Patted Down and Hating It at the Nation's Airports

Women who have been through secondary screening pat-downs are complaining that security searches at America's 450 commercial airports can be too invasive at times


At a security checkpoint recently at the Fort Lauderdale, Fla., airport, Patti LuPone, the singer and actress, recalled, she was instructed to remove articles of clothing. "I took off my belt, I took off my clogs, I took off my leather jacket," she said.

"But when the screener said, 'Now take off your shirt,' I hesitated. I said, 'But I'll be exposed!'" When she persisted in her complaints, she said, she was barred from her flight.

Heather Maurer, a business executive from Washington, had a similar experience at Logan Airport in Boston.

And a few weeks ago, Jenepher Field, 71, who walks with the aid of a cane, was subjected to a breast pat-down at the airport outside Kansas City, Mo.

These women and a good many others, both frequent and occasional travelers, are furious about recent changes in airport security that have increased both the number and the intensity of pat-downs at 450 commercial airports in the U.S. They are not keeping quiet.

In dozens of interviews, women say they were humiliated by the searches, often done in view of other passengers, and many said they had sharply reduced their air travel as a result.

The new security policies on body searches were implemented in mid-September, after a terrorist attack in Russia a few weeks before that destroyed two planes, killing 90 people. Two Chechen women were thought to have carried non-metallic explosives onto the planes, officials said.

It is not known whether the explosives were hidden in the women's clothing or whether the women merely boarded unimpeded, carrying the explosives.

But the Transportation Security Administration in the U.S., already worried that metal detectors could not pick up non-metallic explosives, issued new regulations requiring airport screeners to conduct more frequent and more intense secondary searches and pat-downs.

The agency, part of the Department of Homeland Security, declined to break down the percentage of searches conducted by gender, but a spokeswoman said it did not treat women differently from men under the policy.

While some men have complained about the groping nature of the searches, women object the most. Several women said that male colleagues had scoffed at their complaints, saying that a physical pat-down was a small price to pay for security.

"I laugh when men tell me that," said Betty Spence, president of the National Association for Female Executives, who says she has been selected for pat-downs several times in the last month on trips from New York to Chicago, Washington and Miami.

"Men don't know how offensive it is to be touched by anyone when you don't want to be touched."

She said she had switched to driving whenever she could.

Amy Von Walter, a spokeswoman for the Transportation Security Administration, said: "The pat-downs were put in place to address TSA's abilities to detect explosives at the checkpoint. That was a key recommendation by the 9/11 Commission."

With such a new procedure, she said, the agency expected complaints. So far, it has received about 250, she said.

None of the complaints has been resolved so far nor any penalties imposed. But dozens of women are publicly sharing their experiences of being examined in uncomfortable ways, suggesting that complaints were more widespread than the official count.

As many as 15 per cent of the estimated 2 million daily passengers are chosen for secondary screenings, including pat-downs, Von Walter said, not counting people who set off metal detectors when passing through security, who are automatically wanded.

Under the previous rules, travellers were randomly selected for secondary screenings or taken aside if they set off metal detectors. Security would ask travellers to remove their shoes and coats, and then use a magnetometer to scan their bodies. Carry-ons were inspected by hand.

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