplained coincidence is the frequency with which women with larger breasts are required to submit to the body searches, according to numerous men whose wives or girlfriends have been the subjects of such searches.  I look forward to reviewing the data that TSA has finally released to see how it compares to the anecdotal reports I’ve heard.  However, I am skeptical that the TSA will release all the information it has, and I also know that I and many others would never waste time complaining to the TSA about itself.  I hope everyone realizes that the complaints to the TSA are only a portion of the complaints and violations that occur.

Jesse Cole MD

May 4, 2012, 12:28 p.m.

If you like how the government handles TSA complaints, just wait until it takes over healthcare.

Diane E. Schenker, the false-positive rate on the MMW (millimeter-wave) scanners is 54% (as Pro Publica itself has reported).

The machines alarm on pleats, on inseams, on sweat.

The scanners are a billion-dollar boondoggle for the so-called security industry. And every corporation in that industry is glad-handing members of Congress.

Cui bono, indeed.

thomas jefferson

May 4, 2012, 12:51 p.m.

can we Please ABOLISH the TSA Already!!!! This Unconstitutional “Brown Shirt” Agency and their boss Jan the man Napalitano need to be Dismantled at once!

I agree with thomas jefferson’s comment.  Abolish the TSA.  It’s a waste and a frightful incursion on our liberty.  Privatize security.  Support Rand Paul’s legislative movement to end the tyranny of the TSA asap.

shane algarin

May 4, 2012, 1:17 p.m.

What gives? Lock the cockpit, problem solved! I’m not one to bash government, but this is one agency we could do without!

Langhorne Clemens

May 4, 2012, 1:22 p.m.

More failure from the TSA, although their apology here is extremely rare. Excellent article, it warms my heart to see people out doing something about these abuses of our rights. Thanks for posting the complaints online, nice move.

Last time I flew, Some of the TSA were rude and suspicious. Others were suspicious and rude.

Recently I went through a body scanner and was told that I had to hold my money (cash) in my hand and my wallet through the x-ray machine. When I asked when this became effective I was told it had always been in effect.I told them that 2 weeks ago in Philidelphia it had not been required. TSA told me I was wrong it was always been required.

Every TSA site is different. At each site everyone is treated differently and tested differently. There is no continuity in testing or employee skills.

I was once tested by an Indian employee who said in a very heavily accented voice “Ivanavandyouooa”. I did not understand and was threatened with a semi-automatic sidearm. A supervisor came over and asked why I was refusing to cooperate. I told me him I was not refusing but that I did not understand.

He asked the employee to repeat the statement and asked what was wrong. I said that is not English and I could not tell what he wanted. He said he wants to wand you, can’t you speak English? I replied can’t he speak English, Ivanavandyouooa, is not an English word. At which point I was shoved out of line and glared at by the supervisor. I suggested that they hire American citizens who could speak English. I was called a trouble maker by the supervisor.

I actually told him that the next time they change a noun into a verb and translate it into a foreign language they should issue public notices. I hate bullies.

We are safer the more our balls are fondled and our belongings stolen.

william baber

May 4, 2012, 1:43 p.m.

Going through LAX a few months ago, my wife was the subject of a patdown after refusing the xray machine. The young TSA kids, fat and mouthy and HORNY yelled ” I SAW HER FIRST”. They insisted (3 punks) she go through the xray machine. She refused. They were rejected and asked her why. It gives you cancer, I stated. You guys stand next to this machine ALL DAY getting xrayed. Do you think an xray tech would stand next to this machine and give you an xray? Do you notice they go behind a door? They then started fighting amongst themselves and my wife continued through to the rape and patdown area. If she was not hot looking but fat and ugly, they would not have perverted over her..LOSERS.

James Watson

May 4, 2012, 1:46 p.m.

The expansion of the TSA under Obama has been nothing but a boondoggle for the taxpayers.

By expanding this federal agency it only puts more dues into the pockets of the SEIU, the organization that represents TSA works - and who are actively campaigning to re-elect Obama.

Look what we’re having to suffer at the hands of men who couldn’t care a whit for our actual security!

TSA are criminal terrorists

May 4, 2012, 1:48 p.m.

I think it would be a good idea for everybody to contact their local rep and DEMAND that the TSA be broken up an their ENTIRE BUDGET be dispersed to our county sheriff’s departments and the responsibility for security be given to them. At least our sheriff deputies are trained in security, EDUCATED IN CIVIL RIGHTS, and are directly accountable to the communities they serve.

You can’t expect corrupt criminals to provide security, that’s ridiculous. Senator Rand Paul has a bill in motion to do this, call your rep and tell them to support it!

I N F O W A R S (dot) C O M

If airplanes are THIS sensitive, they shouldn’t be flying ! It sounds like more political cr@p to me !

Thank you TSA for ruining the flying experience. I have not since 2003 flown, anywhere, nor will I in the future..Airline experience is bad enough!!

So, they need 3 years to work on 12 FOIA requests?  Right.  Rand Paul wants to disband the TSA.  I support him.  Get rid of this agency!

gerald bakes

May 4, 2012, 2:40 p.m.

Re: Rand Paul End the TSA Bill
by DeusTrismegistus on Wed May 02, 2012 8:08 am

Above site has the petition for supporting Rand Paul’s end the TSA bill.

Don’t want to be abused?  Stop flying.

This is what Bruce Schneer called Security Theater. This is all for show and does nothing for security…..just like the SS admin can do nothing if someone steals your SS number (lifelock forget it they were sued by the FTC).

The TSA doesnt screen commerical packages that go on regular airlines…..

El AL gives everyone a background check and they rely on smart screeners who continually ask questions and challenge a prospective passenger which works much better!

The congress trys to pass CISPA… these are moron lawyers who know absolutely nothing except along with the patriot act and S.1867 only interefere with americans privacy rights. Instead the post office is a conduit for fraud and terrorism ...they dont require anything more than a credit card online if you want to forward someones mail…that they wont deal with.  This is all about money and if at airports US airlines did the screening EL AL did they think it would cost more than dead passengers? Or if people had to go into a post office to forward mail would criminals and terrorists do so if they had to come in person?

In any case the federal government is a joke security wise. They try to monitor all our phonecalls faxes email yet couldnt find a terrorist if they tried but they are very good at violating our privacy and the constitution. I blame the morons in this country who keep voting for republicans who keep pushing this legislation through ie CISPA and wont do anything to really enhance our security.

And they now have special fast lanes for the 1% to assure we know who matters and is trusted not to be criminal. ha ha

Uncontrolled search and seizure is one of the first and most effective weapons in the arsenal of every arbitrary government. Among deprivations of rights, none is so effective in cowing a population, crushing the spirit of the individual and putting terror in every heart.

Justice Robert Jackson, chief U.S. prosecutor at the Nuremberg Trials

I will not subject myself nor my family to needless radiation exposure nor TSA molestation. My family and I will not be flying until the TSA changes these procedures.

Roger Johnson

May 4, 2012, 3:05 p.m.

It’s a good place, clearly, to hire the incompetent and unhirable.  Where else would TSA employees find a job?

Seriously- JUST STOP FLYING if everyone emptied out the airports for just a few weeks- all of this insanity would end. The people do have the power!! Just refuse to fly- boycott the airports!

At O’Hare, I saw a young man wearing shorts undergoing a pat down. He was then asked to sit down and the TSA agent actually wanded his bare legs and feet! And, guess what… his legs and feet passed inspection

“For example, amid the brouhaha over the agency’s introduction of intensive full-body pat-downs in 2004, I requested complaints and discovered an untold story of the pain and humiliation suffered by rape victims and breast cancer survivors.”

THANK YOU.  Someone finally addressed what rape victims go through to have a complete stranger molest them and scan/nuke them nude in RapidScan, or what I refer to as Rape-a-scan. 

Don’t tell me that with all the technology we have today that they can’t do a security check, criminal background, and InterPol check, clear you and imbed a security clearance alert on your Passport.  Like the magnetic strip on your credit card. 

But no.  Someone is making a fortune on these rape-a-scan systems and they don’t even work. 

I don’t have so much as a parking ticket, a late library book or a warning from my HOA that I planted the wrong color flowers.  I have paid every dime of my taxes for years.  I’m so boring….. I make my own self want to yawn.  And I’m treated like a terrorist because I want to fly. 

And DO NOT come on here and tell me not to fly, cause I’m flying &%$#@.

So slide open the door on Rape-a-scan, nuke me, feel me up and wand my crotch. 

I didn’t survive and rise from the ashes just to have my love of traveling stolen from me too. 

And that my friends is SURVIVING!!!

Last year our daughter bought us tickets to fly to England (her treat). We were to met her in London and travel through the British Isles for 10 days. I told her to sell the tickets. I REFUSE to fly until this TSA nonsense stops. Nobody is going to do any patting down on this woman except my husband.

“Where else would TSA employees find a job?”

The same places other college graduates, retired military and retired police officers seek employment? Yes, the TSA have these type of people working for them as passenger screeners.

I met a screener who was a retired U.S. Army major who was attending pharmacology school. I know a guy who is a retired cop with three college degrees and a retired Vietnam combat sergeant with the U.S. Army 1st ID.

Yep, real pair of incompetents. Broad brush much?

Well, I filed a complaint bc the tsp worker shoved a very valuable pair of shoes in my bag after I repeatedly asked her to be gentle. She started screaming at me, got physical and I fell down. I filed a compliant, but have yet to receive ANYTHING from them. It’s bullshit. Just a long string of automated prints and robots. Fucking useless people

All pervs and pedophiles. Look no further. TSA is hiring.

The New York Times has a front page article on the how the decrease in domestic flyers is resulting in airlines cutting services to small towns and the decrease in traffic for short flights.  The NYT contemplates all the various possible reasons for the decrease .. focusing on oil prices, airline service, etc.  They completely ignore the elephant in the room:  people avoiding the TSA (especially for short flights where they have alternatives).  If our family has cut our air travel by at least 50% .. how many others are doing the same.  And this does not get a mention?

In 2009 they trashed my clothes in my suitcase and stole my contact lenses. The contacts were in a sealed box in sealed containers. Cost me $100 to replace them. I complained - have never heard a word from them. I’m flying again soon but this time I’m shipping my clothes via UPS or FedEx to my destination ahead of time.

oh, and the silliest theory proposed by the NYT: the circular argument that the reason the airlines are cutting flights is because not enough people use them - and of course implying that the ‘big airlines’ should service them anyway .. perhaps should be forced to do so .. rather than implicating the policies of ‘big government’ in any way.

About the punks who touched william babers wife, only females touch females. I always thought punks were guys. Also rykk. Please provide a picture of a TSA agent with a semi automatic side arm. Never happened! And lady you can have a helmet in your butt and a rape a scan [as somone else called it] would never see it. Folks, tell the truth. Look at the picture when you go thru. Its right there LOOK> Its an outline like on a bathroom door.

Leisha Pottinger

May 4, 2012, 5:12 p.m.

Nosy TSA searched my checked bag & didn’t bother to replace the shampoo lid.  It leaked all over everything, ruined brand new luggage and turned important receipts & other papers into mush.  Using a “silent” email address, I sent a message to the email address on the brochure TSA put in the luggage.  Within 2 days my email was spammed with mountains of porn.  Never got a reply from a real person, though.

Thanks for posting this information - the ‘airport’ freedoms we lost at the airport because of 9/11 are most disheartening to me.  I remember the day we went to the airport window to wave good by to a loved one sitting in their seat on the air plane - now long lines, and frustrating TSA people shouting (yes I mean SHOUTING) - ‘look people, your carry on bag [with liquids] can only be the size of a quart bag’...this went on and on being repeated until we passed thru the line…I mean really… don’t shout, and address people with a degree of dignity.

Shortly after the TSA started I was selected for secondary screening at the gate.  They had me take everything out of my pockets including my wallet that had my cash and all my receipts from the trip.  The two agents grabbed my wallet and started going through it.  I moved to where I could see what they were doing, and was screamed at and told that if I did not go back to where I had been standing when I emptied my pockets I was going to jail.  Not wanting to miss the flight, I complied but sent a letter of complaint to the TSA the next day.  I never heard from them, no apology, not response of any kind.

TSA has lied repeatedly about the level of complaints. They claimed a record last September even as opposition to the agency continued to grow. They routinely say that no complaint forms are available at the checkpoint or harass anyone who requests one.

Now that Sikh Coalition has a phone app, Fly Right, that allows transfer of TSA complaints and will track them TSA suddenly wants to hear complaints from passengers.

Maybe they should try reading the news. I’m certain Pistole will get an earful from Rand Paul and others in the next oversight hearing.

The TSA is nothing more than the Obama version of the brown shirted Gestapo for Obama to use to terrorize the public into submission.  Why else would they now be seizing property at yard sales?

The trouble with the US model is: we’re looking for bombs. In the rest of the world: they’re looking for terrorists.

A knee-jerk “agency” of incompetents, run by a fat dyke.  Nuff said!

Lisa Simeone

May 4, 2012, 6:39 p.m.

I’m posting a link here; hope it’s okay to post links. Many of us who’ve been researching and writing about this agency for years have answered all the objections that naysayers and TSA apologists throw at us, multiple times:

Glen DeGelnor

May 4, 2012, 6:58 p.m.

It’s getting so that goverment employees are snubing noses at people’s complaints. I mean, who in the hell is going to get on them? They can ignore the president,supreme court and so on. Even the CIA and FBI can ignore the above. I read where Andrew Jacskson ignored the supreme court regarding ‘‘the trail of tears’’ He said ‘‘The supreme court made the law. Now let them try and enforce it’‘.

Jim seymouri

May 4, 2012, 6:59 p.m.

I wonder if they have gotten any more efficient. At about fhat time i was in a TSA line (having allowed PLENTY of time) so unbelievably long that i missed my flightl.  Caused a day delay. They made no attempt to prioritize immediate departers. Told me i should have come even earlier but I had taken the earliest a.m. transportation available!

Michael Zimmerman

May 4, 2012, 7:13 p.m.

I’m glad to see people here are still fighting the fight. I complained and complained until I just….stopped… flying.


The result:  109 flights in 2009 (and about that each year up until then)....down to just 2—yes, TWO, count ‘em—flights in 2011… and only two so far this year (knock on wood).

TSA - talk in spanish americano.

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