Duane Hoffmann / msnbc.com
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By Travel writer
msnbc.com contributor
updated 12/5/2007 10:09:33 PM ET 2007-12-06T03:09:33

The folks at the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) aren't really after your peanut butter cups, pierced nipples or artificial hips, but that doesn't mean those items won't get you pulled over in airport security.

TSA spokesperson Christopher White wishes I’d called him before I wrote my recent column offering tips for getting foods, gifts and other items through security. And before I pointed out how the predictably unpredictable security screening process might pass muster on a peanut butter sandwich in Massachusetts but nix it in Nebraska.

“We’re really not out to take anyone’s peanut butter away,” White said. “We’re just focused on finding liquid explosives. And with 2 million people and 3.5 million bags to screen each day, our officers must use their discretion.” That’s why, he  adds, the TSA Web site lists some “no-fly foods” but reserves the right to turn back many others with this wide-reaching warning: “If you can pour it, pump it, squeeze it, spread it, smear it, spray it or spill it, it could be considered a liquid or gel.”

White says he knows a policy like that will understandably frustrate some travelers who can’t be sure if their cheesecake or prized flan will fly. But he says the inconsistency is intentional and a necessary sign of the times. “The 9/11 terrorists knew exactly what to expect at security so we like to introduce a bit of unpredictability.”

That unpredictability is definitely extended to people and their pierced or replaced body parts.  While a hair barrette may set off the metal detector at some airports, Lynne from Centennial, Colo., wrote to say she’s never been pulled aside despite always wearing four hidden body piercings, “15 earrings in both of my ears,” and an underwire bra.

But Rachel from Charleston, W. Va., reports that her aunt — who has had two knee replacements — always seems to “ding the machine” and require secondary screening, even if she flashes a letter from her doctor identifying the metal in her body. Rachel’s advice: Forget the doctor’s note. Instead, people with knee replacements should “wear pants they can pull up to show their knees. The security personnel not only feel my aunt's knees but often want to see them!Once they see the big scars there and also see that she doesn't have a bomb strapped to her leg, we are good to go.”

It may make you want to scream when a TSA officer makes an old lady roll up her pant leg, but it really is a necessary step in the screening process, says the TSA’s White. “We know there’s no single face or body type of a terrorist. So those that have hidden piercings or replacement parts can expect some additional security.”

To help move things along, he says those with artificial hips or knees should alert a TSA officer. “Once they know where that area is, they should be able to screen it in a respectful manner.” For those with hidden piercings that set off the metal detectors, White adds: “Every passenger should remember that they have the right to ask for a private screening by someone of the same sex. That screening can be in a private area, with another person present.”

“And don’t worry,” he says. “We don’t pass judgment.”

But what if you feel that a TSA officer is passing judgment, being disrespectful or behaving downright mean to you or someone else?  White says the 42,000 TSA officers are all professionally trained officers — and human beings. “But there’s no excuse for rude behavior.  So if you see someone acting inappropriately, you can report it to the supervisor at the checkpoint, call the TSA’s Contact Center (1-866–289–9673), or send an e-mail to TSA-ContactCenter@dhs.gov.” If you do, be sure to note the airport, the checkpoint location and the time of day that you experienced or witnessed the incident. And try to get the name and badge number of the officer involved.

Or, as the holiday season shifts into overdrive, try being a bit more like Katie from Spring, Texas, who sent along her security checkpoint strategy. “One thing I try to remember when dealing with the screeners at the airport: they're just doing their job. They didn't make up the silly rules; they just have to enforce them. So, I try to be pleasant and friendly to them. I figure they deal with enough unpleasantness without me doing anything to add to it.”

Good idea, Katie. But whatever you do at the security checkpoint, think before you do or say anything. Back in August, security screeners in Chicago asked a man to identify an object they’d fished out of his carry-on luggage. The man was traveling with his mom and later told officials that he was just too embarrassed to say in front of her that he had a sex toy in his bag. So embarrassed, it seems, that it was easier to announce that the object in his bag was a bomb.

Harriet Baskas, The Well-Mannered Traveler, also writes about airports and air travel for USATODAY.com and is the author of “Stuck at the Airport.”

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