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


With the new rules, security personnel are given more latitude to select whomever they want for secondary screenings, whenever they want, and to conduct more intrusive pat-downs and more thorough examinations of carry-on bags. In both cases, travellers have the right to seek a private area. Women can request female inspectors.

A provision in the new rules -- which says that a screener's "visual observation" of a passenger is enough to order a secondary screening -- seems to single out women, something that many women searched attribute to a belief that bras are good places to conceal nonmetallic explosives. The provision states, "TSA policy is that screeners are to use the back of the hand when screening sensitive body areas, which include the breasts (females only), genitals and buttocks."

At Fort Lauderdale airport on Nov. 5, Lupone says she removed her shirt after vehemently protesting, revealing the thin, see-through camisole that she was wearing. Next, she was given a pat-down by a screener who, she said, "was all over me with her hands," including her groin area and breasts.

LuPone said she demanded an explanation. "We don't want another Russia to happen," she said one of the screeners told her.

Nancy Davis Kho, a financial data developer from Oakland, Calif., said, "They're totally overlooking the need to preserve a person's dignity." Kho said she was mortified at La Guardia Airport in New York on Sept. 28, when a female screener patted her down, "running her hands under bra straps and just about everywhere else," while other passengers gawked.

Lu Chekowsky, an advertising executive from Portland, Ore., said her cosmetics case set off the alarm at the airport there a couple of months ago. Since then, she says, she has been patted down so many times that she has taken to wearing baggy trousers, flip-flops and a big sweatshirt to make the procedure less onerous.

"Routinely, my breasts are being cupped, my behind is being felt," Chekowsky said. "And I feel I can't fight it. If I were to say anything, I picture myself being shipped off to Guantanamo."

Male screeners can do the pat-downs when female screeners are not available, but female passengers can wait until a woman can be found.

Maurer, the executive from Washington, reluctantly agreed to a search by a male security officer when a female screener was not available. After he gave her a full body pat-down, she said, "he lifted my shirt and looked down the back of my pants. I said, 'I am really uncomfortable having you feel me up,' but I basically had no choice. It was either that or miss my flight."

Von Walter said that complaints made to the security agency about pat-downs fell to 11 in the second week of November from 45 the week that the policy went into effect, for a total of 248. She said it was "fair to assume there would be an increase in complaints, given the new procedures."

But Jen McSkimming, a manager with a domestic airline, said the numbers were "severely underreporting" the extent of the problem. She said she was recently at an industry meeting attended by a senior representative of the agency who said, when the issue of pat-downs was raised, "Well, I only get about 15 complaints a week on this."

McSkimming said about half of the 30 people at the meeting were women and she asked the group how many women had had a bad experience with the new procedures. "Every single woman raised their hand," she said. "So I told him, 'Well, you'd better add 15 to this week's total."'

Most of the women interviewed said they did not make formal complaints, saying they assumed it would be futile.

Maurer said she and some other women she had spoken to were wary of complaining in writing, both because of the presumed futility and from fear of being singled out when they travel.

"There is this thing about putting your name out there," she said. "Am I going to end up on some kind of list?"

The complaint procedure described on the federal agency's website, www.tsa.gov, says that passengers with "positive feedback or concerns" should speak with an airport screener supervisor or call a customer service hot line.