Global News Investigates: Agent behaviour, wait times dominate screening complaints at Edmonton airport

The behaviour of airport security agents – such as aggressive agents yelling at passengers, intimidating passengers with potential police involvement and threatening passengers with being able to make their flight – and long wait times make up more than half of the complaints against Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA) at the Edmonton International Airport.

The high percentage has some passenger advocates arguing CATSA agents are abusing their power, which they say could erode public trust of the Crown corporation tasked with screening passengers and baggage before a flight.

READ MORE: Canada’s air passenger ‘bill of rights’ comes into effect Monday. Here’s what it means for you

“The fact that so many complaints concern abuse of power, power tripping by CATSA agents, is very alarming,” said Gabor Lukacs, the founder of Air Passenger Rights, an organization dedicated to educating travellers of their rights.

“I would say power tripping is the kind of complaint where even one complaint is too many.

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“Such complaints should never exist because people who wield such power should be acting responsibly and should earn the public’s trust.”

The 211 complaints were filed with CATSA from Jan. 1, 2016 to Dec. 31, 2018 and were released to Global News under the Access to Information Act.

An analysis of the complaints by Global News found 109 (or 52 per cent) involved agent behaviour or long wait times and that passengers experienced:

  • Agents who yelled “rudely at an elderly gentleman” and who “snapped back at me raising her voice several decibels yelling”
  • Threats about their luggage not successfully passing the security screening
  • Remarks about how a carry-on bag was packed “very lazy”
  • Agents who “took out my packed clothes and carefully inspected each item, including bras and panties so everyone walking past could see”
  • Remarks from agents such as “do you want to get on your flight?”
  • Questions from agents such as “do you have anything [that] should give me a reason not to get the police involved?”
  • Comments such as how they “should take the bus” if they did not like the screening process
  • Security who “like to do their police thing…which is up against the wall, spread legs and arms… some of these security [personnel] seem to get a kick out of it”

“I’m sure that as a CATSA worker it’s very tough because you’re also meeting all kinds of people and you’re trying to move people through as quickly as you can. I’m not surprised that there’s times when personalities clash,” said Barry Prentice, a professor of supply chain management and former director of the Transport Institute at the Asper School of Business at the University of Manitoba.

The complaints make up a small percentage of the total number of passengers who pass through the Edmonton International Airport, on average 7.8 million passengers between 2016 and 2018.

However, Prentice said not many people are aware there is a complaint process.

“We all know from marketing that if you get one complaint sent to you, there’s probably 10 other people who also felt the same way but didn’t bother. So the complaints are probably much greater,” he said.

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The complainants say the agents were, at times, condescending, sarcastic towards them and that they felt the attacks were personal.

“The security guard in line…was very rude to me. He was patronising to me and made it seem like a privilege that I could send my bag through,” one person wrote.

“I have been through more security in a variety of airports and have never had my personal items damaged or have been spoken to in such a condescending manner,” another wrote.

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Both Lukacs and Prentice said there are few rights for passengers as they undergo security screening.

“You’re not allowed to joke. I don‘t even know if you’re allowed to smile,” Prentice said.

READ MORE: Man arrested after rushing boarding ramp, damaging WestJet plane at Edmonton airport

It is clear the behaviour of some CATSA agents are rubbing passengers the wrong way, with some saying they “have never experienced such dismal service” and others remarking “bad attitudes by public servants are unacceptable at any time.” Ten complaints noted that the passenger had missed his or her flight because of a CATSA officer or the screening process.

Lukacs said the complaints about agent behaviour should be thoroughly investigated by CATSA to see what the root cause may be, how widespread the issue is and what can be done to eliminate them.

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“It’s the manner of how you communicate with people. It’s just a matter of being able to act as a human being and also act with empathy,” Lukacs said.

“It’s not like when you go to Tim Horton’s – if the clerk is rude to you, that’s OK, I will go to a different store. You have to go through that security [screening] in order to get to your flight.”

He said more training for agents could be helpful; he also suggests psychological screening for the agents to ensure they can handle the high-pressure, high responsibility and high human interaction type of job.

Airport responds

In some cases, the complainants say their experiences with the CATSA agents taint their perception of the Edmonton International Airport.

No one from the airport was made available for an interview.

In a statement, Traci Bednard, vice president of digital and corporate communications, said safety and security are a priority at EIA.

“We are also committed to providing an enjoyable travel experience. We appreciate our great working relationship with CATSA and together we share and implement proposals for good customer service,” Bednard said.

CATSA responds

No one from CATSA was made available for an interview.

In a written statement, spokesperson Christine Langlois said CATSA strives to maintain a high level of customer service and professionalism and that all 211 complaints out of Edmonton “were taken seriously and investigated” by a client satisfaction team.

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“CATSA is committed to continuously improving all aspects of its operations, particularly when it comes to customer satisfaction and facilitating the screening process,” Langlois said in the statement.

“Screening officers are tasked with enforcing regulations and can sometimes be perceived as rude or inflexible in the course of carrying out their duties.”

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Langlois said complaints requiring the reprimand of screening officers are infrequent and said any investigation that shows an officer’s behaviour was unprofessional is “addressed immediately.”

She said officers receive customer training and receive additional coaching “on a case-by-case basis.”

Other issues

The rest of the complaints were broken down as such – some complaints fell into more than one category:

  • 35% (73/211) related to baggage and property complaints, such as missing/damaged items after the screening process, unexplained multiple screenings of bags and rough handling of items in carry-on bags
  • 32% (67/211) related to policy and screening complaints, such as rules varying from airport to airport and unclear directions for screening
  • 15% (32/211) related to Nexus lines complaints
  • 3% (6/211) related to other types of complaints, such as the lack of services in French

Langlois said complaints about missing items in carry-on bags “are rare and are investigated immediately.” She said travellers can undergo a claims process if an item is damaged due to a CATSA officer or equipment.

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“There are various reasons why a bag may need to be rescreened and those complaints are typically unsubstantiated,” Langlois further said in the statement.

She also said there are several reasons why protocol may appear to be inconsistent between airports, citing an example of how different amounts of liquids are allowed through security, and said that additional screening is required when an alarm sounds, since it must be resolved by an officer.

What passengers can do

Lukacs said CATSA may be held liable for things such as damaging your property or deliberately making a passenger miss his or her flight, though he admits it is rare for people to sue CATSA.

If a passenger encounters a difficult CATSA agent, Lukcas recommends asking for a supervisor, recording the incident on a cellphone and asking those around you to be a witness to the incident.

If the situation escalates, Lukcas suggests asking for the security footage, making a complaint to CATSA or filing a lawsuit.

“It is very important to maintain our civil society to ensure that people who wield so much power and are supposed to protect us are actually held accountable when they fail to carry out their duties according to expected standards,” he said.

© 2019 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.