TSA screening row escalates as flight crew object to intrusive screening

Conflict is brewing in the US over new Transportation Security Administration (TSA) procedures, and airline crew – usually most vocal in support of effective security screening - are the strongest critics. Thanksgiving might see a boilover.

The new TSA procedures include full body scanners which use x-ray scatter to produce images. Critics take issue with the machines on two levels.

First, though the TSA has offered repeated assurances that the x-ray doses are minimal and far below the threshold of any health risk, detractors note that there is no firm evidence that the machines are as benign as advertised.

And second, despite TSA assurances that the images produced are immediately erased, the detailed pictures are viewed as intrusive, “pornographic” and a great intrusion of privacy by many who object to the system.

Those who decline use of the machine are then subject to an enhanced pat-down in which includes all of the body including genitals. However, many who have endured the process describe it as basically “groping” and find the event to be embarrassing and demeaning. Parents especially are indignant that complete strangers are touching their children in ways previously reserved for parents and medical professionals.

Video one passenger took of his refusal to submit to a pat-down after opting out of the X-ray scan went viral on the internet this week. The man was heard during the footage to say he did not regard "sexual assault" as a part of the contract to fly.

Pilots and crew raise their voices against intrusions

Pilots and other flight crew are exposed to security checks more than most and the US Airline Pilots Association has actively challenged the practices. They argue that air crew, with full access to all aircraft systems and controls, do not require a bomb if they intend to bring down an aircraft. Even Sully Sullenberger, the US Airways pilot famed for his Hudson River landing in New York, has spoken out against the practices.

The situation prompted a meeting between Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and leaders of travel industry groups. The groups contend that the increased severity and intrusiveness of security checks has diminished the number of potential travellers, as an increasing percentage of the population feels that the hassle no longer justifies air travel.

The tension between screeners and passengers has been exacerbated by a number of passenger accounts - sometime with videos - that are becoming the focus of considerable media coverage portray the TSA as heavy-handed and insensitive.

Screening is still supported at the highest levels, but opposition increases

Government officials continue to assert that the procedures are both safe and necessary in order to ensure aviation safety. But their message is increasingly being resisted by both passengers and crews, who feel that a line has been crossed, and that government organisations need to rethink the entire process.

Almost a decade after 9/11 and the establishment of new security guidelines, the TSA appears to be losing support amongst travellers and crews who now see the agency as a violator of privacy and decency instead of a line of defense against terrorists. Consistent reports over the years of excesses have accumulated and now appear to be boiling over. Detractors also note that despite escalating security checks, random checks still show that prohibited items make it through the process undetected.

Thanksgiving may become a watershed

Finally, experts and casual observers alike have noted that the two most recent events, involving shoes and underwear, were thwarted not by security personnel but by passengers on board - the same passengers who during preflight security were assumed to be risks rather than deterrents.

There is a good chance that the volume of the discussion will be increased and, as aircrew become more involved, the debate will continue to ratchet up. With the Thanksgiving Holiday period approaching, traditionally a peak travel time in the US, pilot groups at American Airlines and US Airways advised their 14,000 members to avoid the scanners, saying they are intrusive and could emit dangerous radiation.

Others are suggesting an opt-out protest on November 24, at the height of the travel rush, in which passengers would refuse to use the scanners and demand to be individually examined. This could result in lines at security checkpoints as well as schedule chaos.

Travelling home for Thanksgiving looks like becoming more than the usual ordeal, if flight crews do follow up on their threats. Some of the long-brewing frustration with TSA procedures may come to a head sooner rather than later.

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