Patted Down and Hating It at the Nation's Airports

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.

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.

So far, the protests have been mostly rumblings, but Norman Siegel, a prominent New York civil rights lawyer, has been retained by Rhonda Gaynier. She went public with her objections to routinely receiving "a breast exam in public" at airports. He has assembled a legal team to research a class-action lawsuit. Some women have changed travel clothing and made other adjustments to prepare for the checkpoint experience.

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