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Take Action On Language Rights at Airport Security

Updated: Nov 26, 2019

Making TSA Checkpoints Understandable (Scroll down to TAKE ACTION)

Turkey. Stuffing. The Detroit Lions losing on national television. Of the many Thanksgiving traditions, there’s one that’s often overlooked— making your way through an airport

Thanksgiving is the busiest week for air travel in the United States, with TSA expected to screen over 30 million travelers, many of whom are limited English proficient. For linguistic minorities, there is a promising piece of legislation that would make getting through that crowded November airport much easier. 

The TRANSLATE Act (TSA Reaching Across Nationalities, Societies, and Languages to Advance Traveler Education Act), H.R. 3691, would require that the TSA develops a plan to translate its material into more languages to ensure that the airport security process “can be better understood by more people accessing such airports.” 

TSA media sources and signage are available principally in English, and to a lesser but significant degree, Spanish. According to the TSA Language Access Plan, Spanish is only the ninth most frequently encountered language for the TSA. From most to least frequent the most common eight languages are: Arabic, Mandarin, French, German, Japanese, Korean, Punjabi, and Russian. 

For these languages, the TSA maintains an Interactive Voice Response (IVR) telephone line where speakers of these languages can hear recorded FAQs and associated answers in their language. The TSA is also able to respond to written complaints in any of these languages.

 Like most national airport authorities, the TSA utilizes picture-based “universal checkpoint signage” that is accessible to seeing people of all languages. Such measures, as helpful as they are, do not ameliorate the challenges of linguistic minorities when in-person at a TSA checkpoint. 

According to the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Dina Titus (D, NV-1), passage of the TRANSLATE Act would require the TSA to “to make signage, video, audio, and online content more accessible to travelers at major airports who do not speak English as their primary language.” Located entirely within the city of Las Vegas, Rep. Titus’ district benefits greatly from ease of air travel from abroad. This bill’s passage would support Las Vegas’ most important economic sector—tourism: “Las Vegas is an international city that thrives on tourism and we must make sure that our airport is comfortable for all residents and visitors alike,” says the congresswoman.

Rep. Titus’ bill is also critical for her constituents in that 34.5% of Clark County (Las Vegas’ county) residents speak a language other than English at home. As the congresswoman puts it, “You shouldn’t have to worry about missing a flight just because you don’t speak English”.

The TRANSLATE Act has steadily progressed through Congress. The bill was introduced on July 10th, and was referred to the House Committee on Homeland Security. It was passed on the House floor via voice vote on September 26th, and on October 15thwas referred to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. There is not yet word on whether the bill will be introduced on the Senate floor.

The passage of the TRANSLATE Act in the House due to the bill’s frugal nature. According to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), the TRANSLATE Act would add zero dollars to the federal budget. This is because the language of the bill directs the TSA to “submit…a plan to ensure that TSA material disseminated in major airports can be better understood by more people accessing such airports.”

The TRANSLATE Act itself does not implement such changes, a factor that both makes the bill fiscally advantageous but renders it only a middle step in alleviating the airport struggles of linguistic minorities. Nevertheless, the TRANSLATE Act puts pressure on the TSA to provide greater language access for travelers. 

This holiday season, take note of the signage and security materials that appear at your airport’s TSA checkpoint. Put yourself in the shoes of a non-Anglophone and imagine the difficulties of navigating the security process. 

While waiting in the long holiday security lines, contact your senators and tell them to introduce and support the TRANSLATE Act, legislation that will make Thanksgiving travel a bit more bearable for so many. If you're short on time, a sample letter appears below.


Sample Letter or Talking Points:

Hi. My name is _________________________.

I am calling as a language access advocate and as a member of the Joint National Committee for Languages.

I am calling to ask that the Senator to support the TRANSLATE Act, also known in the House as H.R. 3691.

  • This bill would require that the Transportation Security Administration (or TSA) develop a plan to translate its posted signage at airports into more languages for travelers. 

  • As you know, most delays in the security lines are caused by a miscommunication between travelers and TSA staff.

  • There are over 500 languages spoken within the United States, and there are more than 7000 languages spoken worldwide! 

  • The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) says that the TRANSLATE Act would add zero dollars to the federal budget.

  • I believe that in order to increase efficiency (especially during the holiday season) and sound language access policy, the TSA should make more instructions available in many different languages.  

  • H.R. 3691 has already passed in the House (as of 10/15/2019) and now is waiting in the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. I would encourage the Senator to support the passage of H.R. 3691.

Thank you for taking my call and thank you for your service.

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