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Hassled by TSA? App lets you file a complaint on the spot

Harriet Baskas, Special to CNBC.com
Tuesday, 26 Nov 2013 | 12:27 PM ET
Michael Fein | Bloomberg | Getty Images

While plenty of travelers are irritated by their airport security checkpoint experience, many Sikh, Muslim and South Asian travelers say they are regularly profiled by Transportation Security Administration officers at U.S. airports for wearing turbans, head wraps or loose and bulky clothing.

An updated mobile app offers a way for travelers to file formal complaints with TSA and the Department of Homeland Security—and let their congressional representatives know what's going on.

"At some airports, 100 percent of Sikh travelers report being subjected to unfair secondary screening," said Amardeep Singh, co-founder of the New York-based Sikh Coalition, a Sikh-American civil rights organization.

Singh, who wears a turban, said he receives secondarily screening about 75 percent to 80 percent of the time.

"TSA has zero tolerance for racial profiling and employs multiple checks and balances to ensure unlawful profiling does not occur," said TSA spokesman Ross Feinstein.

But as a way to bridge the gap over airport profiling concerns and official action, in April 2012 the Sikh Coalition and other civil rights groups developed FlyRights a mobile app that allows travelers to file real-time complaints about checkpoint profiling incidents with the TSA and the Department of Homeland Security.

A copy of each complaint is also filed with the coalition.

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As of Tuesday, the app has been updated. FlyRights 2.0 now not only helps travelers file complaints with TSA/DHS and the coalition, but also allows a copy of the complaint to be sent to a passenger's members of Congress.

"It adds another layer of accountability for the TSA when a complaint is filed," said Singh. "Now a member of Congress could follow up on behalf of their constituent."

For those who don't have access to or wish to use the FlyRights app, there are other options.

The TSA's "My TSA" mobile app has a link that opens an email addressed to the TSA's Contact Center at the DHS.

And on the TSA.gov website a message from TSA's Multicultural Branch tells travelers "who believe they have been unlawfully discriminated against by a TSA employee" that they may file a civil rights and/or civil liberties complaint by filling out this form.

Complaints about profiling or any other issue a traveler has with the TSA can also be filed through the TSA Contact Center using the "Talk to TSA" online inquiry form.

While those are certainly options for many travelers, Singh said many people prefer to file profiling concerns through FlyRights "because they know a civil rights organization is also going to be reviewing the complaint and will help them hold the TSA accountable if they do not respond appropriately."

The response from TSA and DHS is a concern because the coalition's data show "a dramatic difference between how the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) self-reports the problem of screening discrimination and what actually happens to travelers on the ground," Singh said in a statement issued with the upgraded app.

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Singh said that while DHS recently reported to Congress that it received only eight complaints of air screening discrimination in 2012, FlyRights collected 157 complaints alleging air travel discrimination.

TSA said all complaints submitted via the FlyRights app are reviewed by TSA's Office of Civil Rights and Liberties, Ombudsman, & Traveler Engagement.

"However," TSA's Feinstein said "not all of the complaints submitted were legitimate claims of civil rights, civil liberties, and racial, ethnic or religious profiling."

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In fiscal year 2013, which ended Sept. 30, the TSA reported that it investigated 368 claims of civil rights, civil liberties, and racial, ethnic, or religious profiling. So far in fiscal year 2014, 67 claims have been explored.

Six of these claims came from the FlyRights app, according to the TSA.

Kate Hanni, founder and former executive director of FlyerRights.org, a passengers' rights organization, said she's all for an app that allows passengers to file complaints about TSA issues "on the spot."

She participated in a U.S. Government Accountability Office study that recommended the TSA establish a consistent policy for receiving complaints and a process to "systematically analyze information on complaints from all mechanisms."

"So far, I cannot see anything has changed in that arena for air travelers," said Hanni, "And air travelers of certain nationalities are certainly being profiled."

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—By Harriet Baskas, special to CNBC.com. Baskas is the author of seven books, including "Hidden Treasures: What Museums Can't or Won't Show You," and the Stuck at the Airport blog. Follow her on Twitter at @hbaskas.

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