WASHINGTON — A Sikh advocacy group launched a free mobile application Monday that allows travelers to complain immediately to the government if they feel they've been treated unfairly by airport screeners.
The first complaint came from a woman who said she felt mistreated after she disclosed to a screener that she was carrying breast milk. A man who is Sikh filed the second complaint, saying he was subjected to extra security even though he had not set off any alarms. The woman's complaint was based on gender and the man's on religion, said coalition program director Amardeep Singh.
Singh said the Department of Homeland Security and Transportation Security Administration were notified of the app before its launch. The agencies agreed to allow the app to use the agencies' system for submitting the complaints.
The TSA said in a statement that it does not profile passengers on the basis of race, ethnicity or religion and is continually working with communities, including The Sikh Coalition, "to help us understand unique passenger concerns." The agency said it supports "efforts to gather passenger feedback about the screening process."
The app, available for iPhone and Android phones, was conceived in response to complaints from Sikhs in the U.S who, since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, are routinely subjected to additional inspection, Singh said. Some are made to remove their turbans, which Sikhs wear for religious reasons, Singh said.
The app is intended for everyone who feels they are racially profiled or subjected to other unfair treatment. It is also intended to provide better data on how often such incidents occur.
In light of the shooting of Trayvon Martin, immigration laws in Alabama and Arizona and the anniversary of the Rodney King trial "it has never been more readily apparent how the practice of racial profiling impacts all Americans," said Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. The conference helped launch the app.
After completing screening, a person can go to the app and click on the "report" button. The app will automatically fill in the person's name, phone number and email address. The app asks questions such as race and name of airport, as well as the basis of the complaint, such as religion or gender. It has "submit" and "share" buttons to post on social media that a complaint was filed. The app also contains information on rights of passengers and TSA procedures.
The Sikh Coalition gets hundreds of complaints of unfair treatment and profiling, Singh said. By contrast, he said, the Department of Homeland Security said in its last report to Congress on civil rights and civil liberties that 11 people in the U.S. submitted complaints in the first six month of 2011.
"My hope is that this app will exponentially increase the number of complaints filed with the TSA, flood the system so they get that this is a problem. For too long the Transportation Security Administration has been able to tell Congress this is not an issue, nobody's complaining," Singh said.
Passengers can ask to speak to supervisors or customer support managers at an airport, contact the TSA Contact Center, submit feedback through "Talk-to-TSA" online or file a civil rights complaint through its website, the agency said.
Prabhjit Singh, a motivational speaker, said he has been profiled 30 times, starting in February 2007 when he was taking an early morning flight from Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport to Alabama. In that incident, he was told he had to go through a mandatory pat-down of his turban, even though he had not set off the detector. But after asking for information on the TSA policy, a supervisor told him he could not fly, he said.
"Out of those 30 incidents, I have not yet been able to take myself and write down all the information I needed to and been able to convey that to the Sikh Coalition. This app will allow me to do that," said Prabhjit Singh, who is not related to Amardeep Singh.
"When I sat down on that airplane, after that experience, I looked around at everybody else ... and I thought, they did not have to go through what I had to go through to get on this airplane," he said.