Passing through security at an airport this morning, I couldn't help but think about how much air travel in America has become such a complicated and stressful task over the years. As a relatively young person, I can't imagine what air travel must have been like in the past, at a time when flying was more of a luxurious adventure than an exercise in extreme patience...
"Next!" My thoughts are snapped back into today's reality -- a slow-moving line crawling past one security checkpoint, then another and another. The post 9/11 world at the airport is a dizzying maze of shoe removal, belt removal, laptop retrieval and carefully measured 3 oz. bottles of liquid, and as I approach the front of the line, the new frontier is in sight: the full-body scan. Another day, another new rule.
Not satisfied with the old standard metal detector searches, the ever-vigilant Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is dispatching its latest round of new "backscatter" full-body scanners to airports across the country. The technology is controversial to be sure. Yesterday we reported how pilots unions are urging their members to avoid the contraptions because they worry about daily exposure to radiation and the controversially invasive "naked strip searches," despite most experts agreeing that the level of radiation released by the new screening machines is minuscule. (The pilots concerns make me wonder about the TSA agents who stand there all day, receiving continuous exposure.)
Flight attendants are also raising their voices -- not just about the new body scanners, but about their alternative. If you are "randomly" chosen for a full-body scan and refuse for whatever reason, you're treated to the only-slightly-less-embarrassing pat-down:
The Denver head of the union that represents United Airlines flight attendants is concerned his members may be victimized by Transportation and Security Administration agents, perceived as going too far.
In recent weeks, procedures have changed. Agents may now search individuals using the front of their hands, instead of the back. They can also touch private areas.
“We don’t necessarily believe that such an invasive process is necessary to the safety and security of the flight, ” said Ken Kyle, President of Association of Flight Attendants Local Council 9.
“If we believed it was a totally necessary procedure, I don’t think there would be a crew member that would object to it,” said Kyle.
Flight attendants and pilots are pushing back, demanding the TSA create a special "crew pass," so they can pass through security without being subjected to the new procedures like... well, all of the rest of us.
The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg speculates that those who refuse to pass through the scanners are used as a lesson for other passengers waiting in line to be checked:
The second lesson is that the effectiveness of pat-downs does not matter very much, because the obvious goal of the TSA is to make the pat-down embarrassing enough for the average passenger that the vast majority of people will choose high-tech humiliation over the low-tech ball check.
The seemed to be the case for one radio host who recently recounted her run-in with the TSA after refusing the scan and pat-down, describing the process as "humiliating." Consumer Traveler suggests this is how it works:
[W]hen meeting with privacy officials at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and TSA later that month, I was told unofficially that there were two standards of pat-downs. One for the normal situation where passengers are going through metal detectors and a different pat-down for those who refuse to go through the whole-body scanners.
With this latest announcement, TSA admits that it has been clandestinely punishing passengers for refusing to go through the invasive whole-body scans with an even more intrusive aggressive pat-down and that soon those more invasive pat-down will creep from airport to airport.
The Association for Airline Passenger Rights, a non-profit Washington-based group, is speaking out on behalf of the rest of us, calling on the TSA to end its new, "flawed and intrusive" pat-down searches.
"TSA has a history of being a day late and a dollar short on its security measures, and unfortunately their new aggressive pat-down searches are in keeping with that history," Brandon M. Macsata, executive director of the association, said in a statement. Mascata says the new technique violates passengers' privacy rights while doing little to actually improve air security.
The American Civil Liberties Union is also criticizing the new "hands on" regulations, equating the new pat-down process to little more than a legal "grope."
Some who have refused to undergo the new searches say they have been treated unfairly and bullied. Some have come up with snarky new acronyms for TSA. And some half-jokingly wonder what the next extreme measure the threat of terrorism might subject law-abiding citizens to.
At least one lawsuit has been filed against the Department of Homeland Security by the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) in an attempt to suspend the new regulations and citizen passengers have taken to online web forums to report their own stories.
Believe it or not, government airport security regulations have even inspired a new movie, aptly titled "Please Remove Your Shoes":
Fortunately, I passed through screening this morning without having to feel violated by the new "scatterback" scan or molested by the new pat-down techniques. Still, I couldn't help but feel sorry for the unfortunate individual who would eventually be pulled aside and subjected to such an intrusive peak under their clothes.
Is this simply the reality of of the post-9/11 world -- where security always needs to worry about staying one step ahead of innovative enemies who wish us harm? Where one "underwear bomber" means strip searches for all?
Let us know what you think -- are these new security measures just a necessary nuisance to protect crew and passenger safety, or are they overstepping the line between privacy and security? And, as always, if you have a story to share about your experiences, we'd love to hear from you.