Tales from the terminal: What's driving people crazy at the Calgary airport

A security officer that told a passenger women didn't know how to pack properly, a traveller patted down so forcefully they were almost knocked over, a couple falsely accused of trying to "smuggle" alcohol. These are some of the stories uncovered in complaints filed to a federal agency.

Complaints of screening officers being '"rude, condescending and argumentative"

CATSA employees perform security checks of passengers but sometimes the travellers have bad encounters. ( Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

Airports can be stressful places, especially if a screening agent yells at you or you're stuck in the security line for an hour.

Documents released under Access to Information law reveal that's some of what made passengers' blood boil at the Calgary airport. 

The 256-page dossier covered all sorts of complaints — everything from "rude" security officers to agents confiscating items that should have been allowed — between January 2018 and the early summer of 2019. 

The majority of them were about wait times in the security line, but others singled out the conduct of Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA) agents. Names, dates and personal information were removed from the document, but the details of these tales from terminal remain. 

In one case, a female passenger had her suitcase emptied out at security. During the search, the screener said women shouldn't travel with a carry-on bag because they don't know how to pack one properly. 

Another passenger said they were patted down so aggressively it almost knocked them over, forcing them to cling to the agent's arm to stay upright.

"My experience today makes me not want to fly through Calgary in the future," one complaint reads, saying the CATSA agents were "rude, condescending and argumentative." 

Few protections for passengers during screening

One passenger told an agent she had sharp or delicate objects in her carry-on that needed to be removed from the suitcase. The report said the screening officer yelled at the customer not to touch anything.

The passenger said there was no need to raise voices, to which the agent responded that she could speak however she wanted. The ordeal ended with her underwear being strewn across the metal table in front of the other passengers. 

A couple was travelling home to Calgary, entering with a bottle of sealed duty free alcohol. They said one of the security guards confronted them saying "don't you think you're smart," and then accused them of trying to "smuggle" the liquor. 

Another person arrived at the baggage claim area only to find the contents of their suitcase flying around the carousel because an agent left the zipper undone.

Long security lineups were part of the complaints to CATSA. (Priscilla Hwang/CBC)

"It's troublesome that people who are wielding so much power are misbehaving. It's a sign of a lack of adequate training and passengers should not be tolerating that," Gabor Lukacs, the founder of Air Passenger Rights, said.

Unlike the new federal Air Passenger Protection Regulations that applies to airlines, there are not many protections for travellers in the screening process.

Security officers aren't affiliated with the airlines or the airports, instead belonging a crown corporation nested under Transport Canada.

"As our front-line representatives, screening officers are tasked with enforcing regulations and can sometimes be perceived as rude or inflexible in the course of carrying out their duties," CATSA said in a statement to CBC News. Passengers can often pack incorrectly or bring along prohibited items unknowingly. 

"While complaints requiring the reprimand of screening officers are infrequent, any investigation that determines a screening officer's behavior to have been unprofessional is addressed immediately."

CATSA added customer service is part of officer training, but additional coaching can happen on a case-by-case basis.

'One complaint is too many'

CATSA screens travellers, baggage and airport workers based on standards set by the federal government. There is no oversight body that regulates the actions of CATSA employees, Lukacs says.

Their website says they aim to provide "the best possible passenger experience" and Lukacs says it's up to them to behave in a way that can "earn the public's trust."

He added no matter what happens, "don't lose your cool" with the officers.

Almost 18 million passengers went through Calgary in 2019, according to the airport. The airport declined to comment on the issues.

The Government of Canada has some suggestions to minimize headaches at security. Have your boarding pass ready, remove keys and spare change from your pockets. Pack your liquids in a clear plastic bag. It also says don't wear clothes with metal buttons or snaps to avoid setting off the alarms. 

If you have a negative experience, Lukacs suggests recording the incident on your phone or requesting the footage from the airport. For grievous incidents, he says a lawsuit could be an option. 

"It's these kind of issues where I say one complaint is too many."