By Sara Kehaulani Goo
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 10, 2004
Rolf Reifgies always got in trouble at the airport security checkpoint because of his suspenders.
Whenever the Wisconsin businessman flew out of Minneapolis, Milwaukee or Madison, Wis., the metal in his suspenders set off the magnetometer. Then, six weeks ago, he discovered BuzzNot, a brand of suspenders with plastic clasps.
"Works like a charm," Reifgies said of the $19.99 pair he found on SuspenderStore.com. Now when he takes off on trips to sell his milking equipment, Reifgies glides right through security. "It's a nuisance if I wear regular suspenders."
In this era of tightened airport security, retailers are coming to the aid of the aggravated traveler, offering new products -- such as bras and shoes -- designed to get passengers through the checkpoints without the indignity of a pat-down.
Shoemakers Johnston & Murphy, Florsheim and Rockport sell dozens of styles without metal shanks in the soles and market them to frequent fliers. Florsheim identifies the styles with tags that look like passports labeled "airport friendly" inside the shoebox.
"We had requests, mainly from airline pilots, asking which shoes were airplane friendly," said Thomas W. Florsheim Jr., chief executive of Weyco Group Inc., the Milwaukee parent company of Florsheim. "It seemed like we were getting more inquiries from our people who sell our shoes."
Many passengers think it is worth the effort to find shoes and clothing that will help them avoid added scrutiny at the airport checkpoint. Travelers who set off the walk-through magnetometer are automatically pulled aside, and a screener waves a hand-held metal detector over their body. Then, the screener conducts a physical pat-down search to check for hidden explosives or other prohibited items. The pat-downs have become more common since September, when two Russian planes exploded after two women allegedly brought explosives on board.
More than 300 passengers have complained to the Transportation Security Administration that the pat-down procedures are embarrassing and invasive because they involve screeners touching people near sensitive body areas, often to inspect bras and belts. The agency modified its pat-down procedures yesterday, allowing women to place their arms at their sides instead of holding them out during inspection.
Even if passengers do not set off the metal detector, the TSA warns that passengers may be pulled aside for more screening. Typically, passengers who buy tickets at the last minute or buy one-way trips will automatically be selected. Screeners also may choose passengers at random for additional screening, no matter what they are wearing.
The unpredictability of the screening process has prompted many frequent travelers to wear slip-on shoes, rather than ones with laces. Rick Pyatt, director of government relations at Goodrich Corp., said he always removes his shoes even if TSA screeners do not request that he do so. "It's frustrating because [the shoe removal rules are] different airport to airport," said Pyatt, a former commercial airline pilot. "I try not to wear shoes with laces to the airport."
Many men's dress shoes and women's pumps contain steel because it adds stability, shoe retailers say. Few women's shoes with heels are free of metal. Online retailers such as Shoedini.com and Zappos.com have created sections devoted to shoes that will pass through airport security, but the selection for women is small, consisting of Ugg boots, sneakers and sandals.
"Manufacturers need to address the needs of women to get through airports," said Tom Casale, founder of AirportFriendly.com, a Web site that sells travel-related gadgets.
One Japanese company, Triumph International, launched what it called a "Frequent Flyer Bra" in late 2001 that was guaranteed to not set off airport metal detectors. The bra has metal-free clasps and underwires made of resin instead of metal. But the bras are not available in the United States, and a spokeswoman for the company in Canada said she did not know whether they are still manufactured.
Bra makers say there are few signs that women will change the kind of bra they wear because of airline security hassles. About 70 percent of women wear bras with steel underwires sewn into the lower structure for support and shaping, according to underwire manufacturer S & S Industries of New York, a supplier for Victoria's Secret, Bali, Warner's, Playtex, Vanity Fair and other bra labels.
"If it was going to be an issue, it would have been close to 9/11," said Jon Broz, senior vice president of sales at S & S.
Instead, sales of underwires have only increased. S & S also makes underwire supports made of plastic, but Broz said they don't offer the same support. "It's a tiny percentage of the market," he said.
The TSA, however, recommends that women not wear underwire bras because they can set off the metal detectors, though some travelers say they wear them and they don't set off the detector every time.
"There are numerous reasons a metal detector might go off. It could be a combination of an underwire and a belt buckle. It could be metal inside the clothing," said TSA spokeswoman Yolanda Clark.
Last year, the TSA put on a fashion show at Reagan National Airport with models wearing clothing that would not set off the detector. The woman wore cotton pants with plastic buttons and slip-on shoes. The TSA recommends that women remove all jewelry, even earrings, barrettes and body piercings, before arriving at the checkpoint.
Some airports, such as National, provide plastic bags to passengers at the entrance to the security checkpoints. The TSA requires all passengers wearing coats and blazers to put them on the X-ray belt before passing through the magnetometer, out of concern that explosives or other prohibited items could be hidden inside.
Jayne M. Thompson, a Lutheran pastor in Manhattan, Kan., said she was required to undergo a pat-down last week even though she did not set off any alarms. She found the experience so humiliating that the next time she flies, she will try to shame the TSA into recognizing the indecency of its actions. "I'm going to wear my sports bra and my clerical shirt, and if they insist on doing the pat-down, I'm going to take my shirt off," she said.