What’s your first name and where are you flying to?

A trend I’ve noticed lately is TSA agents asking questions — not just making small talk — while checking IDs (I experienced it as far back as March at SFO). If TSA agents were actually properly trained in behavior detection or were smarter about the way they did it, I’d say it’s not a half bad idea (though those are two Jupiter-sized “ifs”).

Case in point, while clearing security at JFK earlier in the week the TSA agent asked every single passenger for their first name and where they were flying to. Now maybe I’m just an ass, but I find that to be ridiculous. What exactly are they trying to stop by doing that? Are they trying to stop someone with a fake ID? If so, I’d think someone with a fake ID would at least know the name of the person they’re pretending to be and where they’re flying to. More importantly, the agent asked every passenger the same question, so one would hear it in advance and be able to find out that information before actually being asked.

Anyway, when it was my turn and the agent asked me what my first name is and where I was flying to, I responded with “it’s on my boarding pass and ID, ma’am.” She said “let me ask you again, where are you flying to today and what’s your last name?” I responded with “do I have to answer that in order to be able to fly tonight?”

She said “it depends,” and I responded with “how about I give you another form of identification so you can verify my identity?” She rolled her eyes and tried to call over a supervisor, though he was busy. Instead she looked at my second ID and waved me through.

I know some will say I’m being stubborn and should just answer the question. I can appreciate the sentiment, though feel that at a certain point passengers have to stand up and ask “why?” This, to me, is as silly as being asked what your favorite flavor of ice cream is at the checkpoint. Others will say my frustration is misdirected at the front line agents. I actually don’t want to make their lives any harder, though at a certain point I think the best way to rally for change is to express my displeasure to front line employees and hope they pass it on to their superiors. If 70% of passengers asked why they were being asked something ridiculous, I’d be willing to bet we would see change.

Of course this is nothing compared to the pat down I got from a one armed TSA agent

Comments

  1. Somehow I don’t think your protest is gonna make much difference except for giving the TSA agent a headache and making them hate life even more. Have you ever had a menial job where you were asked to do things by your superiors that you yourself thought were stupid? But you do it because you have to pay the rent and see no other options at the time. Would it not be more effective to answer her questions and then ask for her supervisor to whom you could express your feelings? Or send an email? Or write a letter? Or start a petition? Front line employees are not the changemakers and you ARE making THEIR lives more difficult.

  2. @Laura “Have you ever had a menial job where you were asked….” But if we are to believe what we are told then these are not menial jobs, but important front lines jobs that are there to help keep us safe. If thats not the case, lets get these folks the heck out of there so that I can waste less time and frustration in line!

  3. @Jason
    I am with you on that. I agree with Lucky that the question is stupid. I believe there should be better training of TSA agents if we are to continue to pay for them. I am as frustrated as the next person but I don’t agree with the method of expressing protest here.

  4. The TSA–or government for that matter–has no right to know where we go or what we do to begin with. TSA intrusion is nothing but a small slice of something that’s gone wrong with a much bigger picture.

  5. That is ridiculous. I agree that true (El Al style) profiling would be the best way to go and avoid the NOS and all that other BS. But Lucky’s experience seems to serve no purpose. Any teenager who’s had a fake ID or “borrowed” his older brother’s ID, knows to memorize who he’s pretending to be!

    And for that matter, didn’t all the 9/11 terorists use their real names, IDs, etc? Why wouldn’t they ask for last name, too, assuming that asking the question did serve some purpose (which I highly doubt).

    So is one supposed to state the final destination or just the connecting destination (if you have one)? I normally only present my first BP.

  6. I’m glad you pointed this out. I’ll answer “Ridiculous” and the city I’m flying to from now on. 😀

  7. I’ve noticed this question too. Despite the fact I agree with Lucky and have thought about doing the same thing he did, it’s just not worth it, IMHO. I’ll answer their questions quickly, since I know it’s just delaying my pat-down / massage / feel-up that awaits me at the x-ray machine. 🙂

  8. Always love people like you who spend more time arguing about nonsense than it would take you to just answer the question. Then you blog about it as if you’re some kind of hero, standing up for our rights.

    LOL.

  9. It’s a shame you had to hassle the front-line employee and didn’t have more effective action to take. For example, if you happened to be a well-known airline blogger, you could have written a post about this which would have drawn attention to the ridiculousness of this without making life miserable for someone who had nothing to do with the policy.

    I’m with Laura on this. Being a jerk to the agent achieves nothing here.

  10. I wouldn’t have answered the question. How does the TSA handle the mute, or mentally handicapped? With the same care we give the TSA. Frontline linebacking or not, you have every right to ask “why?”. In this case, the system relented and Lucky won.

    JRL

  11. Gotta agree with what Lucky did. The “just following orders” defense is a poor one, whether it is a soldier or a TSO. It is too bad the supervisor was not called over. I would have like to have heard that conversation.

  12. I hate to be contrary but here goes…

    The point of asking softball, unobtrusive questions is not to catch idiot terrorists who don’t know to look at their ID and say the right first name. The point is that a uniformed official asking any question at all can be deeply unsettling to those whose minds are elsewhere, planning to blow up an airplane, for example. They might as well ask you what color socks you’re wearing that day, or what you ate for dinner last night; the point is to see if you answer like a normal person as opposed to someone so nervous they can hardly speak straight. Yes, highly-trained and motivated terrorists can learn how to evade such tactics, but it’s harder than you think, which is precisely why El Al uses this tactic.

    Now I have no idea why on this particular day at JFK they were asking everyone name and destination. Maybe it was a pilot program to get the frontline TSA folks to get used to asking questions. Maybe they will switch out the questions every day, every other day, every couple of hours, etc. Maybe they’re curious to see how Americans unaccustomed to such questions will respond so that they can tweak the program. I have no idea. But neither do you, Lucky, and neither does anyone else posting here. So it’s possible this is another dumb TSA thing, and don’t get me wrong, I don’t have great trust in the TSA and the ability of their frontline people to psychologically profile, but the description posted tell me one way or the other as to whether this was something legit or something stupid.

    Frankly, I have no problem at all with them asking such questions. I keep my powder dry for the backscatter machines and the like, which are a million times more intrusive than someone asking your name and where you’re going.

  13. @ Ben – Me too I am with as219. I think they should mix it up and ask crazy stuff and try to “read” us (well not u and me ben as we are now GOES trusted travelers). BTW if you hand them the passport with the sticker showing I have been told they just look at you and you go on your way even faster.

  14. @PanAm – yes, they used their real names and passports. Of course 15 of the 19 should never have been given a visa in the first place.

    Not to mention the State Department failures, we had unsecured cockpits, the FBI did not follow-up on the flight schools or actor James Woods’ report, overstayed visas, the list goes on.

    But you know who did their jobs that day: the privatized airport security screeners. 9/11 did not happen due to contraband.

  15. I am going to have to say you are being a bit stubborn on this one Ben. I think @as219 makes a good point. Also, if you sit there and look at names and ID’s all day they probably all look alike after awhile. Getting people to call out there names may just be a good way to help things match up (activate a brain dying from monotony). The point of asking “why” is completely valid, but on this one, I say there are better fights.

  16. I have no problem with the TSA asking questions, so long as I’m not obligated to answer them (and won’t face a retaliatory search for my refusal). Lucky has every right to remain silent, and it’s not disrespecting the agent. When you work for the government, you have to respect that people will be exercising their rights and it’s nothing personal.

  17. I know I’m a bit out of the norm here, but unless your privacy is being significantly violated, why ask “why?” It’s been ten years since 9/11, but terrorists remain a major threat. We are blessed to not have been struck again. The answer to the “why” question is because they feel whatever they’re doing keeps you safe. There are policies crafted in Washington that are not executed well, and there are valid points to criticize. But being consistently annoyed by extensive security is better than breezing through without sufficient security and risking the consequences.

  18. I have to disagree with @Other Ben on his statement “terrorists remain a major threat.” My conclusion is based upon the following facts (sourced from the TSA and from the Bureau of Labor statistics): in 2004-2005 the TSA failed 70% of screening tests. During that time there were 21.9 million domestic airline departures carrying over 1.5 billion people… these numbers exclude foreign airlines. During that time there were zero air incidents. Zero. While I do not dispute that there is a threat, given the above numbers the threat is no where NEAR major. There is a greater threat that certain low-tolerance people will develop radiation-induced cancer from the AIT machines than the threat that anyone will be blown out of the sky by a terrorist.

  19. Ever since the TSA started asking names at security I’ve had some of the same questions. If these agents aren’t actually trained in some sort of behavioral detection and/or they aren’t doing a full evaluation what is the point? Maybe they’re hoping someone will just burst out with “death to America!” or what?

  20. FYI, I was asked for my last name while in UA premium line at SFO today. I use my passport as ID and the agent held it up as if he were comparing my photo to my face (or hiding the details page). My boarding pass was visible on the desk.

  21. Agree with as219 completely – and it was written much more clearly than I could have put it.

    Some (not all), but you gotta give me some, are pleasant and nice to deal with. I understand not wanting to deal with the x-ray machine, but answering your name and destination is harmless. You’ll tell an agent that, so why not a TSA officer. Heck, they can probably tell you faster if your flight is canceled or not as they’re generally facing the flight status screens.

  22. Sounds like another “layer” of fake security. Why do peope think that this is worth paying for? I really think TSA should be 100% funded through a tax on airline tickets. Maybe then we would have real security instead of the bloated farce that is TSA.

    As an aside I read the other day that there are 3800 senior TSA employees making an average of $105,000 a year. Sounds like waste to me.

  23. In my opinion, there are many valid questions that can be asked about the effectiveness and consistency of TSA procedures. However, I think your actions in this example are a completely ineffective way of doing anything about them, and reflect badly on you. As you point out, you weren’t being asked for any information the agent didn’t already have, so why not answer the questions, go on your way, and use your time to write to your political representative/Head of the TSA/someone else in a position to actually do something, rather than giving a hard time to a frontline employee who has extrmely limited, if any, ability to influence policies and proecdures. As it was, you wasted your own time, gave someone else a hard time to no end, and, in my view, came across as a rather a jerk.

  24. @as219 is right – It is a “behavior detection” tactic. If you’ve ever seen “Lie to Me”, a show that was (sadly) recently cancelled by FOX, then you know exactly what they were doing. They were “establishing a baseline”, asking a simple question that you “should” answer honestly and easily. What you don’t realize is that TSA is building out it’s BDO force (behavior detection officers). Because “Lie to Me” isn’t just a TV show…it’s the real deal.

    The pilot BDO program is running strong in Orlando and after a “behind the scenes” tour with TSA, I have to tell you that it’s impressive. As is its effectiveness. The number of threats that have been contained/stopped by the BDO force, as well as hundreds of millions in drug money confiscated, pretty much justify the program AND the science to me. And the TSA is expanding the program.

    If you stumble on a simple question like your name and destination, or push back, you’re flagged whether the supervisor came over or not. They’re paying attention…watching. You likely had a plain-clothed tail at that point – no, I’m not lost in the movies. I’ve watched the BDO force in action.

    In Orlando there are multiple uniformed TSA/BDO agents wandering the security lines. Dressed as normal TSA agents. They walk the lines and engage people in random small talk. “How’s the weather out there?” “Good time at Disney?” “The handle on your bag is tearing.” Simple things to see how people respond. Looking for oddities. The guy hurried and drenched in sweat. The woman afraid to make eye contact.

    When we were watching the BDOs in the lines, there was a guy in scrubs and a lab coat in line. No luggage. And looking around like crazy. I was standing next to one of the BDO supervisors and we both noticed him at the same time…he radioed and within seconds a uniformed BDO was talking to people in his line. Now, maybe he was making a transplant run of some kind, but it was an odd outfit in which to fly (and this is Orlando where the tank-topped, sunburned tourist with 4 kids under 5 years old is normal). And they checked him out. And I was glad that they did…and that they do.

    And next time, just answer the stupid question. Please. No need to waste resources, time and attention that could be protecting others, just because you were annoyed.

  25. Lucky,

    This is getting a bit sad. Once upon a time you were a nice young man discovering the world of (air) travel.

    You seem to have learned a thing or two about points and miles. But you know nothing, and I repeat nothing, about national security/airline safety/etc.

    The BDO program is no secret and anyone with some degree of education should be able to contextualize the purpose of the TSA, regardless of front line experiences.

    You seem to have developed a serious case of snotty entitlement. The comments on your blog directed at junior/entry level employees at an increasing number of organizations only show that you have never held a real job in your life – and that you lack respect for the many, many people you encounter on your travels who never enjoyed the privileges you have clearly been privy to.

    Count me as one reader who no longer cares to read your indulgent whining.

  26. I don’t think you are being stubborn at all. It’s not unlike the ‘Add On’ negotiation tactic. The TSA will continue to add on small inconveniences and intrusions and annoying questions until people say ‘enough’. What’s worse, by the time people say enough, the TSA has already added on enough to put them way ahead in the negotiating game. Then they can afford to magnanimously throw you back a bone.

  27. 100% agree with John (#30). I enjoy reading your blog but you know absolutely nothing about security, why these questions are asked, and what goes behind the scenes to protect you while you enjoy flying in first class.

  28. I agree with your premise, but…

    I don’t think messing with the agents is any way to create change. If any story gets passed on at all, it will be “this jerk wouldn’t tell me his name”; it won’t be “this person staged a peaceful protest against our misguided policy.” You’re most likely just going to hold up your fellow passengers.

    That being said, behavioral analysis is the best form of security. And asking questions is the best way to draw out gaps in behaviors. No one is better at this than the Israeli security at Ben Gurion airport. While often very slow, I never mind the extra security because it all has a purpose, and it all works. When TSA adds security measures that don’t work, it’s extremely frustrating. Two things are critical. First, asking different questions. In Tel Aviv, they’ll ask anything from “what hotel did you stay in?” to “what country were your parents born in?” Second, you have to be trained in behavioral analysis. Both of these are in place in Israel’s security.

    In Israel’s case, we can’t forget two important facts. One, they have only one airport to really worry about protecting. That keeps it pretty simple. Second, they hire security agents out of a population with mandatory military service. That’s a pretty nice baseline of training to pull from.

    I would like the TSA to pursue this path. It is the most effective form of security. It is very unlikely that the TSA will get as good as Israel’s given what they have to work with, without a massive budget. But the right path is the right path, and we’ll have to endure a few missteps along the path to improvement.

  29. I just passed through security at the Midland International Airport and was asked my name while the TSA agent diligently looked at my drivers license. It upset me, not because of the inconvenience, but because of another ridiculous “thing” that the government is doing in it’s efforts to fight terroism. I am wondering who in Washington, sitting behind his desk, came up with this brilliant idea. Do they put any thought into whether this will actually deter terroism. I remember after 9/11, metal utensils were no longer used, finger nail clipper files were being broken off in fear that it could be used as a weapon, a pocket screw driver was taken away, a cork screw could not be brought on a plane, all of which have gone away. If the government really wants to prevent teorrism, they should resort to tactics that actually work, such as those that have worked in Israel. It is embarrassing as an American when we do such useless things, which everyone in line looks at each other afterwards as mouths WTF.

  30. The question or questions don’t really matter. Screeners are supposed look for certain facial ticks,invountary responses to the stimuli.Having said that, I despise the whole TSA,Pistole , Napolitano & Obama. I honestly don’t think any of them know much of the U.S. Constitution.

  31. Going through Boston last summer I had this exchange with the TSA ID checker:

    *Where are you from?
    –Binghamton, NY
    *Where are you traveling to?
    –Binghamton
    *What is the purpose of your trip to Binghamton?
    –Going home
    *What were you doing in Boston?
    –Visiting family
    *What is your occupation?
    etc…

    By the end of it I was beginning to wonder if I was talking to TSA or Customs. After about a minute of this he waived me through. Never had that intensity of questioning again (and I fly through Boston semi-regularly), though they seem much more chatty than a few years ago.

  32. Where do you draw the line. What if they asked for your religion or sexuality or. Olof of your a**hole?

  33. Base-lining, while another regular clothed behavior analyst can later approach if needed and that’s all I’m going to say.

  34. What would they do if:

    * I point to my throat and shrug? Attempting to communicate “I’m hoarse.”

    * I reply “You may call me Master/Mistress”? Especially if I use the one that’s obviously incorrect for my gender.

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