Jonathan Corbett had been flying for nearly 30 hours. He had passed over God knows how many international datelines. And he was barely conscious when he plopped into a lounge chair at London Heathrow Airport this past December. Even worse, there was still one more leg of his journey home from Australia.
So he wasn't in any mood to chat when an American Airlines employee approached and began quizzing him about the trip. Where had he been? What was the purpose of the trip?
When Corbett asked if he had to answer, he was told he couldn't board the flight otherwise.
Corbett isn't your average business traveler. The 31-year-old, who splits time between Miami Beach and New York, is a frequent-flying app developer who also happens to be the TSA's biggest recurring pain in the ass. Corbett has two open lawsuits against the feds over their body scanners and mandatory pat-downs.
Now he was baffled. Since when were airlines able to threaten U.S. citizens with stranding them abroad unless they answered detailed questions at the airport? "I didn't know this was another TSA mandate, but it was so stupid that I assumed it was," Corbett says.
Sure enough, when he got home, he began emailing American Airlines about the ordeal. They suggested he contact the Department of Homeland Security.
American Airline's response
Courtesy of Jonathan Corbett
So he did. And DHS confirmed it: American Airlines is "required to conduct a security interview of passengers," a representative wrote in an email Corbett shared with New Times. "If the passenger declines the security interview, American Airlines will deny the passenger boarding."
TSA confirms the program exists.
Courtesy of Jonathan Corbett
Corbett began feverishly searching online and in news archives. Had the TSA ever officially announced this new crackdown? Had there been any legal review? How widespread was this practice? He found nothing.
But he was sure of one thing: It couldn't be constitutional.
"U.S. citizens have the right to re-enter their home country. We also have the right to remain silent when interacting with government officials," he wrote on his blog, TSA Out of Our Pants!
Now Corbett has filed a third lawsuit. The purpose: "I'm asking the court to tell the TSA they can't deny people boarding passes on the basis of their refusal to answer questions," he says.
As for his other lawsuits, he recently asked the U.S. Supreme Court to consider his original body scanner complaint, which was tossed at the appellate level on a technicality. His pat-down complaint has yet to receive a hearing at the appeals court.
And Corbett keeps flying. In case you're wondering, his activism hasn't landed him on any no-fly lists. "I never have any particular problems at the gate," he says.
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