This post is part of my special HAVE KIDS, WILL TRAVEL series to give you advice and wisdom on traveling with kids along with some fun giveaways of travel-friendly items. For instance, see Michelle's guest post for general tips on flying with a baby or children. The topic this time is not very light-hearted but will hopefully give you some information about the new screening techniques at use in U.S. airports as well as some other countries.
Security images in this post from BlogHer's PicApp Image Search,
not actually of anyone in this story!
As promised, here's my story about going through the new Transportation Security Admnistration (TSA) enhanced screening at airports in the United States. This isn't a how-to or any sort of advice, really — just a recounting of my own choices and the single experience I have had so far with the dilemma of full body scan vs. enhanced pat-down.
We flew from Seattle to Detroit this month, and our trip through Seattle-Tacoma (SEA) security was uneventful. The day before returning through the Detroit Metropolitan airport (DTW), however, I looked online and noticed, Yes, they are one of the airports to have installed the new full-body scanning machines (aka, the Advanced Imaging Technology unit, or AIT). On the list, it says Sea-Tac is, too, but I didn't see one in the lines we were in on our outbound leg.
It wasn't guaranteed we'd go through the full-body scanner, even if it was available in the line we were in (more on that later), but if you are required to use it, you have the choice to refuse and request instead an enhanced pat-down (more on that later as well).
Here's a brief rundown of the concerns people have about the full-body scanners and how I interpreted those concerns for myself and my family:
Safety concerns of full-body scannersI was 13 weeks pregnant going through security, and I had a three-year-old with me as well. I'm not actually that squeamish about new technology and safety … except when I'm pregnant. I tend to believe the reports that these scanners emit no more (and reportedly much less) radiation than actually flying in the airplane will net you.
However! When I am pregnant (and with my small child), I err on the side of caution. I err more on the side of caution than most pregnant people I know. And here is where I would like to emphasize that this is not advice I'm giving, or judgment of other people's choices. Personally, when I'm pregnant, I like to minimize my fetus's amount of extra and potentially dangerous exposures. I hold my breath when I have to walk past a smoker. I stop coloring my hair. I've never yet had an ultrasound. When I get a headache or backache, I seek out natural remedies (or just plain suffering) rather than pop an ibuprofen. I refused to have my eyes dilated at the ophthalmologist. It's not that I believe every single exposure would be harmful to my baby — it's just that I'd rather not take the risk.
This technology, in this particular form, has simply not been around long enough to reassure me of its safety. For instance, metal detectors? If they had just come on the market, I'd be leery of them, too. As it is, they've been around long enough that plenty of babies have been born whose parents have passed through them, and there's long-term lack of evidence that said babies have been harmed by them. There is no such data on these full body scanners.
Remember, for years they told pregnant women that having X-rays was perfectly safe … until they realized it wasn't.
So, for now, I'd rather avoid them, for myself when pregnant, and for my young child.
Privacy concerns of full-body scannersThe full-body scanners take what is essentially a naked picture of the person inside. This has led to many concerns over privacy, and what might become of such images.
I'm not an alarmist when it comes to this issue. I guess I approach it similarly to the way I sometimes dress with our curtains open. If someone with binoculars is that interested, I guess they can look. I simply can't believe my naked body is that compelling.
In the same way, I figure the TSA agents who work these scanners see so many naked images going past them each day that it's ho-hum, much as a gynecologist probably doesn't gab about everyone's private parts over coffee each day.
But, mostly, I've been reassured by steps the agency has taken to ensure the images are used properly: further blurring of the image, including the face; keeping the operator in a closed room away from the scanner so there's no identification between the person being scanned and the image; having only one agent at a time do the operating; and immediately discarding the images.
That said, I can see where other people would be dismayed at the fact that naked pictures are being taken of them at all. I especially see the concern where kids are involved. In fact, the UK has had grave concerns over the use of full body scanners for children under 18, because of possible violations of child pornography laws. So, again, I would not wish for a child of mine to go through the scanner, just in case someone's not following protocol and an image escaped or was hacked into. The idea of my child's naked picture surfacing online makes me feel much, much sicker than the idea of one of me.
I flunk the metal detectorHere's my story. In Seattle, where I was presented only with the standard metal detector, my earrings set it off. This had never happened to me before. I already had removed my shoes; I was in maternity pants so wasn't wearing a belt (as if). I had emptied my pockets. I had even remembered that my favorite hair clip was wont to set off the beeping, so I had pulled my hair back in a metal-less elastic that morning. But all that preparation was for nought. I had to step back through, remove my earrings and rings and place them into a little pan a TSA employee held out for me, and walk back through. This time, no alarms. So it had been my earrings, I imagine, or the combination of gold rings and my earrings of sterling silver or nickel (not really sure — they were cheap!). I was surprised for sure, but lesson learned.
In Detroit, I purposely wore no extra jewelry. I still had on my wedding band and engagement ring, and my three extra piercings (nose, two higher ear piercings, all three of which are stainless steel but relatively small and had never posed a problem before).
I still set off the metal detector. The guard motioned me back through, but unlike in Seattle, there was no employee on the other side to offer any advice or one of those little pans. I tried taking off my rings, but there was nowhere to put them. The guard impatiently motioned me back through, and — gasp! — I set off the detector again. I was kind of annoyed at that point, because of course I was going to! I hadn't done anything differently this time. Seriously, if I could replay this moment in time, I'd dramatically reach under my shirt and remove my bra (for the underwire) and then motion that I was going to take off my pants (for the rivets). But, alas, I just obediently stepped back through and was therefore directed to the full-body scanner. When I refused, I was put in line for the enhanced pat-down instead.
Not the same guard who surveyed my metal detector scanning,
but the same remote attitude
Here is a full inventory of the metal present on my body that day so you can help me figure out where I went wrong:
- Two small rivets for the pockets of my maternity jeans. (No button or zipper because of the stretchy waistband.)
- Underwire bra
- Gold wedding band and engagement ring
- Tiny nose stud, two extra ear piercings, all stainless steel
None of these things had ever set off a metal detector before, so I was stumped. I had nothing metal in my pockets or my hair, no extra jewelry, no belt, no shoes. I think the threshold must have been set ridiculously low in Detroit.
So that was annoying.
My reluctant choice: The enhanced patdownSo this is the choice we're faced with when we either fail the metal detector or are randomly selected for increased screening: the full-body scan or an enhanced pat-down. In other words, naked pictures vs. groping by a stranger.
After failing the metal detector for the second time, I was directed to the full-body scanner. I said I wished to opt out and have the pat-down instead, because I was pregnant. The agent didn't argue with me but asked me to wait inside the machine for the next available pat-down agent.
Let me tell you, my conspiracy sensors went off right there, so I waited on the far side of it, somewhat annoying the agent, a young-ish man. There was a man having a pat-down right in front of me, so I tried not to intrude into their space, but I didn't want to risk "accidentally" being scanned. I didn't think it was a huge probability or anything, but better safe than sorry.
My husband and three-year-old had passed through the metal detector unpinged, even though Sam also has a piercing and a wedding band. I guess he must not have had enough cumulative metal.
Mikko saw me standing in the machine, waiting my turn, and tried to come over to be with me. This further annoyed the young male agent, who called my preschooler "sir" and tried to order him to step aside. Yeah, that's really effective with three-year-olds. But between Sam and me, we managed to get Mikko corralled back at his dad's side, while Sam tried to scoop up all our belongings by himself: shoes for three people, coats for three people, two backpacks, two laptops, camera, video camera, two cell phones, all his change, his keys, his belt, etc., all while keeping track of our antsy son. It was kind of a mess. The agent had confirmed with me that there was someone available to gather my belongings; I suppose otherwise they would have made allowances for me to collect them myself before having the enhanced screening.
I'll say, just as an aside, that if you've flown before, you will be able to tell the difference between the usual metal detector and the new body scanners. I was wondering about that, if I would possibly go through the body scanner without realizing it. But the metal detector is the standard square archway that you just pass through by walking, and the full-body scanners are more cylindrical and enclosed, and you have to stand there for several seconds in a specific position if you opt for the procedure.
Finally, a middle-aged woman was free to do my pat-down.
She gestured me over to a clear space at the back wall, where there was a mat with two footprints and we were cordoned off by a stretchy band on poles like they have to keep lines in order. She donned a new pair of blue latex gloves. She confirmed with me that I had opted out of the full-body screening and that she would perform an enhanced pat-down in that case. I agreed that this was true. She asked me if I wanted a private room, and I said it wasn't necessary, even though I was feeling a little exposed. Frankly, though, I was the kind of irritated that hoped something scandalous would happen in view of all these people so I could become a YouTube star. It's within a passenger's rights, though, to request both a private room and a witness, so keep that in mind if it would make you more comfortable.
It's policy for TSA agents to be (1) the same gender as the person receiving the pat-down and (2) well trained in providing the pat-down. This includes the specific techniques involved, but also that they be calm and professional and that they explain absolutely everything before they do it. The agent I had was very well trained. I know there have been reports that some agents have not been, or have bullied passengers into accepting the full-body scans against their wishes. All I can say is that that is not how it should be. My take on that is, if you have any concerns about the professionalism shown to you during an enhanced pat-down (or body scan), you should refuse to go any further until you can talk to the supervisor in charge. Or, if it's after the fact, request to speak to the supervisor to lodge your complaint. Because there's absolutely no reason for a TSA agent to be groping passengers (squeezing breasts, feeling genitals with fingers), or to be rude to passengers undergoing something so invasive and disquieting. My advice (what little I can give) to you as a passenger is to be calm and polite yourself, but if something seems off, don't be afraid to speak up and ask for a supervisor. If you have a problem with the supervisor as well, then your next option is to walk away and miss your flight, which I realize is another terrible option. But I hope most agents are as well trained as the one I dealt with at DTW.
To continue, the agent was very clear that she would be doing an enhanced pat-down, and she described the whole procedure in advance, and then every step before she did it along the way. She told me that she would be feeling my head, the sides of my body, and down my legs and arms with her palms, and that she would be going with the flat back of her hands (fingers together) between my breasts and into my inner thighs. She demonstrated the position her hands would be in in both cases. I nodded, nervous but compliant. Because, you know, I wanted to get home.
She asked if I had any implants. I swear it was hours later when I realized she must have meant metal implants. I mean, I didn't think she was just commenting on my impressive bust size, but …
She asked if I had any sensitive areas. I thought about my delicate pregnant belly and my sore breasts, but I told her no. I figured she meant areas that would make me yelp in pain or flinch if she touched them.
Then we began. She had me stand shoulder width apart on the padded mat and hold my arms out straight to the sides. The pat-down began.
As I said, she mentioned every step she took before she did it. The interesting ones, though, are as follows: She didn't touch my breasts on the top. She did run the back of her hand in between them and then trail it underneath, first one side, then the other. She didn't touch my genitals, and I seriously can't remember if she touched my bottom. I'm thinking she must not have, since I don't remember it. She did put the back of her hand up into my general crotch area, again on each side, but I thought she'd go much higher than she did. She said she would make contact where my legs hit my pubic bone (or language to that effect), but she didn't get that high. Maybe she thought she had and was distracted by the droopy crotch of my stupid stretched-out maternity jeans from my last pregnancy.
She also had issues with my waistband, because I was wearing the stretchy high band of the maternity jeans (a demi-panel style), along with a belly band to hold them up. She managed one side by herself but then asked if I preferred to help her get into my waistband. I complied and raised up my belly band and pulled my maternity jeans down a little so she had freer access. She swept a hand inside my waistband all around. She didn't comment on my slightly pregnant belly, and I still don't know if she knew I was pregnant.
She also felt the tissues I had in my pocket, along with the driver's license I had tucked there, and asked me to remove them so she could see.
She let me put my arms down halfway through, when she had moved on to my legs. After it was all over, she had me wait while the palms of her gloves were swabbed, presumably for traces of explosives.
I asked her as we ended our session what on me could have set off the metal detector, but she had no further ideas. She suggested the rivets in my jeans might have but didn't seem interested in conversing with me on the matter.
I was free to go, and I went to help Sam finish gathering our belongings. The whole ordeal hadn't outlasted his removal of all our bins of stuff from the security belt.
That was about it, facts-wise. But there was a little more to the story: the effect it had on Mikko, and the effect it had on me, internally.
The effect on childrenMikko freaked out when he looked back over and saw me standing with my arms raised and a strange woman feeling me all over. He started crying and screaming, "Mama! Mama!" It brought tears to my eyes to see him so immediately upset. I was kind of surprised he knew that it looked like I was "in trouble."
Fortunately, the agent here was much more reasonable than the young male agent. While Sam tried to restrain Mikko from running to my rescue, the pat-down agent told me he could come over and have a seat near me. So I was able to call to him and reassure him that I was all right, that she was just doing a funny test on me and didn't it look silly. The agent said something similar to him.
He seemed a little dubious, but he stopped screaming and crying and stood nearby to watch. As I mentioned, Sam was still gathering all our belongings at the end of the conveyor belt and truly didn't finish any faster than I did, so it was nice to have Mikko secured somewhere.
I appreciated this agent's compassionate attitude to a child's distress, but I can't be sure that would always be the case.
For instance, I can't imagine how it would have gone down if Mikko had been subjected to the pat-down. Oh, wait, yes I can:
(If this video has been pulled or you want to see the full news report, go here. Thank you to @AstralWeaver for bringing it to my attention.)
That video is from two years ago, so it doesn't illustrate current TSA procedures on kids (though we don't know what does). The good-ish news is children under 12 have been exempted from the enhanced pat-downs, though they still can be given a "modified" pat-down or be selected for the full-body scan if they fail the metal detector, and children over 12 can endure the enhanced pat-downs. You can see that even with a modified pat-down, a young child might freak the heck out.
I've heard this but can't find online the appropriate link: One thing you can do preemptively is ask when getting your boarding pass if your child has been flagged for a random increased search. There will be a special code on the boarding pass. You can request that this be deselected for a youngster. Another measure to take: Be really, really sure your kids have no metal on them! Opt for elastic-waisted pants if possible, and have them remove all objects from their pockets, belts, shoes, jackets, jewelry, and so on.
If you are traveling alone with your children and you are flagged for the enhanced screening, TSA agents are required to help you find a safe location for your children near you. In such an instance, requesting a private room for the pat-down where you can have them contained with you might be the best option.
My emotional reactionThen there was my personal reaction, which surprised me slightly. I expected it to be a crappy set of choices and a crappy experience, but I really did feel violated — and that without any groping of the genitals or people noticeably staring and pointing. I felt embarrassed, because — as Mikko pointed out in his instinctual way — someone being patted down by a person in uniform looks guilty somehow. I wondered if the other passengers were thinking, at the very least, that I was a chump for having elected the pat-down vs. the scanning machine.
It was kind of creepy being touched by a stranger, even a stranger who was professional and calm. I think one reason I engaged her in questions about my metal was an innate desire to make her into a buddy. I joked to Sam afterward that she had said to me "See you later" as I left and that I thought the two of us were probably best friends now that she had gotten to second base with me. There was something more invasive about having a strange official rub her hands over me than, say, having a doctor or midwife do the same. Part of the issue was probably that it was in such a public place, and not by my choice (in the sense that there was no ideal choice in this situation, if I wanted to fly home).
Throughout the ordeal, I kept questioning my decision to go with the pat-down. Would the scan have been so very bad? I asked myself. And I swear, the main thing that kept me going was the recurring thought: I can blog about this later (!!). I was thinking of you, yes, truly — that you would want to know how the pat-down procedure went, and I would be able to tell you if I went through with it. I almost wondered if I had somehow set myself up for metal-detector failure in some weird blogging-predictive way.
In the end, it was distasteful, invasive, and obnoxious. But it hasn't had lasting ill effects, in terms of nightmares or anything. Sam and I are not planning on flying anywhere for the next three years if we can help it, but that's mainly to do with children, not the security measures. See, we flew with Mikko twice when he was a baby and kind of, um, hated it, so we waited till now to fly with him again. Since I'm having a baby next spring/summer, we figure we're in for another three years of being purposely grounded. Relatives can keep coming to us.
If we had been planning to travel again, would the new security measures have made me rethink our plans? Maybe. But probably not, if the trip were important to me.
My conclusion is that most people will find the pat-downs annoying but will survive unscathed. What worries me, a lot, is the people who won't: people who have had bad experiences in the past, with emotional baggage that a pat-down might trigger, such as molestation, other sexual assault, or imprisonment. I know some very modest women who are unable to endure certain medical procedures, and I imagine the pat-down would be horrifying for them. (There have definitely been complaints about rough or punitive treatment by undisciplined TSA agents, which would exacerbate the risk of emotional damage.) It also worries me that TSA agents might not be particularly prepared to deal with people with various physical issues (such as this man whose urostomy bag was spilled on him during rough handling) or other concerns (for instance, dealing with people in a wheelchair, or people who are young or otherwise ill-equipped to handle the screenings, such as the screaming three-year-old in the video above).
What I wishI love this article that @Dubhlinn2 sent me on Twitter, referencing Israel's airport security measures: "The 'Israelification' of airports: High security, little bother." A choice quote to demonstrate the differences between the U.S.'s (flawed) security measures and Israel's much more stringent but passenger-friendly control:
"First, it's fast — there's almost no line. That's because they're not looking for liquids, they're not looking at your shoes. They're not looking for everything they look for in North America. They just look at you," said Sela. "Even today with the heightened security in North America, they will check your items to death. But they will never look at you, at how you behave. They will never look into your eyes ... and that's how you figure out the bad guys from the good guys."
I wish agents were trained in more of a Lie to Me fashion of focusing on emotions, on microexpressions, on indicators of deception or strong emotion, like guilt or anxiety or aggression.
I wish that TSA would admit their security measures are flawed, and throwing more machines and money at the problem isn't going to fix it. Here's where I admit I've screwed over security twice in the past (so maybe the pat-down was my judgment from on high): You know how you're supposed to carry liquids in little bottles and put them all in a quart bag? (I have a conspiracy theory about this one, too — that TSA asked the manufacturers of plastic bags, "Hey, what bag size should we use?" And the plastic bag people said, "Quart! No one ever buys those! We'd love to get people buying what's otherwise a completely useless size, and then having to buy a new box every time they fly because they can't find where they put the old one. Yea!") So, I have twice put said quart bag somewhere convenient, specifically so I could remember to pull it out at the last moment — and then forgotten. Once, I had only some lip balm and a couple other small things, so I had it squished into my pocket. Well, guess what, metal detectors don't detect lip balm. (No, only jean rivets and underwire bras!) Once, I had it in the top pocket of my backpack, where it passed through the X-ray scanner unflagged.
Oh, I know, this new full-body scan or the pat-down should, theoretically, detect such
I now know the metal detectors are set to ludicrous levels, but I imagine most bad guys (and gals) know by now not to try to carry a bunch of metal onboard.
I think focusing on evasion, deception, and the presence of strong emotion (other than the usual passenger annoyance) would be a lot more effective. It would keep us just as safe, if not safer, but it would avoid all these issues of privacy, health, and inconvenience.
Because, seriously, flying is bad enough these days — paying to check your luggage, being served peanuts and half a drink, having your knees crammed into the seat in front of you — without subjecting us to ever more intrusions and delays beforehand.
Anyone else remember when flying was kind of fun and exciting? It's been awhile. Now the excitement is confined to having a strange woman rub her hands all over me. That kind of excitement I can do without.
What have been your recent experiences with the new security measures? Do reports or personal experiences with them make you less likely to fly? What do you think it was, of the metallic things on me, that set off the metal detector?