Ten epic tales of TSA tomfoolery
By George Hobica
Look, we all know that folks at the Transportation Security Administration have a tough job, they're there to protect us, and all that. But they could probably do a better job. Judging from recent events, it seems they think the real threat to national security isn't, say, a shifty businessman scamming his way onto a transcontinental Virgin Atlantic flight using a stolen and expired boarding pass (for the wrong date and flight, no less), as Nigerian national Olajide Oluwaseun Noibi did just a few weeks back (amazingly, law enforcement stopped him but let him go, only to arrest him when he pulled the same stunt on a subsequent flight).
No, the real danger comes from people like Jean Weber's 95 year-old, wheelchair-bound, Depends-wearing mother, who, just a few days before Noibi's joyride, attempted to board a plane from Florida to Michigan to see her family, perhaps for the last time before possibly dying of leukemia.
Agents in New York couldn't be bothered to read the boarding pass of a man that had no business boarding a plane to California, but their counterparts at the Northwest Florida Regional Airport had all the time in the world to ruin the day of a very old, very frail and frightened woman, pulling her aside for 45 minutes of additional screening and forcing her to remove her undergarments.
When it comes to the TSA, one thing's for sure – they sure have no idea how to get the traveling public to like them. Since their creation in 2001, barely a week goes by that we don't hear yet another tale of agency dysfunction – often of the most hilarious kind. Here are ten memorable stories from recent years.
#1 DIPLOMACY IN ACTION Meera Shankar is India's ambassador to the United States. Shankar was invited to Jackson, Mississippi as a guest of Mississippi State University, where she met with Mississippi's Lieutenant Governor and gave a speech. As a souvenir, she took home an unhappy memory. While passing through security on her way out of town, Shankar was pulled aside for a very thorough -- and, despite her requests for privacy -- a very public pat down. Agents told the media afterwards that Shankar was singled out due to the fact that she was wearing a sari. Isn't that what all the terrorists wear? No? A shaken Shankar told her hosts that her first visit was probably going to be her last.
#2 THE CASE OF THE MYSTERIOUS NIPPLE RING When you head for the metal detector, maybe you want to remove your body armor. At least that's what Mandi Hamlin discovered, when she tried to board a plane out of Lubbock, Texas back in 2008. After metal was detected in her chest area, an agent informed her that if she wanted to get on the flight, she'd have to remove whatever was going on underneath her clothing. Which happened, by the way, to be nipple piercings. Hamlin requested a visual check, but the agent refused, instead handing her a pair of pliers. So she could remove the piercings. From her breasts. In the middle of the airport.
#3 WHAT'S IN THE BRA, MA'AM? What is it with the TSA and breasts? Nancy Kates discovered in 2008 that wearing the wrong bra to the airport can cause serious trouble. Being rather, well, gifted in the frontal region, Kates wears a sturdier sort of bra than most, with enough wire in it to set off a metal detector. An agent pulled her aside for one of the TSA's patented special gropings. Like many women who object to being fondled in public by strangers, Kates objected. After a protracted battle with the staff at the checkpoint, she finally agreed to take off her bra for close inspection. She ended up missing her flight.
#4 OH, RIGHT, THAT – OOPS. When they're not digging around in your undies, they're snoozing on the job. TSA guard Ruben Hernandez wandered away from his post at Newark Airport in January 2010, long enough to allow loverboy Haisong Jiang, 28, to sneak through security to allow for some more facetime with his departing girlfriend. The best part? After the TSA realized security had been breached, they waited a whopping 80 minutes to contact the airport police, even though they had no idea who had gone through or why. Subsequently, Newark's Terminal C was shut down for six hours, stranding 16,000 people, causing 100 flights to be delayed and nearly 30 to be cancelled. Not to mention the financial hit to Continental Airlines. Hernandez was put on leave, and Jiang, a graduate student at Rutgers University, received a slap on the wrist.
#5 WONG FLIGHT If you were paying attention, you know that the case of the Nigerian national on the Virgin America flight wasn't a one-off screw-up. Not at all. Back in March, a Maryland man was caught onboard a Delta flight about to depart New York's JFK. How'd he get on? With a stolen boarding pass. The man, Ronald Wong, who reportedly suffers from psychiatric problems, had done this before – six days before his botched attempt to get a free ride out of New York, Wong successfully scammed his way onto a San Francisco-Denver flight, without any ticket at all.
#6 A LITTLE DRINK WON'T KILL YOU Attention, mothers with newborns – pumping a little milk before you travel could end up wasting more time than it saves. Elizabeth McGarry, a New York mom on the go, tried to board a flight from JFK late last year with three bottles of expressed breast milk in her carry-on luggage. To prove that the expressed milk posed no threat to national security, TSA agents insisted that McGarry take sips from all three bottles. "I'm all for random searches," McGarry later told the New York Post, "but I do think the number of Caucasian, lactating mothers who have passed through Al Qaeda training camps is negligible."
#7 THEY'LL NEVER MISS IT The stories of theft from baggage by TSA agents are legion and legend, but the tale of Persad Coumar and Davon Webb, both employed at New York's JFK, is particularly memorable. Coumar and Webb, both TSA agents, were arrested for stealing $40,000 in cash out of a Buenos Aires-bound bag that contained nearly $200,000 in loot. It was the perfect crime, they thought – after all, Coumar told his partner, the money probably belonged to a drug dealer that was never going to report the loss, right? Unfortunately, they couldn't keep their mouths shut, and a colleague ended up turning in the less than savvy twosome.
#8 SHE'S JUST FAKING IT, IGNORE HER All Lona Dunlap wanted was to get the hell out of Pasco, Washington. Unfortunately, she had the audacity to try to pass through security at Pasco's pint-sized airport back in 2008 while wearing a foot brace, which she was wearing not as a fashion statement, but because of a sprained ankle. Going against regulations, Dunlap was not only forced by screeners to remove her brace, she was also required to prove that she needed the thing to walk. And how was she required to prove it? By walking on the sprained ankle. Because, obviously, she was faking the whole thing, and the brace was actually a bomb.
#9 IT'S IN THE BAG. OR WAS. It's not bad enough that 61 year-old Tom Sawyer of Lansing, Michigan got bladder cancer, meaning that forever and always he pees out of a hole in his abdomen and into a bag. It's not bad enough that back last November, a TSA agent at Detroit's airport roughed him up, causing the bag to burst all over his clothes, and Sawyer to board his flight with wet pants. The real stupidity? After a huge amount of media attention that you thought might have caused supervisors at the Detroit airport to train their people how to identify a urostomy bag when they saw one, Sawyer managed to get roughed up again earlier this month by an agent in Detroit, who started squeezing the bag in public, despite Sawyer's protestations.
#10 SPEAKING OF LEAKAGE They can't figure out the difference between a terrorist and a guy with a bag of pee stuck to his stomach, so who was really all that surprised, back in 2009, when someone at the TSA spilled classified secrets on the internet? An agency training manual, marked "NO PART OF THIS RECORD MAY BE DISCLOSED TO PERSONS WITHOUT A NEED TO KNOW," was embarrassingly leaked to, well, a lot of persons without a need to know. Information revealed in the leak included the list of countries that the government considered shady enough that all passport holders would be held for selective screening, such as Lebanon, Cuba and Sudan. Well, unless an old lady in Depends happens to be in line at the same time. Then they can sail right through.