Officials with the New York-based Sikh Coalition released the results Friday of an April study reporting that of all the complaints the group received about Transportation Security Administration screening policy from Sikhs nationwide, more than a third came out of SFO.
"I think that SFO has distinguished itself as the only airport in the United States that consistently pulls aside members of our community for secondary screening," Sikh Coalition Executive Director Amardeep Singh said Friday.
The Bay Area is home to the one of the largest Sikh populations in the country, and Singh said he believes there is "a misapplication of TSA policy by the leadership of federal security at SFO."
The TSA implemented new security guidelines in 2007 allowing airport screeners to subject travelers with "bulky" head coverings to secondary screening procedures, such as pat-down searches of the head covering, trace or "puffer" machines, or private screening areas where the head coverings can be removed.
According to Singh—who said he himself has been pulled aside for secondary screening at SFO, but not at other U.S. airports—security officials at SFO may be misinterpreting Sikh turbans as mandatory "bulky" headwear requiring secondary screening.
Singh said Sikh turbans, a central outward symbol of the faith, "come in all shapes and sizes" and do not necessarily fit that description.
Observant Sikhs do not remove their turbans in public, even while moving through airport security, according to Singh. Tying them up can take several minutes, he added.
"It's not like a baseball cap that you can take on and off in a few seconds," he said.
TSA spokesman Nico Melendez said Friday that security screeners at SFO are not required to do secondary screening on Sikh travelers wearing head coverings.
"They have the authority to do that, but they're not being told to do that," Melendez said.
Melendez said he was unaware of reports of higher instances of secondary screenings of Sikhs at SFO, and contended the Sikh community is not being targeted by airport security.
"We've done considerable work with the Sikh community over the last several months, throughout the country, to assure that their needs are addressed and that we are able to provide a consistent level of security," said Melendez.
Singh acknowledged that the Sikh community has had fruitful discussions with TSA officials in developing security policies, and he was careful to stress that he didn't think Sikhs were being targeted at SFO because of their religion.
However, Singh said, even if Sikhs are not being intentionally profiled at SFO, "At the end of the day," he said, "it's effectively the same."