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.

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.

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab
L. Vance Taylor has worked to advance the mission of homeland security on Capitol Hill and in the private sector. One of only approximately 250 people in the nation with a Master’s degree in Homeland Security, Mr. Taylor combines specialized educational training with real-world experience to leverage successful outcomes for clients and stakeholders. Read More
  • KatieK

    You incorrectly assume this incident happened last week. The article ran last week. In the article, it says the incident happened in March, which is 11 months ago.

    If something happened 11 months ago, and TSA had no record of a complaint filed, there would be no way to pull video or check work logs to see what happened and who was involved. Any passenger who goes through something like that should work to have it addressed at the airport and if it isn't, they should file a complaint so that upper management is aware and can take appropriate action.

    You note that you are a physically disabled flyer, so I can completely understand how you look at this. However, I'd like to throw out another way to look at this topic.

    Two Chechyan women who appeared to be pregnant actually had bombs strapped to their bodies and blew up planes.

    In South America, a disabled man in a wheelchair was allowed to bypass security because of his disability, and subsequently hijacked a plane with the hand grenades he snuck on board.

    In 2009, a man in a wheelchair went through the U.S. checkpoint with a couple of pounds of cocaine strapped to his body with duct tape. He hoped to use the premise of a disability to get the drugs through.

    Also in 2009, a passenger was caught with a cast made completely of drugs.

    TSA officers have also caught prosthetic limbs full of drugs or with prohibited items hidden in them.

    Officers have found knives hidden in baby carriers and canes, a machete hidden in wheelchair, a gun in a diaper bag, and sharp items hidden in casts.

    We live in a world when sometimes, things are not always how they seem. You know you're disabled, but the officer doesn't know you. And they've had enough experiences to know to question everything, because his/her ultimate job is to keep bombs off of planes.

    It is very unfortunate that terrorists and others will take advantage of things like disabilities, but over and over they do.

    You also seem to think that ongoing security measures are knee jerk reactions to single incidents, which is not true. Passengers don't take their shoes off because of Richard Reid. Passengers take their shoes off at checkpoints because intel and operational experience shows that terrorists continue to try to use shoes to smuggle things through the checkpoints, like knives and other prohibited items.

    In the case of liquids rules, the foiled UK plot involved a pre-assembled liquid bombs designed to look like a sealed, new drink bottle. They were designed to get around current technology. The ongoing liquids rules are in place until technology can appropraitely screen for them and mitigate the threat. Otherwise, it would leave a vulnerablility someone could exploit.

    The current screening methodology IS risk-based screening. Terrorists come in all shapes and sizes, and no one group can be given a pass, even if it pulls at heartstrings. If you say old people shouldn't be screened as thoroughly as younger people, it will drive terrorists there. If you pick an ethnic or religious group to profile, you drive terrorists to another type of person. Give a terrorist a loophole and they'll drive right on through – with disastrous consequences.

  • Wendy Harrison

    It seems you missed the point of Mr. Taylor’s article. It is not that anyone person or group should be excluded from screening rather that screening should be conducted according to the rules, methods and protocols designed by TSA. Mr. Taylor also raises a good point that TSA should continue to look for proactive and innovative methods to screen passengers to keep us safe.

  • gisellademorais

    I’d first like to say that your post regarding this issue was both informative and refreshing. I was unaware that this had taken place, and I also found it quite troubling that this small child endured such grueling airport security screening. It is obvious that your sensitivity to disabled passengers has weighed into this matter significantly, as you mentioned that you yourself are physically disabled. More striking though was not just your personal experience with flying as a disabled individual, but your three suggestions in order to improve airport security screening. In regards to your first proposition for ameliorating airport security, I agree that disciplinary action against the at-fault screeners should take place. TSA has clear guidelines and regulations for dealing with disabled children and those rules were violated by security officers. In Ryan’s case, because of his immobility, security screeners are supposed to “conduct a pat-down search of your child while he/she remains in their mobility aid,” according to TSA rules, rather than insisting in the removal of the mobility aid. In addition to this, TSA states that the parent/guardian of a disabled child should inform security officers of the extent of the child’s disabilities or whether the child “needs to be carried through the metal detector by the parent/guardian.” TSA clearly violated the very standards that it is meant to uphold and I also do believe that the at-fault security officers should be penalized, though maybe not fired, given that it is their duty to know their own limitations.

    In addition to your first proposal, I concur with the second as well. The lack of administration between the officers performing the screenings and the TSA’s “boots on the ground” is most definitely a problem. Aside from the security officers on site, there was no one to be held accountable or to refute the way in which the officers were conducting the search on Ryan Thomas. It was not as though Ryan’s parents could request to speak with the supervisor, or dispute the requests made by screeners to remove the child’s mobility aid and have him pass through the detector alone. The boots on the ground breached their own regulations and this lack of infrastructure between “higher ups” and the security officers did not help Ryan’s situation. Regarding your final proposal, I believe it is a hard call. It is unfortunate that like you said, because of Richard Reid, we must remove our shoes to pass through security or that liquid more than 3.4 ounces is prohibited. While the majority of traveling passengers are not terrorists and have no business blowing up a plane with bombs in their shoes, the TSA security officers must now consider all forms of potential threat. We can never assume that based on someone’s age, ethnicity or physical disabilities that they are not capable of posing a security threat. Though I do agree that more time should be spent on those who “actually pose a serious risk,” it is not always easy to spot those who may or may not pose that very risk. Since your last recommendation for improving security in airports had me slightly stumped, I would like to know what you believe should be assessed in these hearings held by Congress. If the difference between “total screening versus risk-based screening” were assessed by Congress, do you believe it could help prevent another Ryan Thomas situation in the future? We walk a very fine line between protecting our nation’s borders and invading the personal rights of our citizens, though in your opinion, which way is the scale likely to tip in the future?

    • pololoco44

      guess what? the TSA can't make the disabled take off their shoes. A Memorandum from Sandra Cammarotoa An TSA Official states that The Disabled can leave their shoes on. Read link I've provided.

  • Safetraveler

    i think the bigger picture here is there are a lot of people out here who agree with you and are trying to do something (no, I dont work for the TSA). i work with one disability group who is trying to revamp the TSA policies. Its slow as the TSA belives most of these stories are made up. I feel that most people dont want to complain becasue they dont complain or because they fear that if they do, they will be put on a “list”. (let fredom ring). i am one who are talking to victims and working toward resolution. you wouldnt believe how common the TSA response is that someone did not follow policy. Not follow policy? thats what promotions are about, knowing the policies and enforcing them. anyway, send me your stories or questions. i will get responses! —safe traveler