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.
“I thought I’d left my mother in safe hands,” Zimmerman said upon leaving her with airline employees at the passenger’s only checkpoint.
He said he has had nightmares since getting the first call from his mother, and both he and the Shermans said their mothers are dreading the thought of return flights to New York.
“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 have 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 judgment 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.
“While the safety and security of our flights must be a top priority, we need to make sure that flying does not become a fear-inducing, degrading and potentially humiliating experience,” Schumer said, adding that 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.”
Gianaris also said common sense must prevail in such cases.
“I appreciate the TSA’s work to keep air passengers safe, but passengers should not be humiliated and degraded during their travels,” he said.
Toward that end, Schumer and Gianaris have written a letter, dated Dec. 11, to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and John Pistole, administrator of the TSA, to conduct an immediate investigation of the alleged incidents, and to quickly establish the passenger advocate position.
The letter reiterated that the current TSA complaint system only logs and tracks incidents after the fact, and has nothing to monitor situations or possible trends in real time.
The senators said a passenger advocate would not require any more new hires, additional costs or new levels of bureaucracy.
And Schumer said matter-of-factly that Congress has the ability to act if the TSA chooses not to.
“If they can’t police themselves, we can do it with legislation,” he said.
TSA spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein said in an email that the TSA has customer service representatives at most major airports in the country. She also said the agency is setting up an 800 hotline as a resource for passengers who know beforehand they will need assistance with their security screenings.
The hotline is expected to be up in January.
An entry on the website TSABlog, at blog.tsa.gov, said there was a miscommunication, and that JFK screeners are receiving refresher training, all while saying that no strip-searches took place.
But it also said the passengers in this case are at least partially to blame.
“We recommend that all passengers familiarize themselves with security protocols and inform officers prior to screening if they have medical devices that require special screening,” the blog states. “It makes things easier for everybody if all parties know in advance what to expect.”
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, physical 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.”
But he also acknowledged that Israeli security personnel, to his knowledge, do not conduct strip-searches of grandmothers.