TSA Pat Downs and Body Scanners: What Holiday Travelers Need to Know

Last Updated Nov 23, 2010 12:41 PM EST

Some call it security theater, others a virtual full-body grope. Some complain about radiation, others about how much it will delay the security lines. Indeed, the Transportation Security Administration has a public relations disaster on its hands. Even Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has weighed in, saying she didn't want to go through the pat down.

So now, as we approach the busiest travel day of the year, let's try and separate fact from perception.

Issue number one: privacy.

Perception: While you're standing in the new machine, arms up, nothing in your pockets, some guy named Vern in another room puts down his copy of Penthouse long enough to take a good long look at "your junk." And if he likes what he sees, he passes those photos around to his buddies.

Reality: Another agent does look at your images, and he or she is responsible for clearing you to pass security with a second agent who is standing in front of that machine. And while the TSA has claimed it does not keep or archive the images, the reality is that these machines ARE capable of storing them, and printing them. The TSA needs to come clean about this.

Perception: If you opt out of the scanning process, you will get an invasive pat down. And children are not exempt.

Reality: The TSA has given its agents new procedures allowing them to do more invasive scans, to use the tips of their fingers and the palms of their hands to feel around breasts and genitalia. But after protests from airline pilots, the TSA backed down and now allow them to show two pieces of ID to avoid the scanning process. The TSA has also adjusted the procedures for patting down children. They are still not exempt, but it will be a less-invasive pat down.

Perception: The radiation levels are dangerous.

Reality: The doses of radiation you get from two airplane flights are more than what you received from the scanner machines. But the argument can be made that the impact of radiation is cumulative, and for frequent fliers, this remains an issue.
Perception: The security lines will be horrendous this week because of the scanning machines.

Reality: The original plan was to install these machines at more than 2,200 checkpoints at 450 commercial airports in this country. At this writing, there are only about 400 of these machines operating at 69 airports. So the odds of you going through one are about one in five. However, if the scan images are suspect, or if you opt out of the scanning altogether, you will be subject to that more invasive pat down, and that will delay the lines. At present, it takes about 2 to 2.5 minutes for you to be scanned and then released. But a pat down can take another 5 minutes, and involves pulling another TSA agent out of the rotation. If more than one passenger is waiting for a pat down, it doesn't take a math genius to figure out how fast the wait times will exponentially increase.

Bottom line: Thanks to the "underwear bomber" -- who passed through two checkpoints, one in Africa and another in Amsterdam essentially wearing the ingredients for the bomb he later attempted to assemble and detonate on board a Delta flight bound for the U.S. -- the scanning machines are here to stay. And more will be coming on line in the next few months.

Best advice: Do everything you can to undress before going to the airport. Remember, as opposed to the old style magnetometers, where you'd remove metal, coins, keys from your pockets, the new scanners require you to remove EVERYTHING from your pockets, and your belt. Why not do that before you get to the airport and put all of those items in your carry-on bag?

Speaking of scanning, it's about what YOU scan as well. Look at the security lines for carry-on bags and shoes about to be put on those conveyor belts. Don't look at how long each line is. Look at how many TSA agents are at the monitor looking at what's going through those conveyor belts. If there's one agent -- and even if the line is extremely long -- choose that line. Why? If you see two or more agents looking at the monitor, there's an overwhelmingly good chance they are training one or more agents, and EVERY bag will be stopped and inspected. I don't care how short that line might be ... don't choose it.

Photo By Inha Leex Hale
  • Peter Greenberg

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