For Houston grandmother Judy Sauer, the debate over increased airport security is personal.
Transportation Security Administration officers last month began patting down some passengers in a way that many, including Sauer, consider too intimate. Instead of passing a metal-detecting wand over passengers, agents began using both hands to inspect passengers from head to toe.
That change came on the heels of new airport body scanners that produce images some passengers complain are so revealing as to constitute an invasion of privacy.
Several passengers at Houston’s Hobby Airport said Tuesday they don’t mind the heightened security.
“We need to do something to stay safe,” said Leigh Radetsky, after arriving from Dallas.
But other passengers nationwide are responding to the tighter security measures by organizing a protest that threatens to clog airports on Nov. 24, the day before Thanksgiving and one of the busiest travel days of the year. They’re urging passengers to insist on pat-downs rather than going through the body scanners.
Sauer, however, actually prefers the scanners to the physical body pat-downs — which are conducted by agents of the same gender as the passengers they check.
In 2002, a sports injury forced the petite Sauer to undergo a knee replacement, and her implant sets off metal detectors. She wasn’t prepared for the intimate pat-down she received on Oct. 29 before she flew out of Hobby. A gloved female agent touched her crotch and breasts over her clothes, she said.
“It is a forceful, rubbing, feeling-up of the traveler,” said Sauer, 69, who is fearful of a repeat experience when she takes her next trip over the Thanksgiving holiday.
Some chosen at random
TSA’s new security measures include head-to-foot inspections of passengers who set off metal detectors, refuse to go through the body scanner or are randomly selected by inspectors.
“Pat-downs are one important tool to help TSA detect hidden and dangerous items such as explosives,” the agency said in a statement on the day the new pat-down procedures began. “Passengers should continue to expect an unpredictable mix of security layers that include explosives trace detection, advanced imaging technology, canine teams, among others.”
At Hobby airport, where two body scanners will be installed next month, officers selected some passengers for pat-downs Tuesday. The procedure included pulling out waist bands, touching passengers’ crotches and rubbing the backs of hands against women’s breasts. Some passengers went behind a black curtain for the inspections.
The TSA began installing the body scanners in 2008, but the more aggressive pat-downs result from the incident last Christmas Day when a Nigerian passenger on a Detroit-bound airliner was caught with a bomb hidden in his underwear.
Business traveler Kenny Williams went through a body imaging machine Tuesday morning before boarding a plane from Baltimore to Hobby.
“I would think that the scanners are less intrusive, obviously, than being groped,” said Williams, who said he understands the security needs of both inspection methods. “If it’s a necessary evil, I’m fine with it. I’d rather that than have my plane blow up.”
So far 388 body imaging machines have been installed at 68 U.S. airports, and the total will reach 1,000 nationwide by next year. There are 15 machines at George Bush Intercontinental Airport. These scanners let agents see what passengers look like without clothes, but the TSA says the images aren’t stored.
One group is encouraging travelers not to fly at all until the government removes what the group calls “porno-scanners.” The “We Won’t Fly” website asks people who must fly to decline the body scan and instead request to be patted down by security personnels.
Another passenger is promoting a “National Opt-Out Day” on Nov. 24, also suggesting that passengers reject the scans in favor of pat-downs.
That could lead to security lines even longer than usual on the day before Thanksgiving since the pat-downs take more time.
The idea drew a sharp response from the TSA.
“On the eve of a major national holiday and less than one year after al-Qaida’s failed attack last Christmas Day, it is irresponsible for a group to suggest travelers opt out of the very screening that may prevent an attack using non-metallic explosives,” said TSA Administrator John Pistole.
Houston airport officials expect more than 152,000 passengers to travel through Hobby and 1.1 million through Intercontinental between the end of this week and Nov. 30.
Some passenger rights advocates are supporting the opt-out day.
“The TSA Administrator should be listening to the flying public, not chastising them for being concerned about their privacy rights,” said Brandon Macsata, executive director of the Association for Airline Passenger Rights.
Pilots unhappy, too
Pilots are also frustrated by the security changes.
The US Airline Pilots Association, which represents 5,200 US Airways pilots, said it is concerned that the radiation emitted by the scanning machines pilots must go through frequently could subject them to health risks.
In a written statement, Air Line Pilots Association officials noted that their members already are subject to extensive FBI background checks, and that thousands are deputized by the TSA to use lethal force while on duty to defend the cockpit from a terrorist threat.
Airport pat-downs rub some wrong way in Houston
Houston travelers give body searches mixed reviews.
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