Live TSA Chat on Milepoint and The TSA vs Chocolate Milk

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Tonight on Milepoint there was a live chat with former TSA Administrator Kip Hawley.  If you missed the chat, you can still read the transcript.  Like many frequent travelers, I have mixed feelings about the TSA.  I totally agree with their mission to keep travelers safe, but the execution sometimes leaves something to be desired.  Though in truth air travel has thankfully been very safe post-9/11 so they must be doing something right. 

Anyway, I asked a question on the chat and (to my surprise) it ran and was answered.  My question was:

 

In case you can’t read the screen shot, here is the question and answer……

Comment From Mommy Points:

Hi there! Pretty much every time I fly with my toddler I am told a different “rule” about what you can and can’t bring through security for little ones, and everyone speaks as if they are quoting from some official source, yet I am told something different almost every time. Is there an official source? Presumably there is, so is there any way for other traveling parents to know the exact rules of what they can and can’t bring for babies and toddlers?

Kip Hawley:

Short answer, anything you need…

There is a huge Standard Operating Procedure that each TSA has to follow exactly. Obviously with 2 million people a day, there are things not covered by SOP. One of my points is that common sense should play a role and they should get rid of 90% of prohibited items.

For babies, toddlers, there is always the option of asking for a “liquid exception” for fluids and they can test virtually anything for explosives. Easily. They are even supposed to have “Family lanes” to help you and make you not feel rushed by freq flyers.

I am very grateful that the former head of the TSA took the time to answer the question, but sadly this has not really been my experience.  “Common sense” seems to vary dramatically from person to person and I am given all sorts of different rules about what I can and can’t bring for infants or toddlers almost every time I fly.  In fact, it reminded me of a post I wrote a while back but had yet to publish.  I wrote it right after my trip to Disneyland with my kiddo.  It was entitled “The TSA vs Chocolate Milk”.

 TSA vs Chocolate Milk

I recently flew with my two-year daughter to Disneyland.  On the way home we flew out of Orange County, and we had an encounter with the TSA agents that I will to refer to as The TSA vs. Chocolate Milk.  I have flown a fair amount with my daughter over the last two years, and have been through the transition from bottles, to sippy cups, and now to juice boxes.  I have to say that travel with little ones does get logistically easier as you make each of those transitions, but life with the TSA only seems to get more complicated.

It seems that almost every time I fly with my kiddo, a different TSA officer proclaims some new rule or policy when it comes to bringing various supplies for babies and toddlers through security.  Here are a few of the policies I have been told related to bringing liquids through for my kiddo: I can bring as many liquids through as I “reasonably” might need (ie not a whole crate of apple juice), I can have only one bottle of each type of liquid (ie juice, milk, water, etc.), but no limit on the types; I cannot bring water through for my child, only other types of liquids; and I can have two liquids max.  Typically, the TSA agent either doesn’t do any further checks on the liquids after they go through the scanner, or if they do, they just swab the outside of the containers and then check that swab to make sure everything is acceptable.

However, on this trip I guess the TSA agent had been trained to follow a different protocol.  The agent was insistent that the only way to bring a box of chocolate milk through security was to open it so it can be tested.  Hmmm, if I open the box of milk with the straw there is exactly a 0% chance of me actually getting that liquid on the plane where I need it.  It will either be consumed by my daughter long before we board, or, more likely, I will end up squirting it all over everything because it will then be an open juice box.  Which is essentially the equivalent to a live bomb in the world of toddlers.  I had only packed two drinks, both boxed liquids, for the return trip – one for takeoff and one for descent.  I didn’t have any sippy cups to pour the liquids into (despite the agent’s insistence that I must have some sippy cup somewhere to pour it into).  Since I had no alternatives, and I didn’t know this airport well enough to feel confident that they sold drinks that would work for us, I held my ground that I was not opening the boxes.  There was no way I was going to be on the flight without some sure-fire drinks for my daughter to drink on take-off and landing (so her ears would pop).

The agent eventually said that I could keep the boxes closed, but I would have to go through additional screening in order to do so.  This meant I had to get the TSA “full body massage”, in addition to a full search of my bags, while keeping a toddler secured, in order to keep my closed boxes of chocolate milk.  I routinely opt out of the scanners when traveling alone, so I am used to the TSA pat-down, but it is a whole other ballgame when you are traveling alone with a toddler, as you cannot hold the kiddo while getting the pat down.  You have to just hope they will stay nearby.  My kiddo ended up laying on the airport floor while I received my additional screening.

I’m clearly all for airport security, and I suppose I should be grateful that I am allowed to bring drinks through security for my kid, but I think I would feel much better if there were at least a small shred of consistency from airport to airport and agent to agent.  It really is like playing roulette, as you never know what rules and policies will be quoted to you each time you fly with supplies for kiddos.  Each time the policies are spouted off as if they are the gospel, but yet on the next trip it is highly unlikely that the same “policies” will be quoted.  I can’t help but wonder if there is this much variability when it comes to a routine issue like supplies for babies and toddlers, then how much variability is there when it comes to other more serious issues?

What policy variance have you encountered with the TSA?  Have you experienced “common sense”, or have you had an experience like mine where you were sent through extra security and a full search due to your box of chocolate milk?

Pingbacks

  1. […] Last week MilePoint hosted a live chat with Kip Hawley, the former head of the TSA. There were several questions from participants in the chat , including Mommy Points. She asked about what you are allowed to bring through security for your small children. Although the answer Kip gave sounded great, it isn’t exactly what Mommy Points has found to be true in her own experiences. Details HERE. […]

Comments

  1. We get a different “rule” every time we fly with kids liquids. Opening is never policy (in the US), though, they once gave it to us as an option, with the alternative a pat down. I’ve noticed it’s worse at the small airports. LAX is a breeze. We’ve always gotten our milk/water through but its always a tad longer wait at TSA.
    I know it’s none of my business, but please watch the sugars on those chocolate milks and juices, most have about as much sugar/nutritional value as a Coke.

  2. As a former supervisor for TSA (let the flame wars begin) and a dad who’s traveled with a 2 year old overseas, let’s see if I can’t try to explain what happened during the chocolate milk incident.

    Kip was right: you can ask for a exemption to bring anything baby-related through the checkpoint. However, any liquid/gel/aerosol above 3.4 ounces has to be tested for explosives. For the most part, the only tool that’s available are test strips (although larger airports have electronic versions). I’m sure you’ve seen them – they’re little white strips that the officer will hold above a liquid for a couple seconds to see whether the strip changes color (meaning there’s something resembling explosives in the bottle).

    Now, here’s where the headaches start: You were asking for an exemption in the liquid rules for a liquid item greater than 3.4 ounces but didn’t allow the officer to test the chocolate milk to validate whether or not the contents were explosive. This triggers a standard patdown and testing of all your accessible property (bags, shoes, electronics).

    As far as I can tell, the logic is that if you don’t want TSA to test a particular item, then there’s more reason to believe that the item might be explosive, since you’re making an effort not to have the item tested. Officers are generally not allowed to say, “That looks like chocolate milk. Let’s just let it go,” because they aren’t allowed to take your word on it. TSA seems to think (justified or not) that, if their front-line officers could make judgment calls on their own, then would-be terrorists would exploit the hole by injecting liquid explosives into a chocolate milk box.

    As far as not letting you hold your daughter during the patdown, that’s unfortunately pretty standard too. The fear is that, if you have something prohibited in your pockets, you might try to pass it off to someone else before the officer can find it. To prevent this, officers aren’t allowed to let people getting pat down come into physical contact with anybody else. This includes children (rather, it doesn’t exclude children). Several options that they should have offered you would be to let you hold your daughter and then pat her down afterward, or to have someone traveling with you hold onto her.

    That was a long way of saying that your chocolate milk incident actually went according to SOP. It is a pain for everybody involved. No officer is ever thrilled to do extra screening on what they know is a box of chocolate milk. But, if they don’t do it, they get disciplinary action against them. Also, the above procedures are a pretty obscure part of SOP that TSA does not tend to emphasize in their training materials. Whether it will be followed has a lot to do with how much time officers have to actually read the SOP – in small airports, they’ll be on top of every little nuance. In big, busy airports, not so much – they also tend to have more pressure to get passengers through quickly, and skip certain unpleasant steps to avoid the headache.

    As far as your experience with the roulette wheel of rules, the main problem is that the SOP only allows for “reasonable” amounts of liquids above 3.4 ounces to be exempted from the liquid restrictions. The management at individual airports are free to interpret what “reasonable” is. At the airport I worked at, “reasonable” changed fairly often and ranged from an amount appropriate for the length of the trip to basically as much as you want.

    Things like this are why I’m a “former” TSA supervisor. Your chocolate milk incident must have happened to me at least three times a day, and it never became any less frustrating or annoying for any party involved.

    Off the TSA website (http://www.tsa.gov/travelers/airtravel/children/index.shtm):
    “Medically necessary liquids and gels, including medications, baby formula and food, breast milk, and juice are exempt from the 3-1-1 rules, and are allowed in reasonable quantities exceeding 3.4 ounces (100ml). They are not required to be in a zip-top bag. Officers may ask travelers to open these items to conduct additional screening and passengers should declare them for inspection at the checkpoint.”

  3. “Though in truth air travel has thankfully been very safe post-9/11 so they must be doing something right.”

    Coming from someone who actually goes through the TSA it’s mind boggling to think you believe the TSA or all the security theater has anything to do with attacks or a lack of attacks. It’s been repeatedly shown that their security isn’t worth much against one-off, let alone concerted or intelligent efforts. Worse than oppressive, invasive security is the illusion of oppressive, invasive security.

  4. The only place this has ever happened to me is DEN, which in my opinion has the rudest TSA agents in the world. I also traveled through there with breastmilk and it was the one time I thought it might not get through. I emailed the TSA about it and received a response that opening it was a correct way to screen it. That seems ridiculous to me given the size of these things. We rarely actually use the milk we bring along but they are security blankets. I see no reason why I need to sacrifice a shelf-stable product that couldn’t possibly present problems but such is the case unless you want to opt-out. And the opt-out over the milk incident was much more invasive than I’m used to as well. Fortunately, my husband was there to calm down my daughter, who suddenly “needed” to have milk after seeing it.

  5. @Tim, agree on the sugar front, but on the plane just getting her to drink at the prescribed times takes temporary priority. 😉 Sounds like we have had similar experiences.

    @infamous dx, 😉

    @Matt, no flaming. 😉 Thanks for the detailed response – that actually makes sense that each airport gets to interpret what “reasonable” is as it has varied so much from airport to airport, and all the times I have flown I have gotten such different “official answers”. It was also the first time that a closed box of liquids caused a pat down for me. Since I was traveling alone with her, there was no one to hold her (nor was she patted down). I guess my real issue was not the SOP followed, but that the SOP has varied so much for me from airport to airport thus making it impossible to predict what will and won’t be allowed and what will and won’t trigger a pat down. Thanks again for taking the time to respond!
    @Ford, I hear ya, but I did want to acknowledge that they must be doing something right. I know they are just one part of stopping attacks on air travel, but they are still a part. (not that I am overly interested in really defending the TSA)
    @Karen, glad your husband was there!
    @Randy, thanks. 😉

  6. TSA remains pitiful at best, disgraceful at worst. IMHO, guess their sole purpose is to make the traveling sheep feel safe.

    • @Rich A, I thought their goal was to make the traveling sheep get half-way undressed, get a partial body-massage, and battle over sealed chocolate milk. I guess feel safe was implied in their somewhere. 😉 Thanks for sharing!

  7. I’ve had one incident (also with chocolate milk) that went almost exactly as you describe…. I usually travel with at least one Horizon ultrapasteurized milk and had never had an issue in major airports. My home airports are SFO and OAK – they see those things all the time and just wave me on through (sometimes they swab the outside, but that is only about 20% of the time). But then I was in a smaller regional airport in the south last year and they kept insisting that I open the cartons, which would of course spoil the milk! They acted as if they’d never encountered this situation before. Everyone was very perplexed. I held firm and eventually had to do a full body patdown to keep my milk sealed. Never had this happen again since. I agree that it is the inconsistency that is the most difficult. If I knew what the rules were, then I could prepare myself and my kid (or just not bring certain things). But I never can!

    One lesson I took away from this is that you should aim to take the smallest juice/milk boxes you can find. I had one 4 oz juice box at the time as well, and they didn’t need to test it since it was barely above the liquid limit. So for short flights where I can get away with not needing milk, I travel with those 4 oz boxes and just put them in my regular ziplock. I’ve avoided extra screening with those every time.

  8. I’ve traveled with kids for a few years now (mine are 3 & 5 yrs) and have never carried liquids for them on the plane. We purchase a milk after we get through security for them. (Use your finger nail or a key to punch a small whole in the seal and stick a straw through it. Actually works better than a juice box.) We’ve rarely been to an airport where milk is not available and on those instances we just wait for the beverage service on the a/c. I know all kids are different and you have to do what works for you, just wanted to comment that at least for some people, you can avoid problems with the your kids and the TSA fairly easily.

  9. Transiting CUN-DFW-FAT last year – had a 6-pack of Minute Maid Juice boxes – they allowed 2 as that was what would be needed of the first flight (1/hour). Ran into the one TSA agent with attitude (her co-workers all rolled their eyes – that told me something was up). She said that the liquid rules applied to infants only, not toddlers. I called over a supervisor who backed her up. Didn’t have the rule page with me (last time THAT will happen). Requested a call the next day and talked to a TSA sup. who mirrored the ‘hopefully common sense will prevail next time’ argument. I asked about having age requirements listed in the rules – he said that wouldn’t work as children don’t need ID’s on domestic flights.

  10. Mommy points – i can completely relate with your predicament – went through bringing up twin girls, now they are turning 7. Most TSA agents will let you take tetrapacks of milk if you plead long enough, although i have never had to go through a full body scan.

    Also, if you carry powdered chocolate like ovaltine or something, you can ask inflight attendant for the milk and mix it

  11. The struggle is real. Just yesterday at both SEA and PHX I had to battle the TSA. The culprit was a Horizon boxed milk for my one year old. They first asked to open the milk but I asked that they didn’t because that defeats the entire purpose of boxed milk. This lead to them emptying out my entire diaper bag and giving me a full body scan. It took forever. I couldn’t touch my bag or even move from my spot until another agent came. They then did chemical strip tests for all kinds of dangerous items in my bag like applesauce and a formula container. I then had to take off my shoes and get them scanned as well. I’m all for security but when will TSA stop all of this nonsense?

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