A Queens man has a message for Transportation Security Administration officials who are denying that his mother and two other elderly women were strip-searched at Kennedy Airport over the Thanksgiving holidays:
Ralph Sherman of Hillcrest and his brother Bob joined U.S. Senator Charles Schumer (D-New York) and state Sen. Mike Gianaris (D-Astoria) at a press conference at the airport on Sunday in which the senators called on the TSA to investigate the incidents.
Also present was Bruce Zimmerman of Long Island, whose mother also claims to have been improperly searched.
"They're basically saying my mother is lying," Ralph Sherman said Sunday outside the old TWA terminal, a short distance from JetBlue terminal 5 where Lenore Zimmerman, 85, Ruth Sherman, 88, and Linda Kallish, 66, say they were taken to a room and forced to remove clothing because of medical devices they must wear. Zimmerman has a heart defibrillator, Sherman a colostomy bag and Kallish an insulin pump.
All three said they were strip-searched by female TSA officers on Nov. 28-29 before boarding flights to Florida on JetBlue.
"You have three women who have never met and never spoke to each other with similar stories taking basically the same flight in a 24-hour period," Sherman said. "The head of the TSA union says they has video proof that it didn't happen. I think they should produce it."
"These women would have no reason to make this up,' Gianaris said.
TSA officials have said the strip searches did not happen and are not proper protocol. Sherman said his mother is willing to take an independent polygraph test.
Schumer and Gianaris used the press conference to call for the establishment of a passenger advocate, which would be established at each airport, and would be taken from among select TSA personnel who have shown good judgement and who have undergone special training for such situations. They also are demanding that the TSA launch a complete investigation into the women's claims.
Gianaris wrote passenger bill of rights legislation for the state which Schumer said became the foundation of recently-passed federal law.
Schumer said the TSA must continue to carry out its primary function of making sure air travel is safe. But he also said the screening process can and must be changed to deal with situations such as all three women say happened.
"Right now your only two options are to go through a humiliating search or not get on your flight," Schumer said. "Those are two rotten options."
Zimmerman said he has been encouraged by friends to pursue criminal charges against the TSA agents through the Port Authority Police Department and that a civil suit "has not been ruled out."
Schumer discounted any large-scale conversion from the current TSA screening system to an Israeli-type system in the future. Israel focuses less on searching passengers for weapons and more on highly-trained security experts spotting personal and behavioral characteristics that would help identify a potential terrorist.
"We probably should be doing more of that," he said. "But I don't think you can ever get away from the process of keeping metal off a plane."