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Complaints at Hamilton International Airport include ‘rough’ and ‘discriminatory’ pat downs | CBC News


Rough, unprofessional and discriminatory.

Those are some of the words passengers used to describe how staff at the John C. Munro Hamilton International Airport treated them.

CBC Hamilton filed a freedom-of-information request for a list of airport passenger complaints to the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA) over the past six years — a time in which the airport has seen spikes in passenger travel. 

The 26 complaints, with some redactions, ranged from issues about long waits and confusion about what can be brought onto a plane, to more serious complaints about pat downs and a knife getting past security.

The airport’s website says 645,789 passengers came through in 2022 and over 90 per cent reported a positive airport experience. 

An aviation management expert says the complaint process should be more accessible.

The airport said in an email security screening is the responsibility of CATSA and directed all questions to the federal agency.

Suzanne Perseo, a spokesperson for CATSA, said security is its top priority and all complaints are taken seriously and reviewed.

Discrimination and ‘abusive’ pat downs

This year has only seen one complaint to CATSA — but the report alleges racial discrimination by security.

The passenger says they walked through a scanner and it beeped.

Security called the passenger over for a secondary inspection where they were patted down, swabbed and had their bag checked, according to the complaint.

The CATSA website says pat downs are done at random or when someone triggers an alarm. People can also opt for a full body scanner if one is available. If someone refuses both options, they won’t be permitted to fly. 

The website also states swabbing someone’s hands, waist area and foot are used to detect explosives and can be applied randomly or to people with medical casts, prosthetics, implanted medical devices or people traveling with animals.

The complainant said while they were being searched, two white people passed through the scanner and didn’t receive extra inspection. The passenger said they asked why the white couple didn’t get the same scrutiny.

“This type of treatment is unacceptable and should not be tolerated,” the passenger said.

The passenger said they asked staff to provide their names, but staff refused. Staff also told the passenger the inspections were random.

A crowd of people are standing and sitting in an airport terminal.
There were 23 complaints lodged to CATSA about the Hamilton airport since 2017. (Ashwin Rajaratnam)

A complaint from 2021 alleges a “rough” body search that included being touched with a stick in an “abusive manner.”

The passenger said she missed her flight after the search. The experience, she said, left her stressed, exhausted and impacted her sleep, appetite and mood.

John Gradek, a faculty lecturer in the aviation management program at McGill University, said security workers are contractors hired by CATSA and go through “rigorous training.”

Passengers who feel the screening measures they’re subjected to are unnecessary can ask for a supervisor. It’s an informal process that would see the supervisor give either feedback to the passenger or direction to the worker. 

Gradek said not many people know about the process to give feedback or complain. Doing so can also cause people to miss their flight, he added.

Perseo confirmed CATSA uses contractors.

She said CATSA can’t speak to individual cases but said if an investigation is required, it may include a review of security footage, interviews with staff and discussions with management. A client satisfaction coordinator may also speak with the complainant to get more details and will share the outcome of the investigation.

Requests to use body scanner dismissed

A separate person from 2019 said they’ve filed multiple complaints about “rough” security.

They said they asked to bypass the metal detector, and per advice from a prior complaint, asked to use a full body scanner instead of a pat down.

The passenger said staff informed them the scanner wasn’t working and they’d have to do a pat down instead.

“This is what I have been told by the security agent at the front every time over the last seven years,” the complaint reads.

“This is not acceptable, every time I take the plane in Hamilton, the security refuses the use of the body scan and insists on me going through the metal detector.”

The person says the process is “discriminatory” for certain people, but redactions in the report make it unclear why they think so. The passenger said they think the detectors beep because of metal in their bra and the button on their pants.

The complainant says they asked to speak to a manager, who said he would review procedures with staff.

There are two other complaints, one from 2018 which makes a similar charge to the one in 2019 and a complaint from 2017 where a woman said she was patted down without warning and threatened legal action.

Gradek said the scanners can be “fickle” and can be easily disrupted, but generally, staff have discretion to decide what the best option is for each passenger.

Perseo said the airport has a working full body scanner and said it was unavailable for use six times last year due to scheduled maintenance.

Knife gets past security and other complaints

Other complaints include a knife getting past security, rude staff, boarding delays and confusion about what you can bring onto a plane.

A complaint from 2018 says a passenger travelled from the Hamilton airport for a step daughter’s wedding.

Afterward, they found a knife in one of the pockets in their personal carry-on luggage.

“I had no idea it was there,” the complaint reads.

The person indicates they were concerned about how the knife got through security twice despite the fact their husband’s son was “held up for ages and required to unpack his entire suitcase” over a tube of toothpaste.

People sleeping on benches in an airport.
Some of the complaints detailed long delays to board planes. (Andrew Collins/CBC)

Gradek said if a security guard lets a knife get through screening, they’d likely be fired.

“There is no leeway on that one,” he said.

Perseo confirmed CATSA may require “performance improvement measures” if an issue is substantiated.

“While complaints requiring performance improvement measures are very infrequent, any investigation that determines a screening officer’s behaviour to have been unprofessional is addressed immediately,” she wrote.

“We cannot speak to the range of disciplinary actions that may be taken by the screening contractors.”

Complaint process should be more accessible

Gradek said he thinks the screening process works and CATSA’s oversight measures are effective.

“The dialogue that takes place between a passenger and a CATSA employee may not be as warm and friendly as you’d like it to be, but they’re just doing their job … and judging if that person is a security threat,” he said.

He added that the process should be made easier, more transparent and workers should have name tags so that complainants can identify the staff member in the complaint.

Perseo said there were 394 complaints to CATSA out of 13.4 million passengers screened across Canada this year.

Last year, CATSA said it screened roughly 43.1 million passengers and received 1,696 complaints.


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