July was a busy month for TSA. There were four TSA workers arrested in a one month period and a scathing GAO report on TSA misconduct which drew broad criticism of the agency in the media.
The arrests in July and early August included TSA Manager Shane Hinkle charged with sexual abuse of co-worker, TSA screener, Larry Kobielnik, for sexual assault and attempted rape in Florida, Massachusetts screener Miguel Quinones for having child pornography and screener Tracy Leanne Owens for stealing cash from a bag in Honolulu.
While crimes are among the most egregious offenses by TSA workers, there has been an array of misconduct and passenger abuses that frequently get lost in the busy news cycle.
The very nature of TSA’s strategy of generalized suspicion and hostility toward the traveling public creates an adversarial relationship between screeners and passengers. This often culminates in abusive screening and the resultant complaints and are not limited to only the living. Earlier this month, TSA workers in Sacramento emptied three quarters of the crematory remains of traveler Jessica Steele’s mother that were in a checked bag.
TSA excused the behavior of its worker claiming that the ashes were in a glass container not marked as human remains. They did not explain why they did not empty all of the remains, nor why they made no effort to contact the notify airline or owner.
Instead they offered the typical platitudes in response. TSA spokesperson Lisa Farbstein indicated that TSA policy states, “Under no circumstances will an officer open the container, even if the passenger requests this be done. We honestly understand how painful it is when somebody loses a loved one so we do what we can to treat crematory remains with respect. And to facilitate screening we suggest people purchase a temporary or permanent crematory container that’s made of a lighter weight material.”
In the news report Steele is quoted as saying “Have you ever heard of such a thing?”
Well, to answer her question, unfortunately we have. Considering how few people travel with the ashes of a loved one these incidents are not uncommon and often blatantly disrespectful.
In June of 2012, passenger John Gross demanded a direct apology from a Transportation Security Administration agent in Florida who, the man says, spilled his grandfather’s ashes during an airport bag check and then laughed off the incident. In response to Mr. Gross’ charge TSA spokesman David Castelveter denied any wrongdoing, adding “The TSA statement added that “under no circumstances should a container holding remains be opened. TSA recognizes the importance of screening human remains with utmost respect and dignity while remaining vigilant of our security mission to protect the traveling public.”
He added that there is no surveillance video of the incident although the cameras were being upgraded at the time. “TSA recognizes the importance of screening human remains with utmost respect and dignity while remaining vigilant of our security mission to protect the traveling public,” its statement said.
A day after Mr. Gross’ complaint made news, the TSA Blog apparently felt compelled to issue yet another statement regarding traveling with crematory remains, reiterating the agency’s claim of innocence and effectively blaming travelers for a lack of understanding and cooperation.
In one paragraph TSA states “If carrying on the crematory remains, they are subject to screening and must pass through the X-ray machine. If the X-ray Operator cannot clear the remains, TSA may apply other, non-intrusive means of resolving the alarm. Under no circumstances will an officer open the container, even if the passenger requests this be done. If the officer cannot determine that the container does not contain a prohibited item, the remains will not be permitted” but fails to state how these searches will be done or what alternatives are available to bereaved travelers.
This flap came only two months after another incident involving an Oregon woman traveling with the ashes of her deceased son. The mother, Denise Whitmore, was traveling through a TSA checkpoint at the Minneapolis St. Paul Airport when the crematory container in her carry-on bag signaled an alarm while passing through the x-ray belt.
She related her anguish explaining that “The bag is brought over and they start taking out my clothes and setting them aside and then they reach inside and grab the remains. He pulls it out and starts swabbing it and flipping it around and he’s looking around the seam and there’s a lip and I said, ‘don’t do that.”
She added that she had the paperwork from the funeral home but that TSA screeners didn’t ask to see it or responds to hear protests. As usual, TSA officials denied any wrongdoing stating, “the TSA officer followed proper procedure by swabbing the outside of the box to resolve the alarm. The officer’s conduct was professional, and he did not open or attempt to open the container or leave it unattended after screening was completed.”
While carrying remains through the checkpoint may pose certain difficulties, unfortunately storing them in checked baggage is no assurance that they won’t be lost or spilled. In January of 2102 a distraught traveler reported that her husband’s remains, stored in checked luggage, were lost while after boarding a US Airways flight to England in October of 2011. Angeline O’Grady says Transportation Security Administration officials told her that she could not take her husband’s ashes, which were in a box, through airport security. They sent her to back to the US Airways counter and instructed her to include them in her checked suitcase.
She contacted the airline, which seldom searches bags but after three months still had not received a response. US Airways stated that they were continuing to investigate the matter and working with the TSA, who likely opened the suitcase, to figure out what happened.
The O’Grady complaint came to light two months after a similar incident on a Utah bound flight. Family members were transporting the remains of Amber Bainter to Utah, where her husband is buried. The deceased woman’s sister, Stephanie Warnick, checked the secured ashes on a Delta flight from Atlanta to Salt Lake City on October 23 and was assured by a Delta employee assured them they would be handled with extra care.
“Nobody will break seals, open boxes, nothing because she was really worried about it being disturbed,” Warnick said. Despite being in a sealed plastic bag inside a crematory box, there were “pry marks and stuff on the box. The box had been disturbed. There was a 1-inch slash mark cut open in the plastic bag” her sister’s ashes were spilled into her suitcase. She added that the luggage had a notice of inspection from the TSA inside. But an unidentified representative told a local reporter they have reviewed video of the bag inspection. He said it shows that before, during and after the screening, the box containing the remains was undisturbed. She was not shown the tape of that inspection.
Unconvinced of TSA’s innocence, Delta issued a statement saying, “We are currently conducting an investigation that will include reaching out to the TSA to understand specifically what happened”.
So while these incidents are perhaps among the least frequent examples of misconduct by TSA screeners, they inflict permanent damage since the lost remains are irreplaceable. Should another similar incident occur in the not so distant future, which if recent history is any indication, likely will, one might ask one simple question; “Why haven’t we heard of similar incidents involving FedEx or UPS? Perhaps the answer is accountability and responsibility, two attributes sorely lacking within TSA.