18-Nov-2010 11:47 AM

TSA defends airport body scanners

US Transportation Security Administration (TSA) Administrator John Pistole, in a US Senate Committee Hearing, acknowledged that the new security pat-downs are more invasive than they have been in the past but defended the TSA’s advanced airport screening measures (New York Times/Reuters/Dow Jones/Agence France-Presse/Bloomberg/Washington Post, 17-Nov-2010). Details include:

  • The system: The TSA has implemented new advanced imaging technology (AIT) units, which use radio waves to produce graphic images of passengers' bodies as they go through airport security. The TSA has installed 385 of the X-ray scanners at 68 US airports, compared with fewer than 50 machines for last year's holiday travel season. About 1000 scanners are slated to be in use by the end of 2011;
  • Pat-down process: If individuals choose to avoid the imaging process, they will be subjected to a thorough pat-down although Mr Pistole clarified that children under 12 years old would not have to undergo the pat-down. However, the TSA would not provide exemptions for passengers who refuse to be screened for religious reasons. He added that pat-downs usually occur only if an alarm goes off during the full-body scan or metal detector or if passengers opt out of the scan. He added that a "very, very small number" of pat-downs are done randomly. He said 99% of passengers are choosing to go through the scanners;
  • Airline reactions: Two pilots earlier this week filed a suit claiming the enhanced body scanners and pat-down procedures violate their constitutional right to be free from unreasonable searches. Unions representing 14,800 pilots at American Airlines and US Airways Group have urged members to avoid the scanners, while the Air Line Pilots Association and the Association of Flight Attendants, which together represent 103,000 workers, have pressed US officials for a separate screening process for crews that avoids full-body scans;
  • Consumer reaction: Some protesters, including the Association for Airline Passenger Rights, have called for a nationwide boycott of the scanners on the day before Thanksgiving, one of the busiest travel days of the year;
  • Government reaction:  Republican Senator George LeMieux expressed worries about the degree of contact in the pat-downs while US Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison stated the government must move to increase passenger privacy after protests against the enhanced pat-down procedures;
  • Reason behind the measures: The new airport screening procedures come after several foiled plots in the past year. Senator Joe Lieberman, Chairman of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security, commented that the process "is necessary" to ensure aviation safety;
  • Safety: Mr Pistole stated the level of radiation exposure caused by the machines was “well within the safety standards”.

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