CBSN

Airport Grounds Cancer Patient

Airport security screeners refused to let a cancer patient board a flight home to Denver because they said she no longer resembled her identification photos.

Athena LaPera, 35, finally flew out of Orlando International Airport on a Frontier Airlines flight Wednesday night, two days after she was turned away by security screeners.

LaPera said she has lost weight and hair because of chemotherapy treatments since the photos were taken for her U.S. passport and Colorado driver's license.

"I feel very degraded and angry," said LaPera, who was returning home from vacationing in St. Augustine and whose husband works for Frontier Airlines.

LaPera spent most of Tuesday trying to resolve the issue only to be told during a conversation with a federal Transportation Security Administration employee in Washington that she needed new photos and a doctor's note to explain her changed appearance.

Transportation Security Administration spokeswoman Lauren Stover acknowledged that a TSA employee in Washington may have advised LaPera to get a new photograph.

"Just keep in mind that, obviously when you hear someone has cancer, your heart reaches out, and I think it was just our employee's effort to try to help her to avoid something like this in the future," Stover said. "And it would make total sense that if someone doesn't look at all like their photo that maybe they may be able to do something to correct that."

Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, in which hijackers apparently were able to take boxcutters onto jets, efforts to tighten airport security have often been criticized for their inconvenience to passengers.

By August 2002, the TSA rolled back a rule barring passengers from taking food and drinks through security checkpoints. Last July, passengers were told it was optional to remove one's shoes and put them through metal detectors.

Passenger frustration over security regulations has not been the only problems. Last May, a newspaper reported that the failure to conduct background checks on thousands of TSA workers had forced several major airports to re-screen their security staff.

And earlier this month, a retired minister, a college student and a member of the military were among those involved in the American Civil Liberties Union's challenge to the list of travelers that the government has barred from flying because they're considered a threat.

The Homeland Security Department's chief investigator told Congress on Thursday that airport security screeners perform poorly, whether they're government or privately employed workers.

Inspector General Clark Kent Ervin told lawmakers the TSA screeners and privately contracted airport workers "performed about the same, which is to say, equally poorly."

Subcommittee Chairman John Mica, R-Fla., said the situation is so serious he plans to hold an emergency meeting with Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge and other key agency officials in the next 10 days to discuss ways to tighten airport security.

"We have a system that doesn't work," said Mica, who threatened to subpoena Ridge and the others if they fail to respond to his request for a meeting.

Though the specific results of the inspector general report were classified, the committee's ranking Democrat said it showed that passenger screening is no better than it was 17 years ago.

"The inadequacies and loopholes in the system are phenomenal," Oregon Rep. Peter DeFazio said.

The inspector general's report, as well as a study by the GAO portrayed the TSA as an unresponsive, inflexible bureaucracy that is failing to provide an adequate level of security at airports.

Because the TSA didn't give private contractors much leeway, they "could not effectively and immediately address problems with high attrition levels, understaffing, excessive overtime, and employee morale issues," Ervin wrote in a prepared statement.