Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

U.S. airport pat-downs are about to get more invasive

A woman undergoes a pat-down during TSA security screening Nov. 19, 2010, at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. (Ted S. Warren / Associated Press)
By Justin Bachman Bloomberg

While few have noticed, U.S. airport security workers long had the option of using five different types of physical pat-downs at the screening line. Now, those have been eliminated, replaced instead with one universal approach. And this time, you will notice.

The new physical touching – for those selected to have a pat-down – will be more invasive in what the federal agency describes as a more “comprehensive” physical screening, according to a Transportation Security Administration spokesman.

Denver International Airport, for example, notified employees and flight crews on Thursday that the “more rigorous” searches “will be more thorough and may involve an officer making more intimate contact than before.”

“I would say people who in the past would have gotten a pat-down that wasn’t involved will notice that the (new) pat-down is more involved,” TSA spokesman Bruce Anderson said Friday. The shift from the previous, risk-based assessment on which pat-down procedure an officer should apply was phased in over the past two weeks after tests at smaller airports, he said.

The TSA screens about 2 million people daily at U.S. airports. The agency doesn’t track how many passengers are subject to pat-down searches after they pass through an imaging scanner. People who decline to use this screening technology are automatically subject to physical searches.

While passengers may find the process more intrusive than before, the new screening procedure isn’t expected to increase overall airport security delays. However, “for the person who gets the pat-down, it will slow them down,” Anderson said.

The change is partly the result of the agency’s study of a 2015 report that criticized aspects of TSA screening procedures. That audit, by the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general, drew headlines because airport officers had failed to detect handguns and other weapons. Another change prompted by the report was the TSA decision to end its “managed inclusion” program by which some everyday travelers were allowed to use PreCheck lanes to speed things up at peak times.

Physical screening has long been one of the traveling public’s strongest dislikes related to airport security protocols. The TSA conducts all pat-downs with an officer of the same sex, and allows for a passenger to request a private area for the screening and to have a witness. Likewise, the traveler can request that the pat-down occur in public view.

The new policy also applies to airline pilots and flight attendants, classified as “known crewmembers” who generally receive less scrutiny at checkpoints. The TSA conducts random searches of these employees, and airlines this week had inquired about whether their employees would be subject to more frequent pat-downs. The number of random searches for airline crews isn’t changing, Anderson said, although airport employees may face more random checks.

“Sometimes it’s random, sometimes they’re consistent based on the door you enter,” he said of the searches of workers with airport ID badges. “Sometimes those measures call for a pat-down.”

In their notice, Denver airport officials said employees are subject to search at random locations. “If a pat down is required as part of the operation, badged employees will be required to comply with a TSA officer’s request to conduct a full body pat down.”

In December, a CNN political commentator, Angela Rye, posted an article online describing her “humiliation” about a TSA agent’s search. Rye wrote in graphic detail about the pat-down of her genitals during a search at the Detroit Airport before a flight to New York.

TSA officials didn’t immediately address whether the new universal pat-down protocol will mandate touching of passenger genitals.