L. Vance Taylor

Feb 22, 2010

Last week, Transportation Security Administration (TSA) workers at the Philadelphia airport grossly mistreated Ryan Thomas, a 4-year-old boy who has intellectual and physical disabilities, and his parents. Headed for an Orlando-bound flight to celebrate Ryan’s birthday at Disney World, TSA security screeners forced Ryan’s parents to strip off his leg braces to clear security. Refusing to allow Ryan to be carried through the metal detector, he was literally dropped from his father’s arms on one side of the machine into his mother’s arms on the opposite side. Turns out he was unarmed – who could have known?!

As a physically disabled frequent flyer, I am stunned by what happened to Ryan and am fully supportive of him and his family. As a homeland security expert, however, I view this sad experience through a broader lens. What happened to Ryan is a symptom of what’s wrong with the airport security process, and it should be leveraged to enhance safety while improving the airport experience for all flyers. In order for that to happen, the following needs to take place:

The at-fault screeners need to be fired.  After making Ryan’s parents remove his leg braces, the screening supervisor tried justifying his actions by saying, “You know why we’re doing this.” The implication here is that because of the underwear bomber, TSA should treat every passenger (no matter how vulnerable) like a terror suspect. This attitude cannot be allowed to permeate the Agency.  Rules and protocols were violated, and the screeners need to be held accountable.

President Obama needs a TSA Administrator.  This incident represents a significant breakdown between the Agency’s leadership office and its boots on the ground. How else could such a thing occur? TSA has been diligent about working with the disabled community to develop training programs, guidelines and operating procedures specifically designed to address screening individuals with special needs. The longer the White House takes to check this box, the worse the breakdown will become.  

Congress needs to hold hearings.  It’s time to take a fresh look at how and why we screen people. Because of Richard Reid, we all have to remove our Nikes to board a flight; a plot to down transatlantic flights by mixing commonly found liquids to create explosives resulted in a ban on all liquids in excess of 3.4 ounces; and because of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the so-called “underwear bomber,” people like Ryan and I are at greater risk of being treated like terrorists by overzealous screeners. Knee-jerk reactions do not equate to effective security practices. Congress needs to revisit how TSA is tasked with securing the “friendly skies” by revisiting the debate over total screening verses risk-based screening. How much time and energy do you suppose was wasted bothering this boy when efforts could have been more focused on those who more likely pose a serious risk?

As sorry as I am for Ryan and his parents, I’ll feel even worse for the nation as a whole if we don’t learn from this and improve our security practices. 

This piece was originally posted on Security Debrief.


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