What to do when they yell, “Opt out! Opt out!”

by Brian McKim & Traci Skene on November 11th, 2010

The WWW is crackling with reports of abuses by the TSA.

A pilot for ExpressJet, Michael Roberts, was singled out for a full-body scan at the airport in Memphis. Roberts, in full uniform and in possession of his FAA and EJA credentials, chose not to have one. What followed, which was detailed on Salon.com, should give any air traveler pause:

At a TSA checkpoint at Memphis International Airport, Roberts was asked to remove his shoes in order to pass before one of the checkpoint’s Advanced Imaging Technology (AIT) body scanners. He chose not to receive the scan — in TSA parlance he “opted out.”

Crewmembers are usually offered the standard metal detector walk-through, but opting out of a body scan automatically subjects the traveler, be it passenger or pilot, to a hands-on frisking, which TSA refers to as “secondary screening.” As Roberts saw it, a pat-down would be just as unnecessary and intrusive as the scan, and so he refused this as well.

At which point he was told he would not be allowed to proceed.

Roberts denies being abusive or confrontational, but he did ask for a clarification. Unfortunately, TSA staff don’t always appreciate having to be held accountable or explain their actions, and in Roberts’ case their clarification involved calling in the airport police.

The police saw no reason to detain Roberts, but TSA went ahead and, for reasons that aren’t exactly clear, phoned his supervisor’s office in Houston. He describes his employment status as “on hold.”

Were this an isolated case, we would be concerned, but not overly so. But it seems as though it’s happening with alarming frequency, as recounted in this CNET article. And, while we’re aware that security is of paramount concern– and that the TSA must weigh privacy concerns while paying close attention to ensuring the safety of those in the air– these stories seem to indicate that something has gone horribly wrong with the folks on the ground, the TSA agents.

We’ve been flying a lot– especially in the last 18 months or so– but we’ve never complained about airport security. And we’ve taken a dim view of those who do. Our main complaint, if we have any, is that the airports show a maddening inconsistency– some airports request hat removal, some not… some ask us to put our shoes in the bin, some say put them on the belt. And we’ve been yelled at by surly TSA people. Not fun. And nothing an adult should have to put up with.

And, up until recently, with a few minor exceptions, the inconveniences presented by airport security have been minor– no liquids, no clippers, etc.

Now, however, the TSA has introduced the full body scan into the mix. We’re not comfortable with the FBS, for a handful of reasons, all of them, we assure you, legitimate. And it seems as though the TSA employees are taking offense to the folks who “opt out” of the x-ray machine. And the pushback from travelers is being greeted with thuggish behavior.

A young lady by the name of Meg McLain, when singled out for a full body scan at an airport in Florida, took the option of not having a full body scan. Listen to the interview below.

There’s even a website, WeWontFly.com, that seeks to unite those who object to “strip searches, virtual or otherwise.” They’re even suggesting a national Opt-Out Day, a bit of civil disobedience calculated to clog the checkpoints nationwide and register Travel Nation’s displeasure with the new procedures. They’re urging the use of blogs, Twitter and other social media to get the point across.

We’re paying close attention to this matter because we’re fliers. As are many comedians. Some of us fly on a weekly or at least monthly basis. And if one of us were to be singled out for a full-body scan– and we were to refuse, for reasons of privacy or health– we should be aware that we might be detained for a while. If we’re on our way home from a gig, there wouldn’t be much of a problem (outside of an egregious waste of our time and possible infringement on our rights). But if we’re on our way to a gig, we have a difficult decision to make.

In the case of Ms. McLain, she was detained, her possessions were taken away from her, she was handcuffed and her airplane ticket was torn up by an overreaching TSA goon. (And we’re not even going into the physical indignities she suffered.) And, from all accounts, she still hasn’t been able to get out of Gainesville, FL! This, after USAir promised to credit her for her flight.

How would a comedian’s employer react were he or she to be detained in such a manner? Suppose you’re on your way to a comedy club or on your way to a port to embark on a week or three of cruise performances and a TSA thug confiscates your ticket? And an hour or so later, you find yourself, as Ms. McLain did, escorted from the airport property by a phalanx of policemen? Do you suppose you’d find a sympathetic ear on the other end of your phone call to the cruise line or your cruise agent, or the club owner? Do you think you’d see any of the revenue you were planning to earn on that trip?

And all because you won’t (or can’t!) sustain another dose of radiation… or you simply don’t want to submit to a full body scan.

Something doesn’t seem right.