WASHINGTON — Travelers who suspect they are victims of profiling by security screeners at US airports can now lodge a complaint in minutes, thanks to a smartphone application released on Monday.
The Sikh Coalition, supported by African American, Latino and Muslim civil rights groups, said its FlyRights app can be used by anyone who feels their rights were violated at the security barrier.
"For too long, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has kept a long leash on its screeners, telling them not to profile, but taking no effective measures to stop it," said its director of programs Amardeep Singh.
"Until that happens, we call on the public to hold the TSA accountable by downloading the FlyRights app and filing reports when appropriate."
According to Department of Homeland Security data, only 11 official complaints of improper TSA screening were filed in the first half of 2011 through a bureaucratic process most travelers know nothing about.
The Sikh Coalition, which speaks for the 500,000-strong Sikh American community, expects that figure to grow "exponentially" once FlyRights -- a free download for iPhone and Android -- is widely distributed.
With their turbans and beards, both expressions of their faith, Sikh Americans often found themselves mistaken for Arabs in the emotional aftermath of the September 11 attacks in 2001.
Many Muslim Americans, including women who wear the hijab, say they too have been singled out for additional TSA searches for no apparent reason other than the way they look and dress.
"It is known that profiling is not an effective means of law enforcement," said Gadeir Abbas of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
"When we profile, we not only stigmatize the minority community, but we also do our concerns about safety a disservice."
In a sign of the app's potential scope, Singh said the very first person to use it Monday alleged she encountered gender discrimination on her way to an early-morning flight.
Building on the TSA's own complaint process, FlyRights users can specify whether they have been wrongly treated by a TSA security officer on the basis of race, religion, gender, ethnicity, nationality or disability.
It goes on to ask for flight and incident details, before the user hits a blue button and sends the complaint directly to the civil rights offices of both the TSA and Homeland Security. The Sikh Coalition gets an optional copy.
The app's key advantage, he said, is that travelers can fire off a complaint within minutes of an incident -- rather than several hours later, once they find a computer at their destination.
In an email to AFP, the TSA -- which screens two million passengers a day at more than 450 airports -- denied it uses profiling. It also appeared to dispute the need for the app, saying travellers should complain directly to it.
"TSA does not profile passengers on the basis of race, ethnicity or religion," TSA spokesman Kawika Riley said.
"We encourage any traveler with a concern about potential discrimination to contact TSA directly through our numerous channels of communication."
Prabhjit Singh, a Washington-based motivational speaker who travels extensively, alleged that he has been profiled around 30 times by TSA staff since February 2007.
The first time, he told AFP, he was ordered to submit to a pat-down of his deep-blue turban at Baltimore's BWI airport despite passing without incident through a metal detector.
In time, he said, he discovered the TSA had issued a directive calling for pat-downs of anyone wearing a turban, yarmulke or cowboy hat -- "and there really isn't any space (in a turban) to put anything."