Put off by security pat-downs, fliers raise privacy concerns
06:46 AM CST on Thursday, November 18, 2010
By ERIC TORBENSON / The Dallas Morning News
etorbenson Is the nation’s airport screening system making us safer or just angrier?
Days before airports brace for a crush of holiday travelers, passenger rights advocates are protesting invasive pat-down procedures initiated by the Transportation Security Administration, a move that has simultaneously inflamed the lingering debate over full-body image scanners.
The scanners, eight of which are at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, give weapons-hunting screeners a somewhat “naked” image of each passenger, an outcome that has irked privacy advocates since the machines were first tested in 2007.
The TSA insists the images are looked at by officers in a remote location and not by staff at the machine, and that the images are deleted immediately after the passenger is cleared through security.
For each scan, the machines also emit small amounts of radiation that officials insist are safe. However, it’s enough for some airline unions to tell their members to skip the scan because of their exposure to more natural radiation than most professions.
Passengers and flight crew members can ask not to be scanned – but in its place they now face a pat-down that some say is akin to being groped.
Screeners now touch genital regions with their fingers instead of using the backs of their hands as they did previously. For some, it’s too much.
“There’s simply no option for screening that our members can live with now,” said Kate Hanni, head of FlyersRights.org, which touts 30,000-plus members, 70 percent of whom don’t want the body scans. “This has gotten very big and I’m hearing it very loudly, and I think it’s going to hurt the airlines themselves.”
‘Opt Out’ Wednesday
In Washington, Texas Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison called on TSA officials testifying at a hearing Wednesday to soften their approach.
“We’ve got to do more,” she told TSA Administrator John Pistole. “The outcry is huge.”
Speaking for the agency, Pistole was clear at the hearing: The TSA is adapting to new threats, and passengers who can’t abide by the new rules won’t fly.
Whether unease about screening translates into less travel for airlines that have been enjoying a rebound in demand probably won’t be clear until Christmas, said David Castelveter, spokesman for the Air Transport Association, an industry lobbying group.
“The TSA is making risk-based threat assessments, and we’ve yet to see the effect on travel,” he said Wednesday. “We really have no way of knowing if it is having an effect.”
Fliers who have had enough are being urged to “opt out” of the scans next Wednesday, which the ATA projects will be the fourth-busiest travel day of the Thanksgiving travel period, typically one of the busiest times of the year. Sunday is projected to be the busiest day during the Thanksgiving period.
National Opt Out Day wants to show protest by gumming up TSA checkpoints with passengers who request the more time-consuming manual searches instead of the faster body scans.
Justin Oliver of Fort Worth said he’s assisting the Opt Out efforts by planning to distribute pamphlets to fliers next Wednesday. He hasn’t flown in several years because he believes the TSA procedures – even the ones before the new pat-down techniques – violate his personal freedoms.
“We don’t want to tell people what to do, but we want to make sure they know they have a choice,” he said. A national network of bloggers is trying to raise the movement’s awareness.
At D/FW Airport, the opt-out tactic might be blunted by the fact that only a handful of the 15 TSA security checkpoints have the full-body scanners. Five of the machines are at three checkpoints in Terminal D, and three other machines are in Terminal C, said TSA spokesman Luis Casanova.
By December, D/FW will add seven more machines spread among its checkpoints. Dallas Love Field has none currently but will have them eventually, Casanova said.
At Terminal D on Wednesday morning, the machines weren’t making much trouble.
“I haven’t seen any pat-downs yet today,” said Fran Davis of Bedford, a volunteer airport ambassador who helps passengers find what they need as she observed the checkpoint. “They don’t seem to mind it.”
Polling: 4 of 5 approve
Passengers seemed to understand the need for scans; TSA cites polling showing 4 out of 5 people approve of their use.
“I would hope that they’ve done the proper testing on them so they’re safe,” said Paul Starr of Fort Wayne, Ind., connecting to his flight home from a trip to Mexico. A frequent traveler, he said he doesn’t worry about the screening techniques.
“It does seem like we’re always one step behind the bad guys with our screening,” he said.
For airline crews, radiation is a bigger concern. Pilots and flight attendants receive more natural radiation because they spend so much time at high altitude where the atmosphere doesn’t fully block harmful rays.
But the TSA says the machines emit low levels of radiation. One of two types of the machines emits less energy than a mobile phone transmission, the TSA said, while the other emits the equivalent radiation of flying two minutes in a plane.
Nevertheless, pilot unions have suggested members avoid the scans, a strategy that had been mostly acceptable until the “enhanced” pat-downs began late last month.
“I can see how individuals have concerns about the technique,” said Capt. John Prater, president of the Air Line Pilots Association, who went through both the scanning and the pat-down recently. “I think the search would have discovered if I had tried to conceal a weapon on me. It was very thorough.”
The pilots association and other unions have asked the TSA to consider letting employees have lower levels of screening. Pilots face deep background checks before they can even fly, and “it doesn’t matter what’s in their pockets because they’re at the controls of the airplane,” Prater said.
A pilot program called CrewPass is close to being ready to launch, he said, after the TSA listened to union concerns. The concept would be to identify pilots at checkpoints and let them through without much or any screening.
“We think it would let the TSA use its scarce resources to focus on the bigger threats,” Prater said.
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