Put off by pat downs at PDX? Fine, but don't take it out on TSA screeners

Anna Griffin, The Oregonian By Anna Griffin, The Oregonian

Nobody loves the idea of having a stranger pat them down or rifle through their stuff.

But if you're traveling this holiday season, how about giving the Transportation Security Administration screeners a break? They're not responsible for the new rules requiring people who set off airport metal detectors to be patted down. And though it's easy to forget almost a decade after 9/11, their jobs involve more than just slowing you down as you head to Grandma's house.

"You know you're not a terrorist," said Kelly Sheahan, one of six veteran TSA officers who sat down with me this week to discuss public reaction to new security standards that include pat downs and full-body scanners. "But the people we are looking for do not operate on the honor system."

You'd be surprised how many travelers forget that, how many try to bring flammable liquids and knives onto airplanes.

Several times a month, screeners look up at the X-ray monitor to see a gun -- often loaded -- tucked inside a carry on. True story: Not long ago, an X-ray scan showed a handgun in a woman's purse. She had time to run back the garage and leave the gun in her trunk. But when she went back through security, she was still carrying the bullets in her bag.

"People just don't think," said officer Mike Gamelgaard. "The joke is that when you go through the revolving doors, you leave your brain on the other side."

New fees for checked baggage mean more money for airlines, but they add to security delays. More people are trying to stuff everything they own -- or everything they need for a weekend away -- into something stowable. An X-ray machine can make everyday items seem sinister; the outline of a water bottle packed on top of an iPod and a 9-volt battery can, for example, resemble a homemade bomb.

"We have to be sure, because it's a conscious thought when you put the uniform on," said officer Mona Andrews. "Not today. Not on my shift. Not in my airport."

The TSA employs 519 people at PDX. The starting salary for screeners is $34,670, not that much when you consider both the potential consequences of failure and the daily grind: Keeping us safe includes touching our junk and taking our guff. Neither is fun.

And let's be honest: Many travelers expect to be able to arrive at the airport an hour before their flight, zip through security and leave precisely when the airline said they would. People can be thoughtless.

"I've had folks ask, 'Is there a special line for late people?'" said officer James Drew.

Folks also can be rude. Every officer has heard some version of the same rant: This is stupid. You're a fascist. Even off-duty, free from the dark blue tops and gold badges, they brace themselves when new acquaintances ask where they work.

"There is a certain apprehension and maybe misunderstanding about what we do," said Pualani Cardines, who trains officers. "Anyone who feels like they've had a bad experience, or maybe just read about someone else's bad experience, walks in braced for the worst."

There are bad apples and horror stories: The agents in Charlotte who made a flight attendant remove her prosthetic breast. The Detroit screener who did not give a bladder cancer patient time to explain that he was wearing a urostomy bag, and wound up dousing the man with his own urine. Those are exceptions.

The best thing we can all do is work together. Pack smarter. Arrive earlier. If you don't like the new policies, call your congressman and leave the screeners alone. You want to get to your destination as fast as possible. They want to ensure you also arrive in one piece.
- Anna Griffin

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