Singer Patti LuPone was recently barred from a flight in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., because she complained when asked to take off her shirt. Other women have complained that they have been subjected to pat-downs of their breasts and other indignities at airport security checkpoints.
Nico Melendez, a spokesman for the Transportation Security Administration in the western states, confirmed that the TSA has tightened the screening procedures for passengers at airports. Many travelers will encounter them for the first time during this holiday season.
(The tightened screening procedures also include the addition of more high-tech screening machines at five airports in July, Melendez said, with five more airports scheduled to get the machines in the near future.)
The enhanced personal-search measures grew out of the tragedy in August, when two Russian commercial airplanes crashed, apparently brought down by female Chechen terrorists with concealed explosives. In September the TSA instituted procedures involving more frequent and more intense “pat-downs” of passengers at airports. Security personnel also have more latitude as to how they select people for more intensive secondary searches.
Melendez did say that if pat-downs are administered, female passengers are entitled to have a female agent do it, and male passengers should only be patted down by a male agent. All passengers are entitled to have secondary searches conducted in a private room rather than in public. Acknowledging that some agents have probably conducted searches inappropriately, Melendez said training is ongoing and complaints are investigated. He did not have an estimate of how many complaints have been received or how many were resolved.
One can understand heightened concern after the Chechen hijackings. But one has to wonder if these extra measures, with their ever-increasing costs in time, technology and personal indignities really result in substantial gains in security. Since airport security became a federal concern, run by federal employees rather than private contractors, the emphasis on sometimes relevant, sometimes dubious passenger control seems to have intensified.
One has to wonder if one way the government seems to think it can convince the American people it is serious about terrorism is by imposing serious inconveniences and in some cases downright humiliation on people who travel. It has spent $10 billion on upgraded security since 2001. But the Homeland Security inspector general reported in April that “there is little difference between the current system and the system in place before the TSA existed.”
College students have brought weapons on planes just to show it could be done. The TSA does fewer independent covert tests of screeners’ effectiveness than were conducted before 9/11.
The TSA fined 5,000 people in 2003 for being insufficiently respectful of TSA agents. If the TSA doesn’t improve its procedures it may face more complaints. Maybe then Americans will be ready to reconsider whether making airport security agents federal employees was a good idea in the first place.