When Barbara Leary went through the full-body scanner at Manchester-Boston Regional Airport recently, her hip replacements set off the alarm. She was directed to another line, where she underwent a physical search by a Transportation Security Administration agent.
“She went over every part of my body,” says Leary, a retired librarian from Westford, Mass. “It took more than five minutes. Not fun.”
On March 2, the TSA quietly introduced a new pat-down procedure that consolidates the agency’s five protocols for passenger searches into one standardized method. Now that it’s been in use for several weeks, passengers like Leary are coming forward with accounts of being frisked, and some of them are troubling.
“This standardized pat-down procedure continues to utilize enhanced security measures implemented several months ago, and does not involve any different areas of the body than were screened in the previous standard pat-down procedure,” says Mike England, a TSA spokesman. (The agency does not comment on the specifics of any passenger’s individual screening experience.)
So what, exactly, is the TSA doing differently? It’s difficult to quantify, and security concerns prevent the agency from providing specifics. The number of air travelers who receive pat-downs is fairly low. Only those who have opted opt out of using full-body scanners or whose belongings have set off the X-ray machine are required to undergo the pat-downs. Travelers may also be frisked at random, as part of the agency’s “unpredictable” security measures.
TSA agents receive formal training for pat-downs. To conduct a search at an airport, agents must demonstrate proficiency in performing the procedure. Yet for all the talk of uniformity, the pat-downs can vary widely, according to people who have been subjected to them at security screening areas.
Melissa Hibbert-Brumfield, a makeup artist from Los Angeles, recently flew from Los Angeles International Airport to Atlanta. In the screening area, Hibbert-Brumfield says, the scanner detected an anomaly in her carry-on bag and asked her to step aside for a more thorough search.
After rummaging through her bag and finding nothing, a female agent told her she had to conduct a “higher level” pat-down. “She told me that she would be using the back of her hand in certain areas of my body,” Hibbert-Brumfield says.
Even so, the pat-down was far more invasive than Hibbert-Brumfield expected. “It felt like legal groping,” she says. “I was furious.”
Carolyn Paddock also recently received a pat-down when she flew from New York to Atlanta, and reports a far different experience. Paddock always opts out of the full-body scanner, so she’s used to receiving the pat-downs.
“The agent performed the new pat-down very professionally, proficiently and communicated everything that she was going to do in advance,” says Paddock, an executive coach based in New York. “My experience was better than usual.”
The new pat-down was developed in response to a Department of Homeland Security Office Inspector General assessment conducted last year, which found widespread failures in the TSA’s technology, procedures and agent performance. In response, the TSA pledged to improve its manual screening protocol, among other measures.
Before the pat-downs were standardized, agents used risk-based assessment to determine what type to use, according to Andrew Nicholson, a regional security director for International SOS, a medical and travel security services company. “The universal pat-down procedure is reportedly more comprehensive than previous screening tactics that varied in invasiveness,” Nicholson says.
There’s no certain way of avoiding pat-downs when you fly domestically. Even air travelers with Pre-Check status, the agency’s “trusted” travelers, may be subject to a frisk. But having a Pre-Check designation on your boarding pass, or being willing to pass through the full-body scanner, will lessen your chances.
Like Paddock, I always opt out of the scanners, so I’m forced to undergo pat-downs. But on a recent flight from New York to Orlando, a TSA agent also flagged my 14-year-old son, Aren, for a physical search.
His pat-down was much more comprehensive than ones I’ve received in the past, with the agent swiping his hands up and down Aren’s legs and arms. It was also considerably more forceful. At one point, the agent’s leg technique pushed my son backward so hard that he nearly lost his balance.
At the end of the luggage carousel, a group of women watched in dismay as my son was examined from head to toe. He never flinched, but after we cleared security, he asked, “Dad, did they really have to do that?”
Elliott is a consumer advocate, journalist and co-founder of the advocacy group Travelers United. Email him at email@example.com.