A calm checkpoint is crucial to an effective screening process. Passengers need to hear TSA officer advisements, and officers must be able to clearly hear passenger questions.
This is usually the way it is at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport (ANC), except for one morning in November when the normal checkpoint advisements and movement of luggage came to a sudden halt.
Lead TSA Officer (LTSO) Valeria Serrano Del Rio was working the checkpoint when TSA Officer (TSO) Chue Her alerted her to a child having difficulty in the queue.
“I could see and hear the frustration and emotion in the mother’s voice,” said Her. “I offered my assistance and she asked if I could force her child through. I felt her frustration and I called for LTSO Valeria for assistance.”
“When I approached the child, I could see he was lying on the floor crying and did not want to get up,” said Valeria. The mother told Valeria her son was a non-verbal autistic child with very strong actions and refused to listen to her pleas.
Valeria, a former special education teacher, understood the challenge and knew how overwhelming the traveling experience could be. Not wanting to further alienate the boy, Valeria decided to lie down beside the boy and quietly talk to him. “I felt I had to relate to him to help him,” said Valeria. “I was able to convince him to stand up by telling him I was going to take him to see the planes.”
Entering the screening area, LTSO Donna Adams assisted the mom with the screening procedures when the boy became overwhelmed by the people, movement, advisements and strange surroundings and again collapsed to the floor crying. The boy refused to stand for Adams, so Valeria once again lay down beside the child, reminding him about seeing the airplanes.
The child stood up and walked through the metal detector with his mom and walked straight to the windows to look at the planes. Watching the child and his mother move to the windows and ensuring no contact with other passengers in the sterile area, Valeria advised TSO Gabriel Colon to screen the boy as he watched the planes.
“I just grabbed the ETD wand and jumped in so I could help wherever I could.” said Colon. “Sometimes people forget that we are people first and TSOs second.”
With the screening completed, the mother pleaded with Valeria to escort her and the child to the gate. She recognized her son had made a connection with Valeria. Having been tapped out, she agreed and stayed with them through boarding, assisting and reassuring them as she had done at the checkpoint.
At the departure gate the scenario repeated itself with Valeria lying by the child and coaxing him into cooperation with a coloring book and crayons furnished by the gate agent.
Receiving permission from the gate agent to board with the child, everyone boarded the plane but not without one more glitch. The boy sat in the wrong seat and refused to move. When Valeria explained the he would see the planes better if he moved to his assigned seat and he moved.
Before leaving the aircraft Valeria explained to the boy that he had to listen to his mom when they landed at home. She reassured the exhausted mom that she was doing a great job and that everything was going to be all right.
As the boy was looking out the window, Valeria slipped off the plane. “I did not want to say goodbye to him because I did not want him or myself to get emotional,” said Valeria.
“Valeria’s response and engagement with both mom and juvenile touched my heart and made me proud to call her my coworker,” said Adams.
“This experience was extremely memorable to me. He was such a sweet boy and all he needed was someone to understand what he was going through. I feel honored that he let me be a part of his world for a little bit. He definitely touched my heart and I will never forget him.”
“I’m proud of our team here in Alaska and this is a another good example of the type of kindness our officers display towards each other and the public on a regular basis,” said ANC Transportation Security Manager Jeremiah Wilson.
By Wayne Carey, Strategic Communications and Public Affairs