As travelers squeeze in the last of their summer travel, the TSA has come under scrutiny for a previously undisclosed program called ‘Quiet Skies,’ which asks federal air marshals to watch and report on ordinary citizens as they move about the airport. First reported in the Boston Globe, air marshals have trailed a businesswoman who passed through the Middle East, a Southwest Airlines flight attendant, and others who appear to pose no real threat. The teams record behavior including using a computer, changing direction while walking, boarding last, or having a “jump” in one’s Adam’s apple.
Civil rights organizations are concerned the program will result in the ungrounded targeting of minority travelers, and the Council on American-Islamic Relations on Wednesday said it would challenge the program in court. The ACLU is filing a Freedom of Information Act request to find out more about the program.
TSA Administrator David Pekoske told USA Today that the program has been in place for years and is “very effective.” He said, “Ordinary citizens don’t need to worry about Quiet Skies. They don’t. Actually, ordinary citizens should be very happy… because I think everybody expects us to do everything we can do that protects the privacy and constitutional rights of our citizens to ensure that there is not an incident in an aircraft in flight.”
To that end, the TSA has decided not to eliminate checkpoints at 150 small airports across the country. The idea, which would have saved the agency $115 million a year in federal staffing, was not worth the risk, Petrosky said. In fact, the agency is beefing up screenings with new tech, expanding its trial of 3-D powered screening machines to examine carry on luggage JFK airport last month. The “computed tomography” (CT) machines have been used for checked luggage for years but were considered to bulking to be used in passenger screenings. They are said to more easily highlight suspicious materials. That’s good because according to Business Insider, people try to sneak all kinds of crazy stuff onto airplanes.
Finally, one New York Congresswoman introduced a bill aimed at making screening more comfortable for trans passengers. The bill, called the “Screening with Dignity Act,” would require the TSA to develop procedures that take into account the particular needs of transgender people.
According to this report in the Washington Blade, trans passengers reported humiliation at the hands of TSA employees in a 2015 survey. One respondent said a TSA agency referred to him as “it” when he went through gender reassignment surgery. Another said an agent searched their bag, pulled out intimate items and called friends to look and laugh. The National Center for Transgender Equality has long maintained a guide to airport security, though the TSA currently has scant accommodations for trans persons.
According to the TSA site, “If a pat-down is performed, it will be conducted by an officer of the same gender as you present yourself. Screening can be conducted in a private screening area with a witness or companion of the traveler’s choosing.”