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TSA Passenger Advocates Sought By New York Lawmakers

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ALBANY, N.Y. -- Two New York lawmakers have called for a passenger advocate at airports to immediately act on complaints by passengers over security screenings.

U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer and state Sen. Michael Gianaris of Queens want the Transportation Security Administration to create the position at all airports.

The proposal, released Sunday, was prompted by an elderly woman's recent claims that she was strip searched by security officials at Kennedy Airport, which the TSA denies, saying it doesn't conduct strip searches. Others have since made similar claims.

The TSA said Saturday that it is planning its own advocacy service.

"The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) strives to provide the highest level of security while ensuring that all passengers are treated with dignity and respect," the agency stated Saturday night. "TSA has programs in place for the screening of people with all types of disabilities and medical conditions and their associated equipment."

TSA spokeswoman Kristin Lee said that last week senior leadership talked to several national groups that advocate for those with medical conditions, including colostomy bags. After the first claim, another woman reported she was stopped because of a bulge that was a colostomy bag.

Lee said that after consulting with advocates for those with various medical conditions, the TSA is planning to establish a toll-free telephone hotline in January for passengers that may need help during screening.

"This hotline will give passengers direct access to guidance and information specific to persons with disabilities or medical conditions, which they will be able to call prior to flying," the TSA stated. "Additionally, TSA regularly trains its workforce on how to screen travelers with disabilities and medical conditions and has customer service managers at most airports to answer questions and assist passengers."

Under the Schumer-Gianaris proposal, an advocate could be summoned in person by passengers if they feel they were inappropriately searched.

"While the safety and security of our flights must be a top priority, we need to make sure that flying does not become a fear-inducing, degrading, and potentially humiliating experience," Schumer said.

Gianaris and Schumer were scheduled to make the announcement Sunday with relatives of the women who made the claims.

"I appreciate the TSA's work to keep air passengers safe, but passengers should not be humiliated and degraded during their travels," Gianaris said.

A week ago, an 85-year-old woman said she was injured and humiliated when she was strip searched at the airport after she asked to be patted down instead of going through a body scanner, allegations that transportation officials denied.

Lenore Zimmerman said she was taken to a private room where she said female agents made her take off her pants and other clothes after she asked to forgo the screening. She had worried it would interfere with her defibrillator. She missed her flight and had to take one 2 1/2 hours later, she said.

But the Transportation Security Administration said in a statement Saturday no strip search was conducted.

"While we regret that the passenger feels she had an unpleasant screening experience, TSA does not include strip searches as part of our security protocols and one was not conducted in this case," the TSA stated.

"Private screening was requested by the passenger, it was granted and lasted approximately 11 minutes," the statement read. "TSA screening procedures are conducted in a manner designed to treat all passengers with dignity, respect and courtesy and that occurred in this instance."

The private screening wasn't recorded.

On Sunday, the TSA stated that a misunderstanding led to the removal of the woman's back brace. The TSA said the equipment was mistaken as a money belt. Refresher courses are planned for JFK employees, the TSA stated.

"We work regularly with a coalition of advocacy groups that represent those with disabilities and medical conditions to help TSA understand their conditions and adapt screening procedures accordingly," the TSA said.

A review of closed-circuit television at the airport showed that proper procedures before and after the screening were followed, TSA spokesman Jonathan Allen said in a statement.

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