A pilot for ExpressJet Airlines refused to submit to a full-body scan in Memphis on Saturday, saying the technology amounts to "virtual strip searching." Detained by airport security, he now may lose his job. Here's his heroic first-hand account.
Michael Roberts says he has been reporting for work in Memphis for 4 1/2 years without incident until Friday, the first time that the Transportation Security Administration had asked airline employees to enter the full-body scanners now being deployed at airports around the country.
Roberts said when he objected while wearing a full uniform, airport security sent him through a metal detector, then told him he would have to be frisked. He declined, and that's when things got uncomfortable; airport police were summoned, talked with Roberts, and eventually demanded his information. He claims he gave most of what they wanted — but stopped short when asked to provide his bosses' name and telephone number.
Here's Roberts' account:
As I loaded my bags onto the X-ray scanner belt, an agent told me to remove my shoes and send them through as well, which I've not normally been required to do when passing through the standard metal detectors in uniform. When I questioned her, she said it was necessary to remove my shoes for the AIT scanner. I explained that I did not wish to participate in the AIT program, so she told me I could keep my shoes and directed me through the metal detector that had been roped off. She then called somewhat urgently to the agents on the other side: "We got an opt-out!" and also reported the "opt-out" into her handheld radio. On the other side I was stopped by another agent and informed that because I had "opted out" of AIT screening, I would have to go through secondary screening. I asked for clarification to be sure he was talking about frisking me, which he confirmed, and I declined. At this point he and another agent explained the TSA's latest decree, saying I would not be permitted to pass without showing them my naked body, and how my refusal to do so had now given them cause to put their hands on me as I evidently posed a threat to air transportation security (this, of course, is my nutshell synopsis of the exchange). I asked whether they did in fact suspect I was concealing something after I had passed through the metal detector, or whether they believed that I had made any threats or given other indications of malicious designs to warrant treating me, a law-abiding fellow citizen, so rudely. None of that was relevant, I was told. They were just doing their job.
Eventually the airport police were summoned. Several officers showed up and we essentially repeated the conversation above. When it became clear that we had reached an impasse, one of the more sensible officers and I agreed that any further conversation would be pointless at this time. I then asked whether I was free to go. I was not. Another officer wanted to see my driver's license. When I asked why, he said they needed information for their report on this "incident" – my name, address, phone number, etc. I recited my information for him, until he asked for my supervisor's name and number at the airline. Why did he need that, I asked. For the report, he answered. I had already given him the primary phone number at my company's headquarters. When I asked him what the Chief Pilot in Houston had to do with any of this, he either refused or was simply unable to provide a meaningful explanation. I chose not to divulge my supervisor's name as I preferred to be the first to inform him of the situation myself. In any event, after a brief huddle with several other officers, my interrogator told me I was free to go.
As he turned to leave, Roberts was stopped again, this time to wait for a separate TSA investigator. As he waited, Roberts said he and the airport police official chatted about the ever-increasing security used to spot attempted terrorists such as Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab:
Where, then, would the evolution of these policies lead next?
"Do you want them to board your plane?" he asked.
"No, but I understand there are other, better ways to keep them off. Besides, at this point I'm more concerned with the greater threat to our rights and liberties as a free society."
"Yeah, I know," he said. And then, to my amazement, he continued, "But somebody's already taken those away."
It was then that the TSA investigator arrived.
He asked for my account of the situation. I explained that the agents weren't allowing me to pass through the checkpoint. He told me he had been advised that I was refusing security screening, to which I replied that I had willingly walked through the metal detector with no alarms, the same way I always do when commuting to work. He then briefed me on the recent screening policy changes and, apparently confused, asked whether they would be a problem for me. I stated that I did indeed have a problem with the infringement of my civil rights and liberty.
His reply: "That's irrelevant."
It wasn't irrelevant to me.
The TSA investigator went through the same questions again, and Roberts said the investigator scolded him for his behavior:
"I'm not saying you've done something wrong. But you have to go through security screening if you want to enter the facility."
"Understood. I've been going through security screening right here in this line for five years and never blown up an airplane, broken any laws, made any threats, or had a government agent call my boss in Houston. And you guys have never tried to touch me or see me naked that whole time. But, if that's what it's come to now, I don't want to enter the facility that badly."
By the time he'd left the airport, the TSA had already contacted Roberts' superiors, and he described his job status as now being "on hold."
His experience, posted on a pilots' chat board, drew attaboys from several other pilots, but a few questioned Roberts' approach:
Congratulations, you fell on your sword for nothing. No policy has changed, or will change, and now you're likely unemployed because of it. Noble? Sure. Stupid? Incredibly...Look, do I agree with you about the intrusiveness of the TSA? Absolutely. However, since 2001, the TSA has been the name of the game in the airline world. You knew you'd be dealing with this hassle every day for the rest of your career, yet you decided to do it instead of fly jumpers, boxes, or VIPs around. That was your decision and now you're going to have to live with it.
Roberts reply: "If your perspective prevails - and I'm afraid it may - we may all live to find ourselves wishing we had fought in earlier days, when we still had a fighting chance."
Photo Credit: AP