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How the TSA's New 'Invasive' Pat-Down Procedures Will Impact You

The revised screening process was prompted by a study revealing technology and performance flaws.

U.S. News & World Report

How the TSA's New 'Invasive' Pat-Down Procedures Will Impact You

A traveler undergoes an enhanced pat down by a Transportation Security Administration agent at the Denver International Airport on November 22, 2010 in Denver, Colorado.

What do the new search measures mean for everyday leisure travelers flying this summer? (Getty Images)

In case you haven't noticed, the Transportation Security Administration recently rolled out a new universal pat-down procedure with the goal of bolstering airport security. The more rigorous protocol, which was quietly unveiled at all airports across the country in March, involves more touching and physical contact than the previous approach, which allowed officers to select one of five types of searches. "The selection of the type of pat-down was situation-based and depended on the type of screening lane, along with other factors," says Christopher Bidwell, the Airports Council International-North America's vice president of security.

Why the change? A Department of Homeland Security's Office of Inspector General assessment in 2015 revealed weaknesses in TSA technology and screening procedures, including failure to detect handguns and other weapons. "In response, the TSA pledged to improve its manual screening protocol, among other measures," says Christopher Elliott, a consumer advocate and journalist. "It's difficult to say if it's working."

"This standardized pat-down procedure continues to utilize enhanced security measures implemented several months prior to that date [March 2], and does not involve any different areas of the body than were screened in the previous standard pat-down procedure," explains Michelle Negrón, an assistant press secretary with TSA. "TSA continues to adjust and refine our systems and procedures to meet the evolving threat and to achieve the highest levels of transportation security," she adds.

So why are some flyers up in arms? And what do the new search measures mean for everyday leisure travelers flying this summer? In short: plenty of planning, preparation and patience. To help you navigate security checkpoints with ease, here's a primer on the latest changes – and guidance from aviation experts and avid jet-setters.

Expect More Intense (and Intimate) Inspections

While TSA hasn't relayed all the details of the new physical search for security reasons, the revised pat-downs aim to identify potentially dangerous items, including hidden explosive devices. "The pat-down will apply to passengers in limited circumstances, such as when screening technology deployed at the checkpoint alarms," Bidwell adds.

The more intimate screenings are conducted by offers of the same sex as the passenger, who also has the option of requesting a private screening room and bringing a chosen witness along. And as part of the new pat-down approach, which applies to passengers, employees and flight crews, there are still targeted screenings that use advanced imaging technology to detect potential risks in certain areas on the body. Unlike the previous screening measures, the new protocol enables officers to use the front of their hands, rather than the backs of their hands, to screen passengers if the technology indicates a possible high-security threat. With the new pat-down procedure, officers may also inspect areas such as the buttocks, groin and breasts.

"Part of it requires TSA agents, unfortunately, to reach down farther into sensitive areas, waistbands for example, which can make some travelers very uncomfortable," says George Hobica, founder of Airfarewatchdog. "I’ve been subjected to some very intrusive poking and exploration," he adds.

Know Your Rights

The TSA relies on metal detectors as well as advanced imaging technology at security checkpoints to search for explosives, weapons and other hazardous items; if you are randomly selected or you set off an alarm, you may be subject to the more rigorous pat-down search.

"Individuals transiting the TSA security checkpoint who have opted out of technology screening or have alarmed certain technology or a canine team, will undergo a pat-down. Passengers may also receive a pat-down as part of our unpredictable security measures," Negrón says. Passengers who decline to use an imaging scanner are automatically subjected to the more comprehensive physical searches.

Flyers are also still subject to being frisked if they are randomly selected due to the TSA's unpredictable security measures, including children, those with disabilities and those who have enrolled with PreCheck. "Even small children have been subjected to these intensified searches," Hobica says, adding "no one is exempt." Passengers have described the new procedures as intimate and excessive. A mother even captured her 13-year-old son undergoing the enhanced, 45-minute screening at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, which included patting sensitive areas, such as the waistband and inner thigh, and posted the video on Facebook, sparking outcry from dismayed parents and flyers.

The TSA advises passengers with disabilities to inform an officer if they have a medical device or areas on the body that hurt when touched, or if they have difficulty raising their arms or bringing them to a designated position, Bidwell says. Additionally, the TSA notes that passengers may request to be seated in a chair while being screened if essential for medical reasons.

Minimize Your Risk of Enhanced Screening by Arriving Prepared

"Every minute, somewhere in the world, passengers go through the scanners with items on their person that should not be there," Hobica says, emphasizing that travelers should be mindful of carrying prohibited items such as phones, keys and water bottles. "Even before you get to the airport, put everything in your carry-on bag," he advises. "We need to help TSA by following the rules and double- and triple-checking our pockets," he adds.

Even if you arrive prepared, you may be subject to enhanced security measures, Hobica cautions. "I have Global Entry, which means that I've been interviewed and fingerprinted [by the Department of Homeland Security], yet I still get singled out for enhanced and secondary screening," he says. Bidwell also suggests staying prepared and eliminating items that may trigger an alarm either through advanced imaging technology or a metal detection device by removing belongings, including jewelry, from pockets and placing them in carry-on bags.

You May Encounter Longer Wait Times

"Since the consolidated pat-down is intended to simplify the process for TSA transportation security officers, who previously had to choose from various pat-down procedures depending on the type of screening lane, we don't anticipate an appreciable impact on checkpoint wait times," Bidwell says.

Regardless of whether the more rigorous procedure will trigger outrageously long security lines during the peak summer travel season, members of Congress are making strides to improve airport security with faster screenings, Elliott says. "Maybe that's why Pete DeFazio chose the Memorial Day weekend to introduce the FASTER Act, H.R. 2514, which he says will speed up security," Elliott explains. The legislation would mitigate congestion and reduce wait times by funneling the billions of dollars passengers pay annually in aviation fees to security personnel and resources, rather than subsidizing nonaviation related government spending. "It ensures passenger security fees only go towards aviation security and prevents Congress from raiding the funds in the future."

Tags: travel, TSA

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