What’s in a Name? Identity, Security, and a Pat-Down

Identity, security, and flight

by Angela Noel

September 21, 2017

Through a quirk of the online travel service at my work, my airline ticket was issued in my old name. A fact I did not discover nor suspect until I arrived at the airport and attempted to check in for my flight. When the ticket printed from the self-service kiosk, I stared at it for a full minute.

What to do?

Having few options, I decided I’d have to just see what happened. So, I entered the TSA PRE line as I normally do and waited my turn.

While I waited, I appraised the TSA officer checking people’s tickets. He didn’t seem like a happy fellow. It was, however, just after five in the morning. Neither rude nor friendly, he validated IDs and scribbled across boarding passes. He seemed, if nothing else, neutral. What would he do, I wondered, when I gave him my mismatched boarding pass and ID?

Soon, I stepped to the front of the line, wordlessly handing him my documents.

A second passed. “The names don’t match, here,” he said, dropping my offending ID on the surface of his kiosk like I’d just handed him the Old Maid.

“I know.” I took a deep breath. “I just realized the ticket was issued in my old name.” He looked up at me then, his eyes narrowed behind wire-rimmed glasses.

“Do you have anything with your old name on it? Costco card? Something with a picture?”

In response, I pulled out a few credit cards and an old insurance card I happened to have in my wallet.

“Nothing with a picture,” I said, as I handed him my meager stack.”But I have these.”

Mr. Neutral (or so I thought of him) tilted his head into his shoulder. He brought his mouth to his walkie, then pressed a button on it with his left hand, saying, “Can I get a leader to ten? A leader to ten, please.” To me he motioned to the side, “Ma’am, please wait over there.” Following his instructions, I shuffled myself, purse, and overnight bag, off towards the wall.

Disclaimer on a ticket
Of course, you need an ID. And yet . . .

Twenty-three passengers lugged laptops and backpacks onto the conveyor belt before Mr. Neutral glanced at me again. Nothing much had changed in his demeanor, but I sensed a shift. Either he didn’t like that my quiet presence off to the side of the line was an unchecked box, or he felt just a tad bit sorry for me. Maybe both.“Leader to ten, please,” he repeated.

“I’m on my way.” A scratchy disembodied voice informed Mr. Neutral over his walkie. Three more passengers . . . then five. Another blue-shirted officer approached. His name embossed on a gold tag with black letters read “Dingler” or “Danger” or possibly just “Dave.”

Dave (I’ll call him) examined the meager pile of my documents and glanced at my face. I smiled my most non-threatening smile. He grinned back, “I’ll be right back, Angela,” he said.

So simple, really, the use of my name. A smile. So simple. My shoulders moved a quarter-inch lower; my jaw softened.

Four passengers passed successfully by before Dave returned with a female TSA officer. A foot shorter than me and eager in her duties, she said,“Come with me, Ma’am.” She gestured toward the passengers queuing in front of the roller-table. Dave disappeared from view;  Mr. Neutral was now behind me.

“What’s happening?” I asked, unsure what this brisk woman, I named her Marcy, intended. “We’re waiting in line.” Marcy’s hand gently kneaded my elbow. When we reached the conveyor she asked me to remove my jacket, shoes, laptop and toiletries. As I’m following her instructions she blurts, “What are you doing here?”

Now I’m confused. “I have TSA PRE,” I replied. But wait, I worry, is this a literal or philosophical question?

“It doesn’t matter. You should have had to go to the back of the other line. That’s what No IDs do.”

That’s right. I’m a No ID. My personal scarlet letter.

“Okay.” I reached for my stuff.

“No! Ma’am!” Marcy stood between me and my toiletries. “You can’t touch your stuff.” She sighs. “We’ll just have to stay.” Obviously, I’d broken yet another rule.

I shrank back, shoulders hunched. “Okay. ” My voice, repeating the same acquiescence over and over, seemed a quiet tweet in the stale, airport air.

Next, she directed me through the body scanner. “Wait.” Marcy held up her gloved hand. My feet stood just off the yellow footprints. “There. Move your feet there,” she pointed at the painted feet. “Then, wait.”

Of course, I did as instructed, arms raised–waiting.

Finding I concealed nothing, she waved me forward. Again, I moved towards my stuff instinctively. “No!” Again, she warned me away.

“Can I get some help here?” Marcy’s exasperated voice called to her colleagues. To me, sotto voce, she said, “I can’t grab all your stuff and guard you at the same time.” But she threw my overnight bag and giant purse over her sturdy shoulders, grabbed my flower-bedecked Clinique freebie make-up bag, and my pair of flats in her two hands then headed to the stainless steel security station. She put my stuff down and seemed relieved when a fellow TSA officer walked over to check my things with swabs and keen eye.

Next, Marcy looked up at me, her manner softening as she explained all about my carpet. “Well, it’s not yours,” she said, pursing her lips at her own word choice. “But, you know . . . where you’ll stand.”

She explained the procedure, how she’d pat me down and the instructions she’d use. Passengers, trying not to stare, walked by.

“Do you want to move to a private area?” she asked.

I knew, because Marcy had told me, I’d need to assume a lunge position to allow her hands to graze my inner thighs. I was wearing a dress. I’d be semi-exposed. But, I didn’t really care. I count it among my strengths that embarrassing me is tough. If any of these people, these lucky people whose boarding passes and IDs matched, minded the sight of my pat-down– not my problem. Plus, the austere clock on the wall reminded me my departure time ticked ever closer.

Consequently, I said, “Let’s just do it.” I lifted my arms, and straddled my carpet.

And Marcy got to work. With efficiency and a gentle touch, she was better at telling me what she was doing than three-quarters of the dentists and at least a third of the doctors I’ve had.

“Your dress,” Marcy said, a minute into her exam, “it reminds me of something. Something from my childhood.”

Now, this was my moment. I love these random comments. They’re glowing neon invitations to connection. “Oh?” I said, her palms on my ankle. I wanted to say more, but the words choked in my throat. The moment passed.

A minute later, the other officer cleared my stuff, and I’m standing like a normal person. Marcy shrugs, “Okay, you’re good. Go ahead and pack up.” Then she turned and left.

Identity, humanity, security
Security anywhere is a big deal. But, it’s so much more complex than that.

Finally, I recombobulated myself and high-tailed it to the gate. Twenty minutes later I was in my seat on the plane.

During my short flight, I had just enough time to go over the experience in my mind: identity, my name, my humanity, how important it all was and is. I thought of Mr. Neutral and how empathy changed a mood, how Dave lifted me from a problem to a human by simply meeting my eyes and greeting me by name.  How Marcy must have felt to know I didn’t love what was happening to me, and how she tried to connect to me in the best way she knew how.

In the end, the experience wasn’t awesome. But how could it be? It wasn’t the TSA’s fault my ID didn’t match. If blame is to be assigned at all it’s mine–I failed to notice my name update had only partially applied. I think we all did our best, though. I’m grateful I made my flight. I’m grateful for the little moments of good in a crappy situation.

There is beauty everywhere, I can see it. But next time, I’ll double check my reservation.

Your turn: Have you ever had your identity questioned? What did you do about it? How did you feel when you knew you didn’t have control?

Featured Photo by Oliver Wendel on Unsplash

Black and white photo by Hernán Piñera.

Author: Angela Noel

On a quest to become a better human, I write about parenting, leadership, and personal development. I tell my stories so you can find your own.

36 thoughts on “What’s in a Name? Identity, Security, and a Pat-Down”

  1. Phew! That sounds like a momentarily frustrating and slightly scary moment. For some reason they didn’t like me when I entered the USA at JFK once. They took me aside for more questioning, but as soon as they realised I was travelling with my boyfriend (now husband) they let me go. Very odd. Heaven forbid a woman travels by herself!

    1. I know, right! Sometimes it seems so random. And I sure HOPE you didn’t get pulled aside because you were a woman seemingly traveling alone. That would make me sad for humanity. This was the first time I’d ever been stopped–and they had very good reason to be cautious. But those little points of kindness made all the difference.

  2. Wow..No I have not been in that situation but I will now check everything as I don’t think I would have coped as well as you did…I think you did amazingly well 🙂

    1. Thank you! I’m sure you would have been just fine. It’s not an easy situation to be sure. I’m glad you haven’t had to deal with anything like this. I hope you never do!

  3. Oh my! What an experience!

    Since I swore off flying several decades ago as more hassle than it’s worth, I have never had to go through this; but, having often heard it was a nightmare, I wondered what it was like. Thank you for the vicarious experience… and I’m glad I’ve never had the absoute nenecessity to fly.

    I am thoroughly impressed that you found the good to focus on in the situation rather than losing your cool at what has become a necessary precaution in our contemporary lives. Well done!

    1. You swore off flying? That’s amazing. It’s definitely a lot of hassle and bustle. The TSA PRE is the best thing ever, but even that didn’t help in my situation. I was impressed that the team of TSA folks had a way to still get me on the plane despite the issues. But, I wish there was a better way to create security without all the lines and mess. Maybe someday.

  4. I am lucky in that way. My real name is unique to the point that I’m the only person on earth with my name. I’ve never been pulled aside, and never had any trouble in line.
    But I can appreciate that some people are pulled aside repeatedly just because of their appearance, or how they fit a profile. It’s not right.
    I’m glad you took this so well, and that the TSA people did their jobs more or less properly. It could have been traumatic. Thank you for writing about your experiences. I liked this post.

    1. I’m glad you called that point out. I could have avoided my issue with a little extra diligence in checking my paperwork more closely. But under most circumstances, no one would raise an eyebrow. It gave me pause as I wrote this: am I just complaining about a commonplace occurrence for others? That would be a fair critique, I think. I hope, however, to focus attention on what everyone in this situation did right, and to invite thoughts on what identity and security mean to others.
      Who we are, or who we can “prove” ourselves to be either through our pictures on a government-issued ID or the social or economic status we attain, changes how we experience the world.
      Thank you for the thought provoking comment.

      1. And that’s just what our names are and a few bare facts about us. It’s not really who we are.
        Your experience was fair and it illustrated a relatively good outcome. I worry about the not-so-good outcomes, though.

  5. Well, you gave other passengers something to think or talk about, “Better her than me” or “I wonder what she did.” It’s a shame that such procedures are necessary. There seems to be a palpable anxiety when going through TSA procedures. I’m sure your experience really helped others to relax! I do believe that for the most part security folks try to be considerate. But there is always the grump who may have had one too many folks who get nasty with them. So I try to cut them a break. I was patted down when my belt showed up on the scanner. When raising my shirt so she could run her hand inside my waist band I apparently got overly zealous to comply and exposed more than I should have. I do believe I blushed when I realized it.

    1. Ha! It’s not every day you get the chance to flash an airport, right? 🙂 I think you’re right, though. It’s unfortunate that these measures are necessary, but they are. So we can be jerks about it, or we can fine a way to enjoy it (or at least tolerate it). I’d love to see the TSA poke a little more fun at themselves. Security is serious, no question. But we could all use a smile now and then.

  6. Sorry to hear about your experience, Angela. It’s weird, whilst I was reading it I was thinking about how the situation would have probably brought up childhood memories of ‘doing something wrong’ and being a little girl getting told off again. I guess I like everything to be ‘just so’ and I’d be worried about them viewing me with suspicion. I’m glad you were able to reflect on the situation and see how everyone involved was likely to be uncomfortable and the different ways they dealt with it 🙂

    1. Thank you for reading! I honestly felt a little numb through the whole thing–like “okay, this is happening now.” In my youth, I might have gotten mad, or panicked. But, I think “old” age and time have taught me to just let things play out. I also think, like you say, if I hadn’t made the conscious choice not to react emotionally, it might have been harder to keep unexpected thoughts like you mentioned from intruding. I’m definitely a work in progress!

  7. I love your use of the word recombobulated! 😀

    I am sorry about your experience. Although, imagine if you had a middle Eastern or African sounding name. You know you’d have to go through this kind of thing more often. We are really privileged that this kind of thing is a one-off. I have friends who are “randomly selected” for a pat down every time they fly, if their IDs didn’t match, they would not be allowed on the flight. 🙁

    1. You’re right. The thought definitely stayed with me. This was literally the first time I’ve had any hint of trouble and it was more my fault than anyone else’s. It bothers me that too many people are singled out for the wrong reasons. I don’t have any great answers for how to eliminate implicit or explicit bias in a situation like this. But I think we need more conversation about what triggers extra screening. My situation was obvious, but others are less so. My friend Joi mentioned the trouble she had when I interviewed her for the profile I did of her a few months back. She was on my mind as I went through the screening. If I thought this was yucky, how must others feel? It’s a question that needs many more answers from a lot more voices I think.

  8. Gotta love TSA! You did a fantastic job of making the best of it. Flying isn’t what it used to be, and sadly, I tend to let the annoyances get the better of me!

    1. I think the conscious decision to respond versus react made a huge difference for me. That, and I figured if I missed my flight, the world wasn’t going to end. It would have sucked to be sure, and since it was a work trip, there could have been more consequences. But I think knowing my travel wasn’t critical made a difference, too.

  9. Good systems support people. Unfortunately, with so many problems nowadays daily issues with TSA will keep going unnoticed. I like that you end on the high note… and that you focus on what you could do better. Hopefully we will be able to shape this world into something better so we may get back to air-travel that generation before us enjoyed.

    1. I agree. Unless we unravel the fear and lack of trust that makes us wary in the first place, many people will face experiences like mine and far worse. The ultimate goal–a more just world–is far bigger than making air travel easier. But that problem feels so hard and so big. If we all start with just a little extra kindness, and a little more understanding maybe, just maybe it’ll make a difference. Thank you for reading and adding your insight.

  10. You just described my worst nightmare haha. I’m already not a fan of flying and to have something like that happen would just be awful. You handled it like a pro though, I hope I’d be able to do the same if something like that ever happened. Sometimes airport people can be, a little off putting but at the end of the day they’re just doing their job. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Thanks for reading, Paolo! I’m certain you’d handle it well. But it is a high-emotion situation. I wonder if TSA folks just get “people-fatigue.” Dealing with too many people all the time–maybe we look like cattle rather than people at times. I bet someone, somewhere has done a study on that!

  11. I’m British so had to Google what the TSE Pre thing was – as you said though it didn’t help. Shame! Well done on getting through it though – sounds particularly hair-raising!

    1. I should have realized TSA Pre wasn’t international–“Global Entry” is another option but cost more, so I didn’t splurge for that. You’re right though, it wouldn’t have helped. Thank you for reading!

    1. Thank you, Brigid! I’m glad I did, too. Ironic though, that because they let me on the departure with the wrong name, they wouldn’t let me correct my ticket for the return. Very luckily a kind airline employee with the help of copies of both my old and new passport helped me out. But, these things seem to get more and more complicated. Thank you for reading and commenting!

  12. I had it happen several times. Once, because of my belt buckle and other times because I was just lucky, I guess. I don’t enjoy traveling anymore. Once the airport lost my luggage (on a flight with about 12 passengers, no less). I think that it “went missing” because I made a comment about having to leave for the airport at 3:45 a.m., only to sit and wait for hours because the flight crew “needed their rest”. The airport itself only had one luggage carousel. How do you lose luggage in that small an airport? Hmm… I’m glad that this has only happened to you once, Angela.

    1. Wow, that sounds like a lot of trouble! I’m very glad that I’ve had so few issues traveling. Particularly when I know others, like you, have had so many challenging experiences. Thank you for sharing!

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