On Opting-Out at the Airport

airport security playmobile set

pic by ShoZu CC BY-SA 2.0

When I teach qualitative research methods the first assignment involves a participant-observation exercise in public spaces and I encourage students to disrupt those settings, at the very least by asking questions, but even better by participating in ways that provoke a response in others. For the very brave these may become what Garfinkel calls “breaching experiments” where behavior is strategically designed to go beyond the realm of acceptable or predictable. The idea is that one can reveal some of the inner-workings of social interaction in the way those subject to such behavior try to resolve and make sense of what is, essentially, senseless. I like to show this flash mob – Frozen in Grand Central – in my class to illustrate the point.

For a couple of years students chose to do participant-observation in a local DMV office (Department of Motor Vehicles) and we started to talk about what sort of site this was and how it differed from the bus stops, farmer’s markets, and public parks other students had selected. The DMV offered a space where citizens encounter their government, its rules and regulations, its efficiency (or lack thereof) and from their field notes this seemed to often generate a lot of talk between strangers about government.

I recently became intrigued by the idea of pursuing this thinking on my own, looking at where we as citizens encounter government most directly and apparently, but at the federal level. One way to do this was to reflect on experiences of airport security. I offer this here in this blog (with our particular thematic focus) as a way of thinking about how a research mindset might inform and enrich our own personal experiences and our conversations with one another. This is method meant not simply for scholarly write ups, or for applied spaces of design, policy, etc. but to sharpen our awareness in the way we go about daily life and reflect upon our own experiences. In this case it offered an opportunity to think about certain government regulations (relating to security and the war on terror) and our position as citizens pulled into this security apparatus.

After it started to become apparent that I could no longer entirely avoid the full body scanner at US airports by simply choosing a line without one, I decided I’d have to think more seriously about whether I was willing to go through one on a regular basis. So I decided to try opting out. I did so for the first time in January at the Detroit airport and then decided I’d make it a habit, but also that I’d start writing careful field notes after each opt-out experience.

Additionally I posted about this on Facebook where I noted, “Opting out of the body scanner went smoothly at both Tampa Bay and Portland airports over the break though with some really interesting subtle differences in TSA agent interactions…” which generated some interesting reflection in the comments section from other researcher-friends about their own experiences. Below I draw from a few of these Facebook and Twitter comments in relation to my own experiences.

What I wanted to keep track of were the interactional dynamics that followed when I requested to ‘opt out.’ I wanted to (first of all) observe the consistency or lack of consistency across airports in opt-out procedures and how slight differences might produce variations in whether the experience felt more or less comfortable, efficient, embarrassing, or punitive. I wanted to see how I was responded to by TSA agents. I wanted to see what kind of response (if any) my opting out generated in other travelers. Since opting-out is a legitimate choice and a non-arbitrary action, this doesn’t quite qualify as a “breaching experiment” but nonetheless has the flavor of the non-routine and intentional public act that might make visible some of the views and attitudes of others in the space.

Apart from the actions I was taking, I decided to take a stance of neutrality (to the extent possible). I requested to “opt out” but volunteered no explanation. I tried to keep a way-of-being through the process that was cooperative and unemotional (and so I attempted to appear neither fearful nor angry nor defiant).

These are my evolving findings based on just four experiences (to date) of ‘opting out’ in the Portland, OR, Tampa Bay, FL, Las Vegas and Atlanta airports. In two instances I was traveling with my husband (who in one of those instances also decided to opt-out) while in two I was traveling alone.

Consistency of application: While the procedure was pretty consistent and efficient in all my experiences, the one area of blaring inconsistency was the arrangement of the pat-down area in relation to the public. For example, the Tampa Bay airport wins the award for most public and (and for me, most embarrassing) pat-down spatial geography. While usually the pat-down was carried out somewhere a little bit off to the side where you were still in public view but not on display, this pat-down took place on a direct and visually uninterrupted line from everyone coming out of the security screening. Anyone who bothered to look up after collecting their belongings would see you there patted and prodded by your TSA agent. Airports varied in terms of whether they had you face toward or away from the public. At Tampa Bay, they had me face the public during my pat down. This arrangement from my perspective verged on a form of public shaming. The agent in that instance also neglected to offer me a private screening (as they did in the other instances).

Brief conversations with TSA agents: while professionalism would presumably dictate a certain reserve and official demeanor among agents relating to “the public,” agents (being human beings after all) managed to insert some little conversational comments along the way that gave me some sense of how they regarded those who requested to ‘opt-out.’

Skepticism: “you do know it’s not an X-ray machine right?” I heard from the TSA agent in Tampa Bay. From conversations with others who’ve opted out (including my husband who flies every other week) this seemed to be the most common way that TSA agents expressed a slight bit of redirective pressure on those who opt-out by suggesting you might not be properly informed.

Expressed Annoyance (both verbal and nonverbal): Though I did not experience this myself, I saw notes online (in the wake of my own Facebook announcement about opting-out) from a few people who experienced more direct disapproval from agents about their opt-out decisions. One friend noted on Twitter, “Awesome, #TSA agents quizzed me asking why and then mocked me with chicken noises when I opted out of the full body scanner at #PDX.” My own mother opted-out provoking a TSA agent to roll his or her eyes which she noted “doubled my resolve!”

Foot dragging?: one friend on her first attempt to opt-out was left waiting so long that she gave up and went through the body-scanner machine so as not to miss her flight.

Efforts to put at ease: “You can opt out” a female TSA agent responded encouragingly in response to my request (which, I should note, was not posed as a question). One TSA agent assigned to do my pat-down repeatedly called me “sweetie” and as she passed over my stomach said, “tickle, tickle!” At the end of the process she told me to ‘have a nice day!’

Other passengers: my request to opt-out has never influenced the same decision in anyone around me. From comments on Facebook it appears others who opt-out are more persuasive. My stance of neutrality may not draw enough attention to be influential or it might just be that the other passengers around me aren’t concerned about this new security process or are still too nervous to be a nonconformist or experience the extra-thorough pat-down.

Procedural confusion: “Are you next?” a tall older man asked me as I stood off to the side waiting for a female TSA agent. In another airport a man joked, “You aren’t in trouble are you?” to which I replied cheerily, “No!”

Quiet Acknowledgement: After opting out in Las Vegas, I overheard a man who was behind me in line and went through the full body scanner comment to his friend, “She opted out.”

So what can we take away here? Perhaps that small things can make a difference. Airports have some slight bit of leeway in making this alternate option more or less friendly. Individual agents also have some leeway (and take it). There is, at this point, no emerging pattern to suggest that conservativism or liberalism of a region is reflected in its airport security. Though federal government may intend to accomplish standardization of these kinds of procedures nationwide, instances of being governed can vary in tone.

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6 Comments on “On Opting-Out at the Airport”

  1. Justin Helepololei
    March 23, 2012 at 5:10 pm #

    Thanks for posting this reflection. I’d be curious if you had any thoughts/reflections on how your appearance was perceived by TSA agents or fellow passengers, and if you sensed that that might have influenced your interactions with them. As a young, male-bodied person of ambiguous ethnic descent (who sometimes also has facial hair…) I’ve had the privilege of experiencing a wide array of security protocols at US airports, typical pat downs and bag searches, but also the confusing experience of being asked to remove my shoes before that was a standard policy, post-September 11 but pre-Richard Reid. From my experience, I’d agree, there’s a good deal of leeway in how protocols are implemented and think that’s true of any system which tries to standardize anything through human conduits.

  2. April 5, 2012 at 12:30 am #

    Yes, the always important matter of researcher reflexivity. I assume the way I am read (as a youngish, white, female with a tendency to smile involuntarily a lot) is as generally unthreatening as our cultural depictions of the young/white/female generally accord with this. Likewise my TSA pat-down agent is always going to be female. Would have to combine this with the experiences of others in different categories to get some broader views. Can you imagine you would get the ‘tickle, tickle’ and ‘sweetie’ treatment from a male TSA agent? Probably not.

  3. April 5, 2012 at 3:35 am #

    “Tickle, tickle” and “sweetie.” Keeping my emotional composure would have been difficult in that circumstance! Eye rolling was bad enough. I did get the “you know it’s not xray,” just before the eye rolling. I am quite amazed at how I don’t see anyone else opting out. I’ve only been pulled over to a private space once. I didn’t find a pat down in public to be that distressing. So, if that was meant to make me uncomfortable, it didn’t. I’ll join you in this study. I didn’t know that what I was doing was “disrupting a public setting.” Guess I’ve been doing that my whole life. I wonder what it would take for some people to question the way things are done and to take a stand.

  4. September 19, 2013 at 11:07 pm #

    Wonderful goods from you, man. I’ve understand your stuff previous to and you are just extremely wonderful.

    I really like what you’ve acquired here, really like what you
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  5. denise
    April 6, 2014 at 5:28 am #

    i would be laughing if i got patted down. i am very ticklish all over

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  1. Why Ethnography Matters for me: Reflections on our 1 year anniversary | Ethnography Matters - November 13, 2012

    […] been an open tab on my browser for months as I find myself continually re-reading it. Her post on opting-out on airport security is a great example of how to conduct ethnography in everyday life […]

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