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Monday, November 19, 2007

Air travel tips that work for me

With the Thanksgiving Day travel starting here in the States, I’m sure much is on the Sikh air traveler’s minds as they go through the various security checkpoints with other passengers in airports. Security surveillance in airports is at its maximum, with many air passengers expecting long lines and delays to and from their destinations.

In recent months with Sikhs facing unwanted (and personally, un-needed) ridicule when traveling by air due to new TSA guidelines, many Panthic organizations have stepped up and assisted in sharing Sikh viewpoints to work towards the common goal of maintaining security without compromising religious sensitivities.

During my marriage a month back, TSA was at the height of providing additional scrutiny to those wearing religious head coverings (such as us Sikhs). I spoke with many of my relatives who traveled by air to attended the wedding festivities. Many stated that they were not singled out for secondary inspection, but my Mama Ji was. When talking to him about his secondary screening, who is a hardcore Taksali, he stated that he personally had no issues with the questioning by the TSA.

As I asked him to recall specifically what happened, he stated that after he completed the metal detection screening process, TSA security officers asked if they could check his turban for any type of item that may be concealed. He personally agreed to this, and the TSA security officer touched his turban lightly on the top within vicinity of other passengers at the metal detector location. He did not carry his kirpan with him on his flight over.

I then asked him if he objected to this process and he said no not at all. However his response was unique and brought a smile to both of our faces. He went on to say when that you have no sovereignty for people to identity who you are or where you belong, people will continue to encounter issues like these.

Upon reading all the various reports of Sikhs having their turbans inappropriately touched, or in some cases removed, there is one common theme that I see over and over in each reported case via media outlets: The lack of Sikh air passengers potentially not understanding their rights, nor the enforcement of those rights by TSA security officers.

I only came to this conclusion after reviewing the TSA guidelines before Supreet and I headed off to our honeymoon. During our honeymoon trip we traveled back and forth from the continental United States to Hawaii, all the while making several travel stops on various Hawaiian islands by airplane.

On each day of air travel, I encountered no issues from the TSA while traveling even with their heightened screening of anyone with a head covering.

Maybe it was my luck (such as potentially dealing with TSA security officers that were not power hungry), but I carefully reviewed specific sections of the TSA website and my specific airliner to know what rights I was entitled to. Sadly in some cases where Sikhs were forced to remove their turbans in public, my guess is that they did not have a clear understanding of their rights as their reactions in the various reports did not show this.

So here on some tips in regards to air travel that has worked for me, especially during TSA’s extra surveillance:

1. Know your rights. Read and understand your rights on the TSA website. Check out this link of prohibited items as well as this link discussing how the TSA screens passengers with religious sensitivities. Did you know that at the start of the screening process you can request for a private screening if need be?

Knowing this information, as well as specifically understanding the terminology used by the TSA, can be part of a great defensive strategy when going through the airport screening process. Furthermore, it can defuse any potentially unwanted situation by demonstrating that you are a knowledgeable air passenger who is not violating any security protocol.

2. Check out various Sikh advocacy groups (SALDEF, Sikh Coalition, and United Sikhs) for their own references on how to travel with minimal scrutiny within the United States. Many of their air travel guideline advisories differ slightly from each other, but all basically state the same thing.

3. Pack bags accordingly. Know exactly how many checked-in baggage and carry-on bagger or your air carrier will allow. Basic rule of them is two checked-in baggage, one carry-on baggage, and one personal bag. However this might vary from airliner. Supreet and I flew on American Airlines and they have a section devoted to baggage restrictions. Furthermore, it’s a good idea to get the approved TSA lock for travel within the United States. I’ve seen TSA officers welcome these locks when they see them on luggage.

4. Get to the airport well in advance. Compensate for the security process, especially if you request to go to a private screening room for whatever reason.

5. Have all appropriate paperwork in hand at all times. To have your boarding pass and identification in hand even before meeting the first security checkpoint will streamline your process. Furthermore, keep it in hand once going through the metal detectors as security officials will see it again.

6. Welcome the security process at all times. This goes hand-in-hand with Step 4 above. When the time is appropriate, be sure to take off shoes and follow instructions as needed. If you welcome the process and follow instructions, this will defuse any potential unwanted situation.

When going through the metal detectors, verbally ask the guards if they are ready before you enter even if they flag you in. By starting a dialogue before this process starts lets them know you are ready to comply and again, it can help to potentially defuse unwanted situations. This in particular worked well for me.

7. Don’t bring any unwanted attention. I know this is hard when having kesh and a turban, especially when it is very visible. So you know you are already being watched, so don’t make things any harder than it needs to be. If you comply and welcome the security process, you hopefully will not encounter any negative experiences. While at IAD one time to see one of my friends off, I waited outside the security line to verify that my friend passed security with no issues. While waiting, a Muslim woman wearing a hejab standing next to me passed some water to her family or friends who were in the actual flight security line. By doing this, Dulles Security was all over the place trying to identify what the woman passed into the security line as it was a violation. I felt bad as the woman was being ridiculed, but it was obvious that security knew of her presence due to her identity hence she had even further unwanted attention.

8. Keep your cool at all costs. No matter how much cultural or sensitivity training a TSA security official receives, I still believe that many of them will not be able to identify who a Sikh is as well as understand the religious sensitivity of the turban. With that said, there is no need to get upset or visibly agitated if they ask inappropriate questions or wish to commence with a pat-down of the turban. If this option does arise, you should know your rights and not give into any type of touch/feel in public vicinity. Request that you know your rights and demand to be taken to a private screening room.

Being a Punjabi, I know it is in our nature to get upset first and ask questions later. At SCORE’s Capitol Hill Dinner this last year, this Uncle got so upset at Capitol Police because they would not let a Giani Ji enter the facility due to his kirpan. I literally had to yell at the Uncle to keep his cool, as he kept shouting to the police officers that they should know who Sikhs are after all their cultural training they should have received. After removing this Uncle and rationally talking to the police officers, they let in the Giani Ji after several minutes after talking to their superiors.

9. Smile. It’s amazing what a smile and having patience can do for you. It has worked wonders for me, and works well in any stressful situation… like going through airport security.

I’m out. Happy Turkey Day!

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Blogger Gursean said...

me n bavan went 2 da redksins eagles game and they asked "we know its part of your religion, but is there anyway we could check your turban?"
by asking respectfully like dat i really didnt have any objection 2 them patting it down so as long as they show respect, i dont see any reason not to comply with them. itll help to show americans that they have nothing to fear around us.

2:46 PM  
Blogger sartaj said...

sean, i think that is very intelligent response back and i'm glad you handled this situation in a positive manner... even though you were not on a plan.

if you give respect, then you can demand respect which you did.

but above all remember, you are still a bama!

11:32 PM  
Anonymous Karamjeet said...

i think it is important that we dont get riled up over these TSA rules, they are of benefit to us aswell, you see if turbans got a free pass through all the security checks then it could potentially be potentially used by terrorists posing as sikhs to conceal whatever they need to conceal...that would be much worse for sikhs than just getting the resepctuful turban pat down..

10:10 PM  

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