TSA Martinet Claims Her Unpublished Rules Trump Real Ones

TSA, can you at least train your agents to do their jobs properly? We’d appreciate it even more if you’d discipline (read: fire) those who go all stupidly power-mad and think they have to “win” every encounter, even when it means making up new rules on the spot. Here’s a story of a soldier who lost a day of leave because one of your agents caused so much trouble. In the end, the soldier says he’s happy with the outcome—”Using standard Consumerist customer service doctrine (polite, patient, proper channels and then EECB), I won”—but we’re still floored by how difficult you made his trip home. Oh, and NWA, you were no help either.

First, I am active duty military and I only get so many days of leave; when extenuating circumstances happen to delay travel – I still get charged for the leave.

So there I was on Monday, 11 Aug in the Detroit Metro Airport which happens to be NWAs worldwide hub. I am there a little more than an hour and a half prior to my flight. I was scheduled to leave around 130p on a Monday.

When I checked in at the E-ticket console a message flashed stating that the flight was overbooked and that I was being offered a voucher. I arrived with the intention of checking my only bag because I needed to check a firearm – something that I have done several times. Current TSA policy on firearms is that they need to be in a hard-sided case and locked (my case was a standard manufacturer’s case that is completely hard-sided and has been through airlines checks numerous times).

I usually have a lock, but TSA always ends up taking it off and telling me I don’t need it. Of course this time I didn’t take a lock. The NWA agent told me, after I informed her of my firearm, that TSA wouldn’t check it because it didn’t have a lock, I told her I would talk to them and see what they would say.

The TSA agent told me that she wouldn’t take it without a lock. Trying to minimize time-damage, I asked her if a zip tie would do – logicizing (that absolutely has to be a word) that since law enforcement and military use zip ties in lieu of steel handcuffs to detain people, a zip tie should work instead of a mini lock that I could bend with my bare hands.

She said, mockingly, that I could not use a zip tie. I asked, “what constitutes a lock?” She replied, “A lock.” I politely thanked her for clearing that up for me. The NWA agent, who was trying to be friendly and helpful at a very busy point in the day, actually left the desk to go look for a padlock that they could sell me.

Okay, fair enough, rules is rules—get your OP-blaming out of the way now, because this is where it gets very silly.

While [the NWA agent] was gone, the TSA agent told me that she “can’t let this through, even if it has a lock on it it’s still accessible”.

I was confused and said that I did not understand what she meant. She again stated that the case was accessible even if it had a lock. I explained that I did not know what she meant but that TSA’s policy and website state the only two requirements (ammo notwithstanding) are a hard-sided case and a lock. She said, “Even if this has a lock on it, I’m not letting it through.”

I pulled out my 3g iPhone, pulled up TSA’s website and found the firearm policy and showed it to her. She said, “TSA sometimes gives us different policies than they give you.”

I responded, “Are you kidding me? I don’t think when it comes to firearms TSA is going to surprise passengers with some magical policy to prevent them from checking firearms they’re allowed to check.” She responded with, “I’m not letting it through.”

I asked, “Who do I talk to about getting this through?; she replied, “A supervisor.” I asked if I could please speak with a supervisor and she said, no kidding, “I am a supervisor.” Does anyone really believe that a supervisor of any kind is actually going to be on shift at the ticketing counter inspecting baggage and tossing it onto the belt?

I asked to speak to a supervisor, [and was told] iit would be 30 minutes before he arrived. Foreseeing a possible “late arrival” and subsequent loss of seat, I asked the same NWA agent if the vouchers were still being offered, she said yes and I asked if I could sell my seat back for one and she said, “No, you have to be at the gate.”

This I know to be untrue for two reasons: I’ve done it before and it’s a ticketing counter and I was asking for help with ticketing. I didn’t contest; I waited a few minutes and then went back to her and asked if I could call the gate from the counter and try to do it over the phone; she said “No, you have to be at the gate.”

Again, I know this to be untrue because I had just done it with NWA a few weeks prior, not even for me but on behalf of my fiancee. Regardless, I dropped it. The TSA supervisor was great: I gave him a quick explanation, asked him if my case was within policy, he said “Yes, what’s the problem?” To which I responded, “Your agent doesn’t know your policy and is trying to tell me that you guys have secret policies.”

He essentially ignored that, [but] he actually went and got me a TSA lock and gave it to me for free, inspected my bag on the spot and checked it through. After asking, he agreed to escort me to the front of security so I wouldn’t miss my flight.

Hooray! Through security! But of course they delay set up a chain reaction.

I asked the NWA agent for my boarding pass (she had taken it earlier when I’d asked for the voucher) – she told me I wouldn’t make the flight – it was about 15-20 minutes prior to takeoff, she had told me that at 10 minutes you are checked as late and the seat is given away.

I told her I would still like to try because I still want to try for the voucher, I explained TSA was going to escort me right through security and that I thought I could make it. She said, again, “You won’t make it,” and she took it upon herself to cancel me off of my scheduled flight and put me on the 730pm flight.

So after I got through security, I went to the NWA customer service center, picked up a “reservation” phone that automatically dials a reservations rep and after a couple minutes of explanation to her she gave me the number of the NWA Detroit Director of Operations (I don’t think she realized whose number she’d given me – especially considering the NWA agent at a desk didn’t know the guys name when I told her I needed to call him). This guy didn’t answer, I left him a message, I never got a call back.

I also called – because the TSA supervisor told me I might be able to get reimbursement – the Detroit TSA customer support manager. He called me back within an hour. I explained to him what’d happened. He stated that he would do an investigation and talk to his people to see what they say happened; gee, I wonder what they’re going to say. I asked him what their reimbursement policy was, should he conclude that I was right, he said “we don’t have one.” He went on to say that his agents err on the side of security. I said, this is absolutely not a case of someone erring on the side of security, she flat out told me hat she didn’t know the policy. He then changed his statement to “well, she erred on the side of safety.” I laughed and told him it was still the same, that she essentially told me she didn’t know the policy – not safety, not security. He said he’d do an investigation and get back to me, that was over a week ago.

I ended up volunteering for a voucher and was put up in a hotel overnight. I asked where my bag would be and was told it would be waiting for me in San Antonio. When I got to San Antonio, the NWA agent first told me it was on the carousel; the same agent, after the carousel was empty, told me she probably had it at the counter. When she finally met me at the counter, she told me she didn’t have the keys to the room and I had to do a claim.

After all of that, there’s a happy ending, but only because Matt wouldn’t let the matter drop. Here’s a good example of how persistence can pay off.

Later in the week I spent approx. an hour dialing various numbers and holding and pushing buttons until I finally got through to a person. At first, this woman was surprisingly friendly; she listened to my tale and told me that absolutely I should have been able to do the voucher at the ticketing counter; she told me she’d never heard a case like this, wanted to give me a voucher, but she said she had to go check with her “Sup”[ervisor] first.

When she came back, the warmth was gone and all I got was, “You were made late because of TSA, there’s nothing I can do for you.”

I told her I was delayed, but not made late and the NWA agent didn’t give me a chance to get the offered voucher. She responded, “Yeah, you didn’t get to the gate so it wasn’t NWAs fault,” to which I responded, “It was NWAs fault that I didn’t get to the gate.” I had to repeat that a couple time. She eventually said she would put down “rude behavior/treatment” by an agent and offered me a $75 voucher.

I said that I wasn’t treated rudely, and that I should be getting the flight voucher. She repeated the usual, I said “I don’t accept your premise” and she just stated that there was nothing she could do for me. I asked to speak to a supervisor – you know, the “Sup” she just talked to 5 minutes ago – and she said, I thought it was deja vu, “I am a supervisor.” I almost laughed; confused by her short memory I asked if I could speak to her supervisor; she said she could do an “escalation,” I said that would be fine; she took down my phone number and a good time to call and said that I would receive a call within 24 hours. I never received that call.

I waited a few days and then wrote an email to Kristen Shovlin (from your website) and Beth Reed (from some other website) – both listed as executive types. When I clicked on the “Beth” email link on the other site, Kristen’s email address came up; I manually typed in Beth’s. Within 3 hours I got a response from Jodee with the usual humminah humminah and I got the voucher.

Thanks for everything you do; hope this is helpful.


We won’t reprint Matt’s entire email, because we’re running out of space on the web for this story, but basically it was a slightly shorter version of what you just read with the TSA part reduced to “TSA delayed me.” At the end of the email, Matt states clearly,

I am sorry for my verbosity, but I feel strongly that I should receive a flight voucher. I tried all of the proper channels first and received essentially no resolution.

(Photo: Getty)