N.Y. lawmakers ask TSA for passenger advocates at airports

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In the wake of claims by an elderly woman that she was strip-searched at John F. Kennedy Airport, two New York lawmakers want to establish passenger advocates at all airports.

At a Sunday news conference, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) and state Sen. Michael Gianaris of Queens, where the airport is located, asked the Transportation Security Administration to create the posts to protect passengers. The TSA, in a blog post, insisted that it does not conduct strip searches.


“While the safety and security of our flights is a paramount concern for us, the TSA, and for the American people, an appropriate circumstantial balance is necessary so that flying does not become a fear-inducing, degrading, and potentially humiliating experience for many of our most vulnerable Americans,” the lawmakers wrote in a letter to TSA administrator John Pistole and his boss, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.

“That is why we are asking TSA to designate a ‘passenger advocate’ at every airport who can be summoned by passengers before events like the ones described above occur. The ‘passenger advocate’ would immediately review whether there are more amicable, yet equally effective, methods for resolving disputes between passengers and agents than what is being proposed by the specific agent handling the security screening at the moment.”

The TSA has already announced that it is planning some form of advocacy service, though details are still under review. “The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) strives to provide the highest level of security while ensuring that all passengers are treated with dignity and respect,” the agency stated over the weekend.

“TSA has programs in place for the screening of people with all types of disabilities and medical conditions and their associated equipment.”

A week ago, Lenore Zimmerman, 85, of Long Island, said she was injured and humiliated when she was strip-searched at JFK Airport. She said she had asked to be patted down instead of going through a body scanner because she was worried the scanner would interfere with her defibrillator. Zimmerman said she was forced to miss her flight and had to take one 2 1/2 hours later.

The Transportation Security Administration insists that no such strip search took place.

“While we regret that the passenger feels she had an unpleasant screening experience, TSA does not include strip searches as part of our security protocols and one was not conducted in this case,” the TSA stated.


In addition to the Zimmerman case, the legislators also cited reports involving Ruth Sherman, 88, of Sunrise, Fla., who said she was pulled aside and asked about the visible protrusion from her waist band. The bulge was caused by a colostomy bag.

A third woman, Linda Kallish, of Boynton, Fla., said that she was escorted to a separate room and told to remove her pants after she revealed she was a diabetic with an insulin pump in her leg.

And last June, the daughter of Lena Reppert, 95, reported that TSA agents would not let her mother board a flight from Florida to Detroit because her incontinence pad set off alarms.

“We truly regret these passengers feel they had a bad screening experience,” the TSA said in its blog.


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Video: Lenore Zimmerman recounts her experience at JFK Airport. Credit: Associated Press via YouTube.