Airport Security Pat Downs: Too Much for Too Little

TSA airport security pat down
TSA airport security pat down

The controversy over the new enhanced security procedures at U.S. airports is clearly getting more heated each day., a passenger advocacy group, says it has been receiving 1,000 phone calls and emails a day from air travelers upset about the enhanced pat-down procedures that the TSA installed universally at U.S. airports at the beginning of November. The search techniques, including touching a traveler's groin areas, have obviously hit a nerve.

The pat downs are occurring because many travelers choose to opt out of new whole-body screening because of concerns about radiation or privacy. The imaging machines are now in place at 70 U.S. airports, and dozens more are scheduled to get them next year.

"Situation Is Chaotic"

Not helping the situation are TSA security screeners who seem to have taken a crash course in intimidation tactics. I have witnessed myself what many fellow travelers are reporting: TSA personnel tell passengers in no uncertain terms that if they don't agree to the body scans, they'll be subject to "very thorough" pat downs.

The security personnel are acting on orders from TSA bureaucrats in Washington, but you have to wonder just how much thought they put into these new procedures. Clearly, the TSA brass has never been to customer-relations school.

"The entire situation is chaotic,'' Kate Hanni, FlyersRights executive director, told me this past weekend. "No one knows what to expect because the pat-down procedures are varying at different airports." "In some cases," she said, "passengers are being subjected to pat downs by TSA personnel using the back of their hand, while in other cases the TSA screeners used the front of the hands, even while examining invasive body parts."

Hanni said the whole thing has become ridiculous. She said even vulnerable passengers, such as seniors and the disabled, are being subjected to the aggressive, unwarranted searches. "They're putting their hands down a 90-year-old woman's pants," she said.

Political Heat

Two other citizen groups, We Won't and are calling for a protest by travelers this Wednesday, Nov. 24, the day before Thanksgiving, which is one of the busiest travel days every year. The groups want travelers to refuse the new body-imaging scans, which would cause traffic jams at security checkpoints as travelers are subjected to the pat-down procedures.

Confusing the matter, just what the new security procedures are supposed to entail is unclear. In fact, the TSA won't even discuss them, citing security concerns.

Perhaps politicians will be the ones to force the TSA's hand on the issue. "Overly intrusive" is how the incoming leaders of the House Transportation Committee have described the new airport pat downs in a letter to the TSA last Friday, Nov. 19. In the letter, Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) and Rep. Thomas Petri (R-Wis.) wrote TSA Administrator John Pistole that only the highest-risk passengers should receive thorough pat downs.

"Treating every passenger as a suspect or criminal is an inefficient use of scarce resources," said Mica, who's expected to be named head of the House Transportation Committee, and Petri, who's the likely aviation subcommittee head.

Not a Pleasant Experience

In a statement issued Sunday, Pistole appeared to offer an olive branch to air travelers. "We welcome feedback and comments on the screening procedures from the traveling public, and we will work to make them as minimally invasive as possible while still providing the security that the American people want and deserve," he said.

As a traveler who has experienced the new procedures first-hand, I agree that change can't come soon enough. Mistakenly leaving my wallet in my pocket left me subject to a search and pat down at O'Hare Airport in Chicago -- after leaving the body-imaging scan equipment. It's not a pleasant experience having a guy grope you.

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Of course, if all this security really deterred terrorists, these intrusions of privacy would be acceptable. But in incident after incident, it seems it's always the passengers and the flight crew who end up saving the day. After all, it wasn't TSA screeners who detected a man with explosives hidden in his underwear last December aboard the flight from Amsterdam to Detroit -- it was the passengers and flight attendants.

Or how about the TSA's "behavioral detection program," which is designed to help TSA agents apprehend terrorists. An oversight report released last May found the program, with a yearly budget of more than $200 million and some 3,000 behavior detection officials, hasn't caught a single terrorist.

Obviously, America needs an effective security program in place to ensure that our air travel is safe and not threatened by those who would do us harm. Maybe some day we'll get a more reliable and competent team running the TSA show. But for now, be prepared for a rough flight before you even board the plane.

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