Six Things to Know Before Your TSA Pat-Down

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The airline passenger revolt over controversial new security screening techniques, on the eve of the biggest travel season of the year, is in full swing.  While everyone is talking about the privacy concerns, the nationwide introduction of advanced imaging technology and invasive patdowns have also opened up a whole host of other questions about travelling and coping with lines that are even longer than the usual holiday mess. Like what’s the best thing to wear if you opt for a body search over the electronic scan? Are some scanners safer than others?  And, is anyone looking at the cargo below the plane as carefully as they’re checking out Grandma? And how about people who can’t stand for long or have a disability? 

additional reporting by Ryan Tracy

tsa pat down, underwear coverage

Some passengers have reported that their baggy or bulky clothing has made them targets for pat-downs. Meanwhile, an entrepreneur in Colorado is trying to cash in on the fear of exposure by selling “scan proof” undergarments filled with tungsten, which he says will block the radiation and blur the image. No word from the TSA on whether donning these duds will lead to a manual search. Though the creator of the undergarments says he’s sold more than 1,000 items, the L.A. Times notes that the screeners have yet to see anyone use them.

Frequent fliers frustrated with the new regulations have threatened on Web forums to respond in kind to the TSA screeners required to perform the more thorough search.    
Run your fingers through their hair, moan with pleasure, offer your phone number.
This is a bad idea. Not only is it petty and mean-spirited, it could be traumatic for screeners. Catcalls, whispers, and aggressive posturing also won’t do much to change the policy: screeners aren't the ones calling the shots. While there are several reports of TSA screeners crossing the line, for the most part these employees are just people trying to do their jobs—jobs they’re not too crazy about right now, either. “Molester, pervert, disgusting, an embarrassment, creep. These are all words I have heard today at work describing me, said in my presence as I patted passengers down. These comments are painful and demoralizing,” writes one TSA employee. “One day is bad enough, but I have to come back tomorrow, the next day and the day after that to keep hearing these comments. If something doesn’t change in the next two weeks I don’t know how much longer I can withstand this taunting. I go home and I cry.” And while “just following orders” has never been a great excuse, and while there are some bad actors who may take advantage of their newfound responsibilities, many TSA workers are professionals. Those who act unprofessionally or aggressively should be reported, blogged about, and reprimanded. But even they don’t deserve to be demeaned—and neither, it should go without saying, does the polite, reserved guy at the end of his shift who has to run his hand up yet another angry stranger’s inner thigh.

tsa body scans radiation Joern Pollex / Getty Images

The TSA uses two different types of scans. Both create images of the body without clothes, but the methodology and final product is slightly different. Millimeter wave machines, which look like giant, gray, oversized, octagonal phone booths, bounce electromagnetic waves off the body, which creates 3-D images in black and white. Backscatter units, which kind of resemble two upscale Porta Potties, project low-level X-ray beams over the body, the reflection of which is used to generate a grayish image. The TSA says both scans are safe. The radio waves from the millimeter wave machines have no known risk. The backscatter units use radiation but in small doses, which the TSA says are less than the total radiation that most people are exposed to on any given day, and much less than passengers receive during the course of a flight. Still, critics worry that a malfunctioning machine could lead to an increased exposure, or that the government is underestimating the dose of radiation to which the skin is exposed.

tsa-rules-disability John Moore / Getty Images

Previously, passengers with medical devices that set off metal detectors had to be subjected to a pat-down. But in an NPR interview on Tuesday, Lee Kair, assistant administrator for Security Operations, said that the advanced imaging technology “really speeds up the process” for them. 
However, passengers who can’t enter the scan or have limited mobility will still need to be patted down. According to a letter the TSA sent to members of its disability committee, this includes “people who use wheelchairs and scooters who cannot stand; anyone who cannot stand with their arms raised at shoulder level fore 5-7 second duration of the scan; anyone who is not able to stand without the use of a cane, crutch, walker, etc.; people who use service animals; people using or carrying oxygen; and individuals accompanying and providing assistance to those individuals described above.“ There are anecdotal reports of TSA screeners ignoring the needs of disabled passengers—but there are also stories of TSA employees acting with consistent professionalism and courtesy.


Along with passengers and luggage, commercial airlines also carry cargo. Those packages do not always undergo the equivalent of a full-body scan. A 2007 law required airliners to screen 100 percent of the cargo in the holds of planes flying commercial flights landing in the U.S. by this past August. But airliners and the TSA have struggled to meet the deadline, in part because not all other countries have adopted screening programs that meet U.S. standards.

Scanning 100 percent of cargo on every flight, however, makes about as much sense as giving every passenger a hands-on cavity search, says Robert Poole, a transportation-security expert at the Reason Foundation. Poole calls the 100 percent mandate for cargo on commercial flights “a legislative overreaction.” “What we’ve learned over the last decade is that terrorist groups are very versatile,” he says. “They see a prevention measure being implemented and figure out how to route around it.”

Poole recommends risk-based checks for both cargo and people. If a package comes from a suspicious sender, or intelligence agencies have reason to believe it can be dangerous, then security officials should screen it rigorously. If the Department of Homeland Security has good reason to be wary of a passenger (or, alternatively, knows nothing about the person at all), then putting that person through a body scan might be a worthwhile precaution. Otherwise, moderate security checks will suffice, Poole says, and money that might be spent on full-body scanning every person and package is better spent elsewhere.

Though the uproar makes it sound as if every passenger will be subjected to the more invasive pat-downs, that’s not the case. Passengers get pat-downs only when they opt out of the scans or get the dreaded “blurry groin” or present other issues that keep them from getting screened in the scanner machine—TSA head John Pistole said it’s a “very small percentage.” And only a percentage of passengers are being asked to go through the scanners rather than the traditional metal detector. There are 382 primary airports (airports which service over 10,000 people a year), and only 68 have advanced imaging technology—about 700 scanners total, or roughly 10 per airport (some have more, some have less). Consider that anywhere from 1.2 million to 2.5 million passengers will fly each day of this holiday weekend and your odds of having to decide if whether or not to opt out seem much better. Of course, for many people, any chance at all is unacceptable.

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