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A member of The Canadian Air Transport Security Authority uses a hand-held metal detector on a passenger at the Vancouver International Airport June 20, 2008. (John Lehmann/Globe and Mail/John Lehmann/Globe and Mail)
A member of The Canadian Air Transport Security Authority uses a hand-held metal detector on a passenger at the Vancouver International Airport June 20, 2008. (John Lehmann/Globe and Mail/John Lehmann/Globe and Mail)

Put-downs, pat-downs and pot: Canadians complain about airport screeners Add to ...

Insulting remarks, giggling, harassment and the whiff of pot smoke sparked complaints from passengers peeved about turbulent rides through airport security last year.

Scores of travellers grieved to the federal agency responsible for air security regarding their treatment at the hands of pre-flight screeners, records obtained by The Canadian Press show.

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The disclosure comes amid concerns about overly zealous security as authorities try to keep the skies safe from would-be terrorists.

A traveller with cerebral palsy that causes a congenital limp says he was disgusted by the behaviour of a screener at the Regina airport.

"She was unprofessional, insulting and rude," a written grievance says.

"Her exact words were, 'Looks like someone has a bad owww-ee.' Before I could even offer an explanation she asked why do I walk 'so funny,' smirked and said 'I've been there before."'

Another passenger trying to make a connecting flight at the Montreal airport was allegedly treated in a "very rude and arrogant manner" for not placing a sweater in a conveyor-belt container.

"I immediately did so while saying, 'Sorry, I forgot.' The officer (then) glared at me and said 'Do you want me to call the police?"'

A former customs officer complained about a screener who giggled with one of her colleagues as she rifled through belongings.

"Treating people with respect does not take much. I hope you are able to speak to this individual and enforce the importance of being courteous, professional and nice to people."

A screener in Calgary offended a traveller in April last year with his apparently non-existent manners.

"He was rude, nasty and barking orders," the complaint says. "When I brought to his attention that he never once used the word 'please', [the]response was: 'According to protocol I don't have to say please or be anyway pleasant with you."'

The grievances were among 1,520 received in 2009-10 by the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority from passengers who complained about the behaviour of screeners, body pat-downs, bag searches, the confiscation of items, delays, introduction of full-body scanners and other issues.

Copies of the complaints - with passenger names removed to protect privacy - were released under the Access to Information Act.

A traveller in Winnipeg picked up the "distinct aroma of marijuana" on two officers in June, 2009. "I used to work in security at hotels so I recognize both the smell and appearance of 'influenced people' very quickly."

During the same month, a passenger in Fort McMurray, Alta., complained of a male screener who "came over to talk to me after I had passed through the checkpoint and started making physical contact with me and would not move away even after I had asked him to.

"I was in a double bind as he had power over me in the situation."

Air-security authority spokesman Mathieu Larocque said the complaints represent a "minute fraction" of those who pass through airport security, noting a vast majority are satisfied with their experience.

"So we don't think that it's a systemic issue."

Screening officers are taught to treat people with dignity, respect and care, he said.

Grievances from the flying public are taken seriously, he added. "Every time we receive a complaint it is investigated."

When a complaint is substantiated, the screener in question may receive one-on-one coaching or additional training and, in some cases be stripped of their certification, Mr. Larocque said.

Air-security authority figures show turnover among screeners continued to be high last year, with almost one-quarter of officers at Canada's eight busiest airports leaving their jobs in 2009-10.

In his June report on the Air India disaster, former Supreme Court justice John Major found that while security at Canadian airports had improved over the decades, "the human dimension of aviation security remains a concern."

Mr. Major found the air security authority had run into "significant difficulties" recruiting and retaining its approximately 6,800 screening personnel.

The tedious but often stressful job can be frustrating for staff - involving lengthy delays in obtaining security clearances, poor pay and a perception of low prestige, the Air India report said.

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