Airport security complaints include theft, accidental strip search — and an X-rayed dog?

An access to information request for complaints submitted to the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA) last year turned up hundreds of stories from the front lines of Canada's airports.

CATSA receives complaints about overzealous screeners and others saying officers aren't strict enough

From stripping down to identifying all liquids and gels, going through airport security can be a stressful experience. (CBC)

Their tales from airport security are weird, sad and sometimes alarming. 

An Access to Information request from CBC News for complaints submitted to the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA) last year turned up hundreds of stories from the front lines of Canada's airports. 

Several passengers complained security officers were unobservant, overzealous, rude or rough.

In one case from last October, someone phoned to say he had seen a dog in a carrier go through X-ray screening equipment. The passenger said no one stopped an elderly man from putting his pet on the conveyer belt and that when the animal emerged on the other side, an officer berated the senior citizen. When the witness of the incident asked to speak to the officer's supervisor, she allegedly refused and also declined to give the man the number for the CATSA complaint line.

One complainant travelling with a packaged drone in his carry-on bag questioned why screeners asked him to power up the machine.

The report reads, "Passenger is very upset because he claims Transport Canada states that drones should not be flown close to airports." In the end, the man followed officers' instructions to turn on the drone but remained adamant that he had just been forced to violate federal regulations.

One man self-reported himself last summer after making it through security with an electric knife, two blades and a meat fork in his carry-on luggage. 

"I was shocked that such dangerous items had made it through security. In light of the current terrorist attacks, I thought that this incident should be brought to your attention," he wrote to CATSA.

Several people reported items such as prescription medication, clothing and containers of personal lubricant had been stolen from their checked baggage.

Soft cheese or gel?

The definition of a gel was at the heart of several other disputes.

Cream cheese snack? Or banned substance? One passenger complained cheese wedges were deemed by security to be a gel, which is banned from flights for security reasons. (thelaughingcow.com)

One man had his bar of shaving soap confiscated because the screener allegedly claimed it was a gel, "even after opening and pressing hard on it to prove it was like a bar of soap." The passenger then suggested additional training for officers to avoid future "incorrect, unjustified seizures of hard soap products."

A similar conflict involved the interceptions of two packages of Laughing Cow cheese wedges because the passenger said the screener decided they were a gel.

Other passengers wrote to say they couldn't understand why they weren't permitted to bring the following items through security:

  • Viktor & Rolf "Flowerbomb" perfume, which passenger claims screener said resembles a grenade.
  • Apples and oranges.
  • A hammock.
  • A crystal pendant necklace, allegedly because the metal casing resembled a bullet.
  • Cheese spreaders and butter knives.
  • SwissCards, a flat credit card-sized object containing several tiny tools.

Humiliating pat-downs

The most serious complaints involved intimate personal "pat-down" searches after passengers had set off the metal detector.

"After that I was 'patted' down where the officer slapped me hard on the penis with the back of his hand. He did not appreciate my warning and things just got worse from there.… In fact, I was refused a full body scan when I requested it because I alarmed the metal detector — so I was told by the officer," one man complained.

Another male complained by phone about how a screener humiliated him in public with a rough pat down while he was wearing track pants. The phone log reports how the passenger claimed he told the male security officer to stop pulling on the legs of his pants because they were about to fall down, but that the employee insisted he had to complete the procedure.

"Passenger claims that he was standing at the checkpoint with his pants down to his knees, underwear exposed and he stated that he has an opening in his underwear and his 'private part' was sticking out," the report says.

Another woman complained a female security officer hurt her breasts in the course of a rough pat-down.

Nexus card holders also made a number of complaints about regularly not having access to the benefits associated with membership in the program.

"We were put through the same procedure as non-Nexus people," wrote one person.

"Passengers from other lines are funnelled into [our line] even if it is busy. This creates delays for true Nexus members," said another.

Unjustified complaints

Many complaints are clearly unjustified, such as those who refuse to accept that they can't bring large quantities of liquids with them on their flight.

Last December, a man called CATSA to complain about screeners disposing of his toiletries. He admitted the bottles were over the 100-millilitre limit but explained he'd been in a hurry and just packed what he had at home.

"Passenger asked why we don't put signs up for this. I confirmed that they are everywhere at the checkpoint. Passenger stated that he checked his bag, got his boarding pass and didn't see any signs.… Passenger said, 'Thank you very much and I will never fly with you guys again.' I explained that we are security and not the airline and wished him a good day."

While it's difficult to gauge overall satisfaction with CATSA, the number of complaints is small considering that according to the agency's annual report more than 57 million passengers and airport staff were screened in 2014-15.

The report notes CATSA is dealing with more complaints as it struggles without enough funding to deal with a steady increase in people travelling by air.


Alison Crawford is a senior reporter in CBC's parliamentary bureau, covering justice, public safety, the Supreme Court and Liberal Party of Canada.