Updated: November 14, 2010 at 12:00 am
PHILADELPHIA -- As millions of Americans get ready to take to the skies for the Thanksgiving holiday, there's growing anxiety over new security pat-downs and body-imaging scanners at airports.
The Transportation Security Administration implemented what it calls "enhanced" pat-down procedures at airport checkpoints nationwide Oct. 29.
In the new pat-downs, officers use open hands "and fingers" — instead of the backs of their hands — "to go over one's body, including the genital area and breasts," according to a statement by a pilot group upset by the procedure.
Travelers get the new pat-down if they refuse to go through an advanced-imaging technology scanner.
So exactly what is involved in the new pat-down? The TSA is not saying.
"We would not describe the pat-down in any detail for security reasons," said TSA spokeswoman Ann Davis.
The head of the US Airways pilots union, Capt. Mike Cleary, said Wednesday that he had learned in informal conversations with TSA personnel that security officers now "are to run their hand up the inside of your leg until they meet bone resistance. In addition, they use a circular pat-down routine from the small of the stomach, around through a person's crotch, and up into the small of the back."
The changes in hand-search policies came recently, about the same time TSA tightened screening for air cargo, following explosives found on two cargo planes in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and London last month.
Said the TSA, in a statement: "Pat-downs are one important tool to help TSA detect hidden and dangerous items such as explosives. Passengers should continue to expect an unpredictable mix of security layers that include explosives trace detection, advanced imaging technology, canine teams, among others."
Whole-body scanners — 450 are in airports nationwide — and the "enhanced" pat-down anger privacy advocates who have filed suit in an effort to stop them. Unions representing pilots and flight attendants also are concerned.
The US Airline Pilots Association, representing US Airways pilots, says it is absurd that professional flight crews go through TSA screening at all. Moments later, they have unfettered control over "one of the most significant weapons in the airport — the airplane," Cleary said.
Technology exists to verify a crew member's identity — using an airline ID and a passport, but in the current cost-cutting mode of airlines and airports "nobody wants to pay for it," he said.
Cleary has advised fellow pilots to steer clear of the body scanners because of possible exposure to radiation — because pilots spend much of their time exposed to higher-than-normal doses of the sun's radiation at high altitudes.
The pilots say the TSA has not provided credible specifications for radiation emitted by the new machines.
As for the enhanced pat-downs, Cleary told union members this week that if they must submit to a pat-down, they should request the procedure in private, and have it witnessed by a fellow crew member.
Cleary said one US Airways pilot who went through a pat-down had his "genitals grabbed repeatedly" and was "highly traumatized. When I was talking to him on the phone a few days later, he told me that he had just thrown up in his driveway. He was so worried about going to work. This particular fellow has two hip replacements, and so he cannot go through the backscatter machine (the full-body scanner)."
"We're telling pilots, 'Don't go through the machines anyway because of the health risks,' " Cleary said. "But, in this instance, he can't go through them. He knows that he's going to be subjected to pat-downs for the rest of his career, and the prospect of it is making him sick to his stomach."
Passengers with medical devices, such as defibrillators, also have expressed concern about the safety of the new scanning technology.
A movement to draw attention to the new procedures, National Opt Out Day, is slated for Nov. 24.
TSA spokeswoman Davis said in an e-mail: "Advanced imaging technology is safe for all passengers, and the technology meets all known national and international health and safety standards. The energy emitted by millimeter-wave technology is thousands of times less than what is permitted for a cell phone or the equivalent to the exposure each person receives in about 2 minutes of airplane flight at altitude."
"The technology has been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration's Center for Devices and Radiological Health, the National Institute for Standards and Technology, and the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. The technology is also 100 percent optional so if passengers still have concerns, they can opt out," Davis said.
Note: Passengers traveling through airports without advanced imaging technology — such as the Colorado Springs Airport — are not automatically subject to pat-downs, according to Carrie Harmon, a spokeswoman with the Transportation Security Administration. She said pat-downs are used in a small percentage of instances, such as when a metal detector is set off, or during random screenings. This clarifies an information box related to this story that ran on page A1 of Monday's edition of The Gazette.