Screening Still a Pain at Airports, Fliers Say

The New York Times | November 21, 2011
By Susan Stellin

The lines will still be long and the screening still invasive at airport checkpoints this Thanksgiving.

While the government has made some changes to security procedures, many passengers and travel executives contend that the moves do not go far enough.

Since last November, the Transportation Security Administration has adopted a policy to reduce pat-downs of children 12 and under, altered some body scanners to display a generic outline of a human figure and begun testing programs that offer expedited screening to pilots and select frequent fliers.

Still, some travelers are bothered by a screening process that has become increasingly time-consuming and intimate, and industry representatives say they are worried that these frustrations are contributing to a decline in air travel.

The Air Transport Association expects 2 percent fewer people will fly this Thanksgiving week compared with last year, while AAA projects a 4 percent increase in automobile travel.

As the T.S.A. observes its 10th anniversary, it also faces lawsuits over the legality of its passenger searches, growing scrutiny of the cost-effectiveness of its screening measures, questions about security lapses and complaints that some agents continue to make travelers feel humiliated or harassed.

At a Senate Commerce Committee oversight hearing about the agency in early November, Senator Claire McCaskill, Democrat of Missouri, described her own discomfort with a particular agent at a St. Louis airport and expressed sympathy for passengers who complain.

“When you have the traveling public tell you that sometimes these pat-downs are unacceptable, trust me, they are not exaggerating,” Senator McCaskill said. “There are many times that women put hands on me in a way that if it was your daughter or your sister or your wife you would be upset.”

Based on her frequent travels, she also suggested that women who must submit to pat-downs have to wait longer than men, because there are fewer female agents to conduct searches.

Other senators who attended the hearing or a separate one convened by the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs voiced concerns about radiation emitted by the X-ray body scanners, security breaches at Atlanta and Newark airports, insensitive treatment of passengers with medical conditions and a child caught up in a watch list error.

In response, John Pistole, head of the T.S.A., who testified at both hearings, cited the 1.8 million passengers screened every day, mostly without incident.

“We do have these — I’ll call them one-off situations,” Mr. Pistole said. “The vast, vast majority of people go through effectively and efficiently.”

While passenger protests over the agency’s hands-on searches have diminished, airline and travel trade groups are growing more vocal about their concerns that checkpoint security annoyances are hurting their business.

Last week, the U.S. Travel Association released a market research study showing that while most travelers who have flown at least once in the past year are satisfied with the T.S.A.’s overall performance, frequent fliers have more complaints.

When asked to list their top frustrations with air travel, travelers chose these issues related to security: “the wait time to clear the T.S.A. checkpoint,” “having to remove shoes, belts and jackets at the T.S.A. checkpoint” and “T.S.A. employees who are not friendly.”

Geoff Freeman, chief operating officer for the association, complimented Mr. Pistole’s willingness to address the industry’s concerns, but added, “We need to be much more aggressive in administering some common sense changes.”

One of the agency’s attempts to move away from a one-size-fits-all approach to screening, the PreCheck program that allows participants to pass through security without removing their belts, shoes, jackets or laptops, has generally been well received.

But only one in a thousand passengers currently receive this expedited screening, mostly elite frequent fliers on American and Delta who are departing on flights from Miami, Detroit, Atlanta or Dallas. The agency plans to expand this program to Las Vegas, Minneapolis and Los Angeles in the next few months as well as add other airlines.

While government officials and travel executives have praised the PreCheck program as a positive first step toward a more risk-based approach to aviation security, some advocacy groups have been critical of the program’s emphasis on elite fliers and have raised questions about the potential for abuse.

“Once you start going down the road of trying to treat passengers differently based on things you know about their life, it’s either going to be so rough it’s useless — and possibly counterproductive as a security measure — or it’s overly intrusive,” said Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst with the American Civil Liberties Union.

Another advocacy group, the Electronic Privacy Information Center, is still pursuing a lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security over the use of body scanners, and recently asked the court to force the agency to release documents containing radiation test results for the X-ray machines.

The group also filed a motion to compel the department to comply with the court’s July ruling that the agency must conduct a formal public comment process about the use of body scanners at airports, which it failed to do before the machines were introduced.

Greg Soule, a spokesman for the T.S.A., declined to comment on the agency’s plans to solicit public comment. The European Union recently adopted a rule prohibiting airport body scanners that use X-ray technology.

About 250 X-ray body scanners and 260 machines that use electromagnetic waves have been installed at airports, and Mr. Soule said the second type of machine has been upgraded with privacy filters that display a generic body image. All future acquisitions of both types of machines will have the privacy feature, he added.

Despite the agency’s efforts to address the issues raised last holiday season, some travelers are skeptical that anything has changed.

Thomas Sawyer, the bladder cancer survivor whose urostomy bag was mishandled during a pat-down last November, forcing him to travel covered in urine, later met with T.S.A. officials in Washington as part of a group offering advice on screening passengers with medical conditions.

But in July, Mr. Sawyer had another incident with a screener who squeezed his urostomy bag, leading him to conclude that his was not a “one-off” situation, and that there are still holes in the agency’s training efforts.

“I see a real disconnect between what they say they’re doing and what’s really happening at the airport,” Mr. Sawyer said. “I just don’t understand why it’s so difficult to train these agents.”

The T.S.A. reauthorization bill introduced in the House in September includes a requirement that the agency adopt a plan to improve screening procedures for individuals with metal implants, prosthetics and physical disabilities. It would also require more training and better accountability for errors.

While it is difficult to evaluate the overall performance of airport screeners, Bill Fisher, a former frequent flier who has cut back on his own travels, maintains an online list at Travel Underground of reports about screeners who have been arrested, airport security breaches and incidents involving mistreatment of passengers by agents.

Mr. Fisher said he started the list to help answer his own question about airport security: “Is it really as bad as it seems or are people overreacting?”

A year later, he thinks passengers’ concerns are not exaggerated, and have not gone away.

“The fact that these stories still surface routinely is probably a good indication that this issue hasn’t died down as much as anticipated,” he said.