He clutched a red passport and a boarding pass and wore a confused expression, the kind you slip into when no one speaks your language. The passenger was Japanese, and by my guess, English wasn't his first — or his second — language.
"Wha –, wha —, wha —," he stammered, facing a woman who he seemed to believe could help him.
"Wha —, wha —, what —," the woman mocked. And then added, disgustedly, "I'm going on break."
The passenger had every reason to think she could answer his question: She was wearing a TSA uniform.
On a recent morning at the Houston Intercontinental Airport screening area, I stood there with my two kids, transfixed and horrified.
And as quickly as the incident began, it was over. The agent stormed off. The passenger took his place in the screening line, question unanswered.
It wasn't just bad manners, and it wasn't just a clash of cultures. It was downright cruel. And if you've ever witnessed unprofessional behavior by a person in uniform, you might have wondered if there is anything you can do about it.
But in the moment, I didn't have the answer.
The TSA is not exactly known for its good manners. Notorious for their up close and personal pat-downs, TSA agents bark orders at ordinary passengers like prison wardens, all in the name of security. But, TSA — why you gotta be so rude? When even members of Congress say you're lacking in manners, you know you've crossed a line.
The exchange between the TSA agent and the passenger left me so uncomfortable that I made eye contact with other strangers as if to ask, "You heard that too, right?" I was embarrassed on a human level and felt horrible that any person, especially a visitor to our country, would get this kind of treatment.
And even though I knew it was wrong, I wasn't brave enough under the jurisdiction of TSA to speak up and demand her name.
What to do?
More than a week passed, and I still kept thinking about that passenger, and how I should have stood up for the right thing. But I didn't know the agent's name, and even if I did, would anyone care?
Ten days later, I reported the incident via TSA's complaint site, figuring I would never hear a thing.
Wouldn't you know, within 24 hours of filing the complaint, I was contacted three times by the TSA. With each contact, they pressed me for more detail about the incident.
The first response assured me that they had received my complaint, including boilerplate language that the "TSA monitors the nature of inquiries we receive to track trends and spot areas of concern that may require special attention."
When I received a second email from Screening Management, asking for supplemental information about the incident, I wrote:
The TSA agent was passing through the queue because she was leaving for her lunch break. The passenger began to ask her a question in broken English. She interrupted him and started mocking how he was talking, very loudly, and stammering, as if to mock his lack of English proficiency. He was never able to articulate his question, as she kept interrupting and imitating him, mock stammering. She told him twice, quite abusively, that she was on her lunch break so she didn't care what he had to say. She spoke over him and told him that there was a long line of passengers, so if he was in a hurry, he would have to ask each of the people in line who are all waiting for flights whether he could cut in front of them. And she told him again, she's on her lunch break, and left. It was beyond uncomfortable, and in my opinion, was abusive behavior.This TSA officer strikes me as someone who should not be working with the public, and should not be representing the United States to the traveling public. I felt it was important to report because I think the supervisor on duty at that location would probably know who it is. This is probably not an isolated incident. Certainly if the TSA keeps records of who goes on break at what time, this person would be easy to identify.
Feeling satisfied I had done what I could, I thought that was the end of it.
That is, until a third email came from TSA's personnel office, requesting the exact physical location where I was when the encounter took place and a physical description or photo of what my kids and I were wearing that day. The body of the email contained my initial submission, where someone had highlighted key words, such as the time of day, the date and the location. The email said that they may review closed circuit television footage to identify the officer for corrective action. I provided our exact location, and because my mother had taken a picture of us that morning as we left for the airport, I happened to have a photograph of what all three of us were wearing. The email explained that due to privacy laws, the TSA would not be able to share what corrective action was taken.
The email concluded by saying that "unprofessional behavior is not tolerated" at the TSA, calling the incident "troubling."
A new image?
As appalled as I was to witness this upsetting exchange between a trusted federal employee and a foreign visitor, I was even more surprised that the TSA seems to have taken my complaint seriously.
I am convinced that emails from multiple TSA offices is significant. I imagine they could readily identify the agent, and honestly, I hope that they have. Even if she's a good person who was having a bad day, it's the wrong job for her. And while we will never know the outcome of my complaint, I feel like it touched a nerve at TSA. Maybe they're looking to change their image. The TSA did team up with Yelp! not long ago to seek more feedback from the public. Maybe the tide is turning, and we'll see a day where the TSA is known for doing good.
We can only hope that's the case — that the TSA is able to maintain high standards of service, remove bad apples from the bunch, and in the process, make the unpleasant checkpoint experience better for everyone.
Yes, the TSA has its security mission. But the mission and manners don't have to be mutually exclusive. TSA agents have the ability to carry out that mission with dignity, and help travelers along the way, not in the name of security, but in the name of humanity.
A writer and natural advocate, Jessica began mediating consumer disputes following a decade of work on behalf of air crash victims at one of the nation's largest plaintiffs' law firms. She helps consumers nationwide every day and is founder and executive director of the consumer advocacy organization ConsumerSense.org.