Traveling while Sikh? There's an updated app for airport profiling complaints

The Sikh Coalition is updating a mobile app that allows travelers to report complaints about the Transportation Security Administration from the airport.

The coalition created the FlyRights app in April 2012 because of concerns that TSA officers profiled travelers for their appearance — and Sikhs in particular because of their turbans.

The TSA insists it doesn't profile travelers. Civil rights complaints are investigated and "immediate action" is taken if substantiated, the agency said.

The original FlyRights app, created in coordination with the TSA, allowed a traveler to submit a complaint at the same time to the coalition and to the TSA for investigation.

After collecting more than 212 complaints, with sometimes disappointing resolutions, the coalition updated the app to forward each complaint to the traveler's U.S. House member and both senators, according to Amardeep Singh, a coalition co-founder.

The app will keep a running total of complaints for each airport, so a traveler could plan a trip to avoid specific airports.

"We feel like there needs to be more eyes on the TSA," Singh said. "It's pretty troubling what we're finding."

Shawn Tucker, 26, of Decatur, Ga., used to fly twice a week as a business consultant before joining a mobile advertising firm. He said he routinely received extra screening, which often meant patting down his turban and once resulted in him having to remove it in a separate room, even though he hadn't set off screening machines.

"It's an article of faith. It's kind of like taking away a Sikh's dignity," Tucker said of the turban. "We treat it like a crown."

Tucker said he filed complaints repeatedly through the app but usually received perfunctory responses. Extra scrutiny continued even after he joined Pre-check, which steers travelers toward speedier checkpoint lines. Once an official in Boston told him that officers were being trained to deal better with turbans, he said.

"When every single time I'm getting pulled over to the side for secondary screening, people are walking by seeing I'm getting additional screening, it's reinforcing the stigma against this image of the turban and therefore all Sikhs wearing turbans," Tucker said.

The TSA issued a statement Monday saying the agency "has zero tolerance for racial profiling and employs multiple checks and balances to ensure unlawful profiling does not occur."

"It's not good law enforcement, it's not good security work from our perspective, and it's unconstitutional," TSA Administrator John Pistole told a House hearing this month. "So anybody who's found to be profiling will be investigated and dealt with appropriately."

The updated app will refer complaints to lawmakers because of Sikh Coalition concerns about discrepancies in how the cases are counted, based on where they are filed.

FlyRights collected 157 complaints during eight months in operation in 2012, according to Singh. The complaints for alleged discrimination or improper treatment could cite multiple reasons, including religion, race, gender or nationality.

Singh complained that the Department of Homeland Security's office for civil rights and civil liberties reported in July that it received only nine complaints against the TSA during the previous fiscal year, including three for alleged profiling.

"There's a big discrepancy there," Singh said.

The TSA said the DHS counts only complaints filed directly with the department. The TSA's office of civil rights and liberties investigated 368 claims during fiscal year 2013 of civil rights violations or racial, ethnic or religious profiling, of which 142 came from FlyRights, according to the agency. Since Oct. 1, the TSA has investigated 67 claims, including six from FlyRights.

The TSA said it changed policy in 2007 to allow travelers to wear head coverings, whether religious or not, but they could lead to a self-conducted pat-down. Agency officials have met 140 times in the past year with interest groups to discuss profiling allegations.

A selection of written responses from the TSA says agency personnel are expected to treat travelers with "dignity, respect and courtesy." Though a traveler might consider treatment "not appropriate," an agency review found the traveler's description "consistent with TSA's standard operating procedures," according to one response.

Other groups supporting the app include the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, South Asian Americans Leading Together and the American Civil Liberties Union.