The TSA Ruined My Summer

On July 7, I was to leave for the trip of a lifetime: I was flying to present a research paper on the artistic drift of Southeast Asian motifs to the medieval west at the International Medieval Conference in Leeds, UK (my name and paper title, "Strangers in a Strange Land: Sculptural Immigrants from Southeast Asia in the Christian West" have been removed from the line-up). I have wanted to present at this conference for many years and I was thrilled to have been accepted to a session. Immediately after the conference, I was to catch a Ryanair flight from Leeds to Limoges, where I would spend three weeks working on a documentary film with John Tchalenko (his first film can be viewed in its entirety here) about the visual language of 12th-century sculpture, which is my major research interest and the basis of my doctoral dissertation. Dr. Tchalenko arranged his schedule and that of the cameraman around my availability. We were to begin shooting on July 11.

This trip took months of planning and research on my part, as well as on the part of my colleagues in England and France. It cost me far more money than I could afford. At the Indianapolis International Airport, I presented my passport and boarding pass and went through TSA security with no problems. It was actually the smoothest security check I've ever been through (and I travel a lot). However, when I got to Delta Gate A7 for my flight to Atlanta where I was to catch a connecting flight to Manchester, UK, I was not allowed to board the plane. Those of us on the flight with international connections were called to the desk to have our passports verified. Our passports were swiped through a machine resembling the credit card payment machine in a grocery store. My passport could not be read by the machine, apparently because the technology will not read a passport that is bent or creased or showing signs of wear (keep in mind that I travel frequently and this passport has seen a lot of use-- it has many stamps and stickers in it dating back to 2006). It is a valid US passport (expires in Feb. 2016) that has not been defaced or mutilated. I was told it looked "too used" and I was accused of putting it in the washing machine (it doesn't even remotely look like it's been through the washing machine) and told the TSA considers passports that have been bent, creased, gotten wet, or dogeared to be suspect. Strangely, I have not been able to find any mention of these subjective factors on the TSA website, nor were they in evidence at the airport, nor did the TSA security staff mention anything to me about the condition of my passport.

When the Delta representative repeatedly tried to get the machine to read the passport without success, I asked her to type the numbers in by hand. She said the TSA would not allow this (even though the information on my passport is perfectly legible). I was told that they would love to let me on the flight, but they could not do so without facing hefty fines from the TSA. I was told that new TSA rules require that I get a new passport before I can fly overseas, even though I checked the TSA website throroughly two weeks before my departure date to make sure I was good to go. There was no mention at all of the condition of a passport being a factor in refusing someone boarding privileges. I had a valid driver's license, my faculty ID, my Costco card as additional forms of picture ID with me, as well as a copy of my my birth certificate and original Social Security card with me. I offered to show my conference paper and travel itinerary for the film shoot as proof of my identity and intention. None of this mattered because the fancy technology would not read the passport of a seasoned traveler.

And with that simple criteria, I lost just over $2000 in airfare, conference registration, and lodging. The monetary loss cannot even compare to heartbreak and professional humiliation of the unravelling of this entire trip. The opportunity to present at the conference is gone and the months of work I spent researching and writing this paper have been for nothing. The film production deadlines have been set back and the entire crew inconvenienced because of this, but I fully intend to be in France and complete this project. This is my work and my passion. I have spoken to John Tchalenko and we are working to coordinate a shoot in September. The goal of this fundraising endeavor is to recover my lost costs, purchase a new passport, complete a TSA pre-screen interview to ensure I am not on a no-fly list since I was denied boarding, and buy a new plane ticket to France. Every single bit helps and I cannot express my gratitude enough to those of you who have shared this page and made a contribution.
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Holly Silvers 
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