Should we avoid TSA screening, or embrace it?

Columnist July 13, 2011

Full-body scan or pat-down?

It’s a choice that hundreds of thousands of air travelers will make for the first time this summer.

Not willingly, mind you. Some passengers are even going so far as to change the way they dress in an effort to avoid the whole thing. Susan Jones, an executive from Bellevue, Wash., wears clothes that won’t set off the airport magnetometer, hoping to pass through the checkpoint quickly. “I have a favorite underwire garment that gets caught going through the machine,” she says. “So I try to remember not to wear it when I’m traveling.”

The TSA policy of either frisking or scanning passengers selected for additional screening dates back to last fall. But the full effects are being felt just now. Airports are bustling with infrequent travelers who have never faced this decision. Many want to know: Is there any way out? Is it even possible to avoid the TSA this summer?

The answers: yes and yes.


Scan (Luci Gutierrez/for The Washington Post)

If you decide to fly, you can steer clear of this modern-day Morton’s Fork by doing exactly what Jones does, according to the TSA. Remove anything from your person that might set off the metal detector, and unless you’re randomly chosen for the scanner, you can walk free.

You can even improve your odds of avoiding a scanner by looking up your airport online to find out where the machines are and sidestepping them. A new site called TSA Status (www.tsastatus.net) allows passengers to report which airports use the so-called “backscatter” machines more frequently and which checkpoints have the most aggressive screeners.

For example, a recent report rated the Terminal D screening area at the Philadelphia airport “green” — meaning that there were no machines visible — adding, “It’s still clear as of now.” On the other hand, it warned that the scanners were being used on almost all passengers at Ontario International Airport in Southern California.

Air travelers have used other tricks to elude the scan/pat-down dilemma. They include traveling with the kids — TSA agents seem far less likely to split up a family or to pat down young children — and bringing along pets. The evidence that either of these strategies works is strictly anecdotal, but if it makes any difference, one of the anecdotes is mine.

Nigel Appleby, a reader who lives near Vancouver, used to cross the border to fly out of Seattle whenever he found a bargain. The TSA’s sometimes heavy-handed screening practices have stopped that for the most part. “We’re heading to Europe in September, and we’ll fly out of Vancouver International Airport,” he says.

Some travelers would prefer not to play the game at all, and for them, the decision is made before they buy a ticket.

Darryl Wolfe, who works for a consulting firm in Charlotte, chose a pat-down over a scan last year and regretted it. “I was shocked by the intensity and roughness of the pat-down,” he told me. “In my mind at least, some of it was retribution for opting out. It was more like an assault.”

After that, he stopped flying altogether.

There may be hope for him. A new airline venture called Plane Red (www.planered.com) plans to start operating between regional airports in smaller craft that would be exempt from TSA screening. Although the airline is still in the planning stages, it has received a fair amount of publicity because of its avoid-the-TSA pitch, according to founder Wade Eyerly.

“It’s remarkable that treating travelers like actual people, preserving their dignity and helping them be more productive requires avoiding the government,” he says.

But avoiding air travel doesn’t necessarily mean that you won’t have to deal with the TSA. The agency’s Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response program, which goes by the unfortunate acronym VIPR, randomly checks passengers using other forms of transportation. Last year, VIPR teams were deployed 8,000 times, according to the agency.

I asked the TSA how to avoid a VIPR team and was assured that the program is nothing more than a visual deterrent and limited for now to major transportation systems such as trains, subways and an occasional public event. TSA does not screen automobiles on public streets but looks for “suspicious activity” on roads and in parking lots at transportation hubs.

Still, it seems that with only a few exceptions, such as a cruise or a car trip, it’s increasingly difficult to take a TSA-free vacation. While that rubs many travelers the wrong way, others are far more understanding. Susan Jones says she’d rather be safe than sorry. “I was scheduled to be on one of the 9/11 planes and had my trip canceled at the last minute,” she says. “And my husband was supposed to be at a breakfast meeting at the tower, which also was canceled last minute. So I take security seriously.”

I do, too. I was only a few hundred feet away from the 1993 World Trade Center bombing (the one that was meant to send the north tower into the south tower) so I’m not just writing from a theoretical perspective.

Somehow, playing this cat-and-mouse game seems silly. Shouldn’t we be welcoming the screening instead of running from it?

Elliott is National Geographic Traveler magazine’s reader advocate. E-mail him at chris@elliott.org.

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