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Clarification on the Screening of 3-Year-Old Girl at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport

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Thursday, February 21, 2013
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An incident involving a girl in her wheelchair has been getting a lot of attention. I’ve been reading a lot of articles, tweets, and posts about this and I feel some clarification is needed. First off, we regret that this happened and TSA has apologized directly to the family for their inconvenience at the airport.

What we did:

  • Our officer did initially mention a pat-down. We admit this was confusing, and contributed to a stressful situation. Very quickly, a manager was able to step in and give guidance.
  • Also, our officer told the passenger that it was illegal to film at the checkpoint. This is not the case, and you can take a look at our filming policy here.
  • TSA’s Federal Security Director at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport (STL) reached out to personally apologize for the incident. He also offered to assist the family the next time they traveled through the airport.

What we didn’t do:

  • The child did not receive a pat-down. You can read our new procedures for children 12 and under here.
  • Neither the child nor the parent was detained. TSA does not have the authority to detain passengers. Only Law Enforcement Officers can detain passengers.
  • The child’s stuffed animal was not confiscated. It was screened and handed back to the child after being screened. All accessible property is screened prior to traveling to your departure gate. You may remember this stuffed animal from last year.

Incidents like this can trigger a lot of emotions, but please keep the TSA’s mission in mind. We are committed to maintaining the security of the traveling public. This will be addressed with our workforce so we can continue to treat all passengers with the dignity and respect they deserve.

We continue to receive overwhelmingly positive reports about our TSA Cares Help Line and strongly suggest that passengers with disabilities and medical conditions call this number if they have questions or are concerned about their upcoming travel through a TSA checkpoint.


TSA Cares is a helpline to assist travelers with disabilities and medical conditions. TSA recommends that passengers call 72 hours ahead of travel to for information about what to expect during screening.

Travelers may call TSA Cares toll free at 1-855-787-2227 prior to traveling with questions about screening policies, procedures and what to expect at the security checkpoint. TSA Cares will serve as an additional, dedicated resource specifically for passengers with disabilities, medical conditions or other circumstances or their loved ones who want to prepare for the screening process prior to flying.

The hours of operation for the TSA Cares helpline are Monday through Friday 8 a.m. - 11 p.m. EST and weekends and Holidays 9 a.m. - 8 p.m. EST. Travelers who are deaf or hard of hearing can use a relay service to contact TSA Cares or can e-mai

When a passenger with a disability or medical condition calls TSA Cares, a representative will provide assistance, either with information about screening that is relevant to the passenger’s specific disability or medical condition, or the passenger may be referred to disability experts at TSA.

TSA recommends that passengers call approximately 72 hours ahead of travel so that TSA Cares has the opportunity to coordinate checkpoint support with a TSA Customer Service Manager located at the airport when necessary.

Bob Burns
TSA Blog Team

If you have a travel related issue or question that needs an immediate answer, you can contact us by clicking here.


Submitted by Anonymous on

Your agent was threatening and harassing this woman. Why else would she tell her it was illegal to film?

Your agents are bullies, plain and simple, and this film more than proves that. I've experienced your agents' outright enjoyment of hassling those with disabilities. It's happened to me; it happened to my late, Alzheimer-stricken mother-in-law.

TSA hasn't caught one single terrorist in its entire history. (It's been the passengers and flight attendants who've accomplished that.) TSA has managed to humiliate, strip-search and harass the elderly and infirm, to do an awful lot of inappropriate touching of small children, to hire thieves who gleefully remove valuables from luggage at your checkpoints but who frequently miss knives and guns, and who've done themselves proud confiscating cupcakes, breast milk, hex wrenches, snowglobes and excessive amounts of shampoo. Congratulations!

Submitted by Anonymous on

Bob, that post about photography is four years old. Why did the TSO so adamantly tell the passenger that filming is illegal? And this is not an isolated incident of TSOs insisting that they cannot be photographed.

If TSOs cannot grasp this most basic of concepts, what else are they not picking up at TSA training?

The other possibility is that she knew filming was allowed and blatantly lied to the passenger.

Either way, a TSO who is so obsessed with a passenger's camera is a TSO who is not working on your stated mission and should be investigated and if necessary, fired.

Submitted by Anonymous on

Bob- Your link reads:

"However… while the TSA does not prohibit photographs at screening locations, local laws, state statutes, or local ordinances might. Your best bet is to call ahead and see what that specific airport’s policy is."

Policy or not, these screeners are either bored or miseducated - either way it is hurting your reputation.

What a joke. I'm sure Bin Laden laughs in his grave at the chaos, fear and expense America has inflicted on its own people.

Submitted by Anonymous on

Would an average person think being held for 20 minutes answering questions, without being allowed to leave, was being "detained". I think they would. If a person is not allowed to leave, that person is, by definition, being detained.

Submitted by Anonymous on

I would like to see your TSA agents who don't follow policy or give out mis-information, like the "no filming allowed" mis-information suspended without pay. To you its a mistake. To people passing through its government intimidation. You make a mistake, a passenger calls you down for it, local LE gets involved, flights are missed, people get arrested. Your mistake, their arrest for speaking out about the mistake.

Submitted by Wintermute on

The real question is, why were the TSO's insisting that it was illegal to film the procedure when it is, in fact, not?

Submitted by Anonymous on

Has the TSO in question been fired for stating that filming her is illegal or is she going to continue to lie to passengers?

Submitted by Ex on

A stressful situation for all. The accounts of terrorist actions I have only read about do not discriminate regarding age or gender.

Submitted by Curtis on

I think the main thing that people need to get out of this is that handicapped kids would rather NOT GO TO DISNEY WORLD than deal with the TSA. Please, if you are as outraged as me over this, don't just write comments in the TSA blog about this issue- write your congressional representatives and senators. The Republicans have already placed de-toothing this awful agency as much as possible into their party platform, we just need to work on the Democrats a little bit. Tell them that Pistole needs to go, and the sooner, the better.

Submitted by Anonymous on

Of course, if the family in this case had called the TSA Cares hotline ahead of time, it likely would not have affected the outcome, as the hotline would have helped them with "what to expect at the security checkpoint", but that would be based on actual TSA guidelines. As the TSA agent in this case violated those guidelines by mentioning a pat-down for the girl and telling them it was illegal to film at the checkpoint, the "guidance" that might have been provided by TSA Cares would not have made a difference in the outcome of this case.
And while TSA officers have no legal authority to "detain" passengers, they can certainly (intentionally out of spite, or otherwise) make the screening process take so long that it is effectively a detention that causes passengers to miss their flights. Anecdotal media reports are full of accounts from passengers who were subjected to all kinds of additional scrutiny in apparent retaliation for actions the TSA agents found offensive. Typically this causes them to miss their flights, which generates a cascade effect that can be quite problematic (airlines, for instance, don't care WHY you didn't make the flight--it's assumed to be your fault).

So I find it somewhat disingenuous for Mr. Burns to cite the lack of dentention authority--while technically true, in a practical sense it's not, as you do not have the right to "back out" of security screening procedures once you enter them, so you cannot simply walk away if the TSA agents are being abusive or otherwise causing unjustifiable delays. In essence, as long as they can think up some new screening-related activity they wish to subject you to, you're effectively detained for the duration.

While cases like this are extremely rare in the overall volume of passengers being screened, it does point to a lack of proper training of the TSA agents on what the correct policies and procedures are. Hopefully they will find ways to do better.

Submitted by Porter Versfelt III on


The phrase is "first of all .. " not "first off" as you wrote. Just a FYI. :)

Porter Versfelt III

Submitted by Ted on

Flying is a privilege, not a right, not enshrined in the Constitution or anywhere else. It is terrible that the child has to use a wheelchair, but TSA has to be allowed do their job. At the same time, every passenger is different; the team and managers on duty that day in St. Louis need some sensitivity training to be kind.

Submitted by Anonymous on

TSA you really should be ashamed of yourselves. I cannot believe that 12 years after you were created you still cannot teach your screeners how to handle the disabled without creating such psychological trauma or infringing upon our 1st Amendment rights (photography and assembly). I strongly urge each blog reader to contact the U.S Congress Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure (oversight and funding of TSA) and find out why this matter is being so downplayed by TSA. The receptionists at the Comnmittee are very nice to deal with and would seemingly want to hear how the public feels about how it is being mistreated by TSA or having to watch a disabled child be mistreated by a government employee screener--the Sequester cannot get here fast enough in my opinion. You can easily contact the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure at:

Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure
U.S. House of Representatives
2165 Rayburn House Office Building
Washington, DC 20515
Phone: (202) 225-9446
Fax: (202) 225-6782

Submitted by Anonymous on

While I appreciate your explanation, this incident illustrates two issues that I see as an ongoing problem with TSA personnel.

1) While most of your people do attempt to be professional and helpful, I still find that some still seem to be deaf to passenger input or questions. I've had situations where I've asked a question and had it answered by something like "that's just the way we do it." Most recently, this occurred when I asked about why laptops still have to be removed from luggage for screening while tablet computers do not. This also happened when I questioned why most TSA locations are no longer enforcing the "liquids in baggie" rules (just about anything under 3.3 ounces can go through in a briefcase, without a baggie. If you've changed the rule, even unofficially, how about telling us?)

2) A LOT of TSA agents tend to give out misinformation, as seen in this case with the "you can't film here" statement.

Additionally, the article I read on this incident indicated that it took 45 minutes before TSA would agree to inspect the girl's wheelchair without her in it. If this is indeed true, I can understand why someone subject to 45 minutes of scrutiny would consider themselves to be "detained," even if you contend otherwise. Also, once someone starts the security process, do they not have to complete it, even if they indicate that they would like to stop and depart the secured area? If so, isn't this person being detained?)

You guys have gotten better over the years, but there are times when I still leave the TSA area wondering a) what the rules/procedures actually are and b) what is the logic behind some of these rules.

SUGGESTION: How about publishing a "passenger's rights" manual that might address some of these common issues? It should be made available at each security entrance, for passengers to read while in line. A little education could go a long way.

Submitted by Anonymous on

Bob--she was 3 years old in a wheelchair. Customer service, customer service, customer service and a little common sense would help your agency a great deal.

Submitted by Anonymous on

It is time to get your head out of your butt and start being real. I hope your piece of crap attitude is over, karma baby, what comes around goes around.

Submitted by Anonymous on

So in other words, TSA employees didn't follow procedures and didn't correctly process these passengers resulting in unnecessary interaction, inconvenience and traumatizing a child? Then they apologized for it? Still a fail.

Submitted by Wintermute on

Ted said...

"Flying is a privilege, not a right, not enshrined in the Constitution or anywhere else."

Ted, you are mistaken. The right to travel is enshrined in law.

Submitted by Laura Monteros on

Ted, the point is that the TSA agents were NOT doing their job. They were ill-trained and uninformed about policy. A patdown should never have been suggested at all, and filming is legal.

There is no excuse for suggesting the patdown of a 3-year-old confined to a wheelchair with spina bifida, and there is a kind, gentle way to explain the necessity of scanning a toy.

Submitted by Ayn R Key on

How about instead of apologizing (with the caveat that "procedures were followed" every time) and never taking any screeners to task for their misbehavior, why not do something about the awful procedure and take the screeners to task?

Submitted by Anonymous on

The wheels of security cannot stop spinning to appease a three-year-old anymore than our bombing of terrorists overseas can stop because they imbed themselves with civilians. It is a dangerous world and any actions to save Americans may yield collateral damage.

Submitted by Anonymous on

Why are we continuously seeing your employees lie to passengers about recording at checkpoints? Do you have any intention taking disciplinary action against these employees?

Submitted by Anonymous on

You keep saying that filming is permitted. If that is true, why do so many TSA employees seem to not know this? There are many videos online where the TSA employee says filming is not permitted or is illegal. Why is it so difficult to train your employees to not harass or intimidate people with cameras? I'm starting to think the TSA publically says filming is ok, but privately tells the screeners to harass people. It really undermines my confidence in the TSA if they can't get a simple thing such as this filming policy correct.

Submitted by Sommer Gentry on

It is curious that the TSA is aware that they have no right and no authority to detain people. Please explain precisely how the family could have ended this non-consensual encounter with these poorly trained TSA employees. Either they are being detained, or they are free to leave.

I once refused to allow screeners to pat me down at a TSA checkpoint and was forbidden to leave the area, even after I made it clear that I had no intention of flying that day. I just said, I want to leave, I don't want to fly, I will not and I do not consent to let you touch me. The TSA detained me for over an hour. Explain, precisely, how I could have been "not detained" and yet I was threatened and physically menaced by a gaggle of TSA screeners when I tried to leave the checkpoint to go back to my car.

Bob, you distort the English language until it's unrecognizable. Of course this innocent family was being detained! If they weren't being detained, they surely wouldn't have stayed there to enjoy spending time with the screeners shown in the video.

Submitted by Russell on

It's nice to see the TSA admitting to a mistake for a change instead of deflecting and inflaming the situation even further. Transparency is tantamount to understanding. This post is a necessary first step. Now please go back and rewrite all of the previous entries.

Submitted by Anonymous on

Bob, the child did not receive a "pat down" because the mother continued to film and question the TSO who was telling her recording was an illegal act. If she had stopped and stood quietly by, I'm sure the child would have received a full body search. TSO's who provide false and conflicting information are going to reduce the public's cooperation with the TSA . There are so many videos available of TSA employee's telling people recording is illegal that it must acceptable behavior to TSA managers or you have a workforce that can't be trained. This needs to be fixed, not explained away.

Submitted by Anonymous on

The TSA is a national disgrace and embarassment. Nothing else need be said.

Submitted by Anonymous on

I feel it should be illegal for TSA agents and other government officials to "astro-turf" for the agency, like Ted's comments above.

If you work for the TSA, please post your real identity instead of claiming to support the TSA's mission, blah blah blah.

Submitted by Anonymous on

Has the agent in question been fired? If not, why not? Lying to the public is unacceptable!

Submitted by Anonymous on

Bob, I would assume that a TSO has to pass some sort of test after training, yes? Is it also safe to assume that passengers' rights (e.g., to film how a TSO officer interacts with the passenger's child) are covered as part of that training and testing? If the TSO is documented as failing to follow the procedures that he/she trained on, isn't that grounds for suspending the TSO without pay for a few days, or firing the TSO if a pattern of ineptness is demonstrated?

And I want to second the recommendation from one of the comments above about having a passenger's bill of rights brochure available. While I don't mind going through TSA screening and appreciate the important role that TSOs play (and the balance they need to maintain in order to not fall into profiling), passengers do still deserve to be treated with dignity and respect just as a matter of routine.

Submitted by Anonymous on

Balance one child against the millions that fly without incident each day. TSA is a success.

Submitted by RB on

Iwhen TSA blocks or delays a person that is effectively a detention.

When TSA locks someone in a glass cage like in the breast milk caper that is a detention.

I guess the real question is why TSA illegally uses detentions to exert screeners power over travelers.

What is TSA doing to resolve, once and for all, the TSA issue of employees not knowing that pictures and video are not against any TSA rules?

Submitted by Anonymous on

Ted said...

Flying is a privilage....

Another ignorant person.

The Constitution doesn't establish rights but limits government.

The USSC has ruled that travel is a right. The decision did not limit the means. Nowhere in the Constitution is limitation on a persons right to travel. So any claim that travel by air as being a privilage is hogwash.

Submitted by Anonymous on

When we trained some of the original TSA people, we told the Government, you will have trouble controlling your field staff. The issue then and now, remains the same; if you hire the same way the post office does, you will have the same result.
TSA and the post office hire people who have had little or no power over others. Now they have some and it goes to their head. The badge later added to the problem. Airline employees have a similar issue. They provoke passengers, and when they lose control, they run to TSA or local authorities for protection. Don't look for this to improve anytime soon

Submitted by Brendon Walsh on

The TSA is a useless waste of taxpayer money. Your idiot employees protect nothing and have an overblown sense of authority.

Submitted by Anonymous on

Your apology means nothing
There has been no progress
My 7 year old daughter with cerebral palsy had the same thing happen to her at JFK in April 2012
The story was covered in the press but the TSA continues to harass innocent disabled children
I have activated the TSA cares when we have travelled subsequently
Guys it does not work either, totally useless
Never even get a callback
The people you call on the phone are clueless

Submitted by Anonymous on


It is posted in at least two places on the TSA web site that photography and videography at the checkpoint is not prohibited, so long as those engaging in it do not interfere with or delay the screening process.

Yet, as in this case, your TSOs continue to tell people that photography and videography is illegal, against the rules, not allowed, or otherwise prohibited, in places where there are no local or state ordinances prohibiting it.

They are either deliberately lying, or have not been properly trained on TSA SOP Section 2.7 Paragraph A.

What is TSA currently doing to correct this problem?

Submitted by Anonymous on

Curtis said...
I think the main thing that people need to get out of this is that handicapped kids would rather NOT GO TO DISNEY WORLD than deal with the TSA. Please, if you are as outraged as me over this, don't just write comments in the TSA blog about this issue- write your congressional representatives and senators.

I'd think it's be more effective to write to Disney. "I'd love to come to Disney World, but I won't be groped by the TSA..." Maybe a large corporation might be more...effective... in getting rid of the TSA than ordinary people are.

Submitted by Anonymous on

Terrorizing a three year old in a wheel chair is in pretty porr taste. but then again, it's the TSA, so why am I surprised?

Submitted by SSSS For Some Reason on

"Ted said...
Flying is a privilege, not a right, not enshrined in the Constitution or anywhere else. It is terrible that the child has to use a wheelchair, but TSA has to be allowed do their job. At the same time, every passenger is different; the team and managers on duty that day in St. Louis need some sensitivity training to be kind."

You are incorrect, Ted. Flying is a Right and while Flying is not 'enshrined in the Constitution' there are plenty of other things that are that the TSA are in direct violation of like, for example, the 4th Amendment preventing unlawful search and seizure. There are plenty more examples but I'll let you look them up yourself. Keep in mind while you are reading that the Constitution and Bill of Rights apply to the Government which means the TSA. If Delta is going to require you to wear pink rain coats to fly and you buy a ticket on Delta you will be wearing pink or you won't be flying Delta. If the TSA requires me to wear the pink rain coat my only option is not to fly and that is not an option, that is an ultimatum.

Submitted by Anonymous on

Please share with the citizens how many children in wheelchairs have been involved in terrorist attack, suicide bombings, shootings, hijack attempts, or any other crime or danger to the public.

I am boycotting flying for myself and 3 children until things change.

Submitted by Anonymous on

This was a weak apology with excuses being made for improperly trained employees that make up rules as they go along. It is incredibly stressful to travel as a disabled person. A good agent can be kind,sensitive, and respectful and still keep the plane safe.

Submitted by Anonymous on

You say you did not detain the family. So you are saying they could have walked away from security and continued on to their trip to Disney or could have left the secure area without repercussions?

Clarify what the family should have done instead of standing around the TSA check point in lieu of their detainment for 45 minutes.

Submitted by M L Browne on

The TSA employees who work at the checkpoints are just that -- employees. They are not "officers." They lack the training, credentials and qualifications for that specific designation, and it would serve us all better if you and your co-workers could remember it.

Submitted by Anonymous on

In the video, the TSA agent asked:

"and where are you traveling to today?"

At this stage in the screening process, was it appropriate to ask that passenger to divulge details of her private affairs? No. Please tell your staff to keep communication relevant to the screening process. In this age of identity theft and actual theft (knowing when someone will be gone for awhile and thus perhaps leaving their home unoccupied), TSA management needs to train their employees to understand that they have no business prying into the details of passengers' lives.

Submitted by Anonymous on

Congratulations, terrorists. You've won.

Submitted by Swissguy53 on

While I understand that the TSA agent's jobs can be frustrating, and while I understand that TSA agents have to deal with all types of passengers, the TSA agents need to understand that passengers are nervous as well and that most passengers are not seasoned travelers and are easily confused at the check points. I have seen and experienced many good and pleasant TSA agents, but I have also experienced just as many that feel they are “Walker Texas Ranger”. You know as well as I do that it only takes one bad apple to spoil the whole barrel.

What I have found is that most TSA agents are unaware of some of your basic requirements and allowances. This is why I carry a TSA printout of permissible substances in my computer bag. I had one TSA agent argue with me that I could not take my bottle of a liquid prescription ($850 per bottle) through in my hand luggage until I showed her the list, and even then she got her supervisor to come and approve, wasting my time and hers and that of the passengers behind me. This is basic stuff that they should all know. I don’t know what kind of continuing education program you have but if you do, it is not working.

I am not sure what kind of review process the TSA has for its agents, but there should be one with strict metrics. Do you review how many complaints TSA agents have had and what for? Do you employee “secret shopper” people whose sole mission is to pose as travelling public to see if TSA locations are doing their jobs and write up reviews of check points? Many things to consider here instead of trying to justify the actions of a misguided TSA agents with a 3 year old disabled child.

Submitted by David on

Ted, your statement of "Flying is a privilege, not a right, not enshrined in the Constitution or anywhere else" only shows that you have never actually read the Bill of Rights, specifically amendment IX:

"The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people."

The Constitution does not grant any rights, it merely lists ("enumerates") some of the rights that all people naturally have. And as noted in Amendment IX, the list was never meant to be all-inclusive. Among the rights that all people naturally have that are not specifically listed is the freedom of travel. The specific means of travel is unimportant to this right, flying is just as much a right as walking.

Submitted by RB on

Missing from What we did:

Corrective action was taken TSA wide to ensure this never happens again.

We fired this incompetent employee.

How about it bobby, tells us what TSA is doing to correct TSA screeners.

Submitted by Giuliano on

One of the biggest dent's in the TSA's credibility comes from its Orwellian use of language. The two most common examples are the TSA's insistence that it does not "confiscate" items (it is instead "voluntarily surrendered"), and that it does not "detain" people.

The twisted logic behind this is that people can always choose to just leave and not fly.

For most people this is not a reasonable choice. To either go put an item in your car (if you happened to drive to the airport), or to go and mail it to yourself, will in many if not most cases, mean missing your flight.

If your choice is "surrender the item or miss your flight," that is for all practical purposes confiscation.

Similarly, being told you're not being detained because you can just leave and go home (if you are in your home city), but you can't go and board the flight for which you've already paid, is, in plain English, being detained.

If TSA would just be more honest and straightforward in their communications, people might trust them more when it comes to policies and procedures.