TSA Answers Questions About Enhanced Screening at Airports

12/15/2010 02:53 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011


The initial furor and shock over the enhanced airport screening techniques by the TSA seems to have subsided But with the holiday travel season in force, and continued questions about the security procedures at airports, we posed questions for the TSA:

Some skeptics who question the need for the enhanced scanning devices have suggested that former DHS head, Michael Chertoff (and Tom Ridge as well), now a lobbyist in the security industry representing the manufacturers of the enhanced scanning machines, as having some role in the government's decision to spend $160 million on the new scanning machines. Can you comment on the role these lobbyists played in the decision to install the new scanners?

TSA has been using the scanners since 2007, long before Mr. Chertoff left DHS and now I do not believe he is a registered lobbyist. I would recommend you check with his firm on that. (See Marcus Baram's reporting).

Why wouldn't the government make more use of bomb-sniffing dogs, and use that as a first-level of security before requiring the more enhanced scanner and then, as a third level of enhanced security, the aggressive pat-down?

TSA uses explosive detection K9s at airports nationwide for numerous security purposes as well as at major mass transit systems across the country. TSA screens 2 million people per day. Your recommendation does not seem possible given the number of people who fly daily. (See more.

What most people are upset about, it seems, is that everyone is undergoing these enhanced, aggressive checks, even three-year olds and 90-year olds. Is that true that everyone is undergoing?

I don't think that's what most people are upset about because "everyone" is not undergoing "aggressive" checks. True, TSA does screen all travelers equally, however, thorough pat downs are only necessary if a person alarms at the walk through metal detector or in the body scanner. They are also employed if a passenger is offered the body scanner and chooses not to get scanned with this technology. Only a very small percentage of passengers require pat downs -- only about 3% in fact.

Rather than subjecting everyone to the enhanced body scanner or pat-down, critics have said that there should be more of a focus on behavioral profiling and background checks of travelers - and mention Israel's security system as an example. This country has laws against profiling, but is the DHS/TSA considering some more focus?

Screening is not random, however, TSA does employ a behavior detection program at over 160 airports nationwide and the techniques TSA uses are modeled after the Israeli system. TSA and security experts alike agree that profiling is not an effective form of security.

TSA has Behavior Detection Officers who utilize non-intrusive behavior observation and analysis techniques to identify potentially high-risk passengers. They screen travelers for involuntary physical and physiological reactions that people exhibit in response to a fear of being discovered, and may refer them for additional screening. Referrals are based on specific observed behaviors only, not on one's appearance, race, ethnicity or religion.

BDOs add an element of unpredictability to the security screening process that is easy for passengers to navigate but difficult for terrorists to manipulate. It serves as an important additional layer of security in the airport environment, requires no additional specialized screening equipment, can easily be deployed to other modes of transportation and presents yet one more challenge the terrorists need to overcome in attempt to defeat our security system.

BDOs are currently operating at approximately 161 airports nationwide.

The TSA received terrible publicity when Tom Sawyer, a 61-year old bladder cancer survivor, underwent a rough pat-down by the security agent at Detroit Metropolitan Airport, causing his urine bag to spill its contents onto his shirt and pants. Why wouldn't there be procedures to assist people with medical conditions? Is there a need for better training?

TSA has in place procedures to assist people with medical conditions. Security officers are trained to perform the pat downs in a respectful manner, using very specific techniques. When an officer deviates from these techniques, they are provided additional training.

TSA has established a program for screening of persons with disabilities and their associated equipment, mobility aids, and devices. Our program covers all categories of disabilities (mobility, hearing, visual, and hidden). As part of that program, we established a coalition of over 70 disability-related groups and organizations to help us understand the concerns of persons with disabilities and medical conditions. These groups have assisted TSA with integrating the unique needs of persons with disabilities into our airport operations.

I have always been troubled by the focus specifically on airline travel, when there have been terror attacks in London, Madrid, Moscow and other places directed on subways, commuter rail, passenger rail and ships. Why isn't there comparable security put on these other forms of mass-travel?

No need to be troubled. TSA has been working with mass transit and the maritime industry for years.

TSA Surface Transportation Security Inspectors, from the TSA Office of Security Operations, conduct on-site inspections of mass transit and passenger rail agencies and maintain collaborative working relationships with industry representatives. They work closely with the TSA Mass Transit Security Division for support and programmatic direction.

Do you have any tips or assurances to the traveling public?

Pack Smart

  • Pack an organized carry-on bag using layers -- a layer of clothes, then electronic, more clothes, and then any heavier items. This will help transportation security officers see what's in your bag. Innocent items can actually appear to be potential threats in an X-ray image, simply by the way they're packed.
  • Do not pack oversized electronics (laptops, full-size video game consoles, DVD players and video cameras that use cassettes) in your checked baggage when possible. You will be required to remove these items from your carry-on bag and submit them separately for x-ray screening. Small electronics, such as iPods, can remain in your carry-on.
  • Prepare your 1 quart-sized, clear, plastic, zip-top bag of liquids before arriving at the airport.
  • Pack all your coats and jackets in your checked baggage when possible. All coats and jackets must go through the X-ray machine for inspection.
  • Do not wrap gifts. If a security officer needs to inspect a package, they may have to unwrap your gift. Wait until you've reached your final destination to wrap gifts.
  • Film. Undeveloped film should go in your carry-on bag. You will able to declare film that is faster than 800-speed to a transportation security officer for physical inspection to avoid being X-rayed.
  • When in doubt, leave it out. If you're not sure about whether you can bring an item through the checkpoint, put it in your checked bag or leave it at home. Click here to see the list of prohibited items.

Dress the Part: Transportation security officers have to identify any metal that is detected at the checkpoint. If the metal detector alarms when you pass through, you will be required to undergo additional screening. This includes a hand-wand and pat-down inspection.

Items that might set off an alarm on the metal detector include:

  • Keys, loose change, mobile phones, pagers, and personal data assistants (PDAs)
  • Heavy jewelry (including pins, necklaces, bracelets, rings, watches, earrings, body piercings, cuff links, lanyards or bolo ties)
  • Clothing with metal buttons, snaps or studs
  • Metal hair barrettes or other hair decoration
  • Belt buckles
  • Under-wire bras

Body Piercings. Certain metal body piercings may cause you to alarm at the metal detector, which will result in you getting additional screening. If additional screening is required, you may ask to remove your body piercing in private as an alternative to the pat-down search.

Head Coverings. You are permitted to wear head coverings and religious garments during the screening process. You may be directed to additional screening if your headwear or clothing (religious or otherwise) is loose fitting or large enough to hide prohibited items.

Shoes. Travelers are required to remove their shoes before entering the walk-through metal detector at all U.S. airports and put them through the x-ray machine for inspection. This allows officers to see if the shoes have been tampered with in any way.

Have Ready: The items you'll need to present to a Transportation Security Officer at the checkpoint are Boarding pass and government-issued photo Identification.

TSA encourages each adult traveler to keep his/her airline boarding pass and government-issued photo ID available until exiting the security checkpoint (children are not required to show identification).

If you do not have identification (if it is lost, stolen, etc.), you will be required to provide the document checking officer with some information to help verify your identity. This will slow down your screening process and will result in additional screening.

Hassle-Free Security Tips

  • Arrive on time. Arrival time recommendations vary by airline and day of travel, so check with your carrier. Remember to give yourself adequate time to check your baggage and move through security.
  • Wear slip-on shoes. This will allow you to take them off and put them back on quickly, without having to sit down.
  • Pets. Please remove all animals from their carrying cases and send the case through the X-ray machine. Hold your pet in your arms and proceed through the metal detector.
  • Children. Take your infants and children out of baby carriers and strollers and take them through the metal detector with you. Strollers and baby carriers go through the X-ray machine with your bags. If possible, collapse your stroller before you get to the metal detector. For more information traveling with children, click here.
  • Think before you speak. Belligerent behavior, inappropriate jokes and threats will not be tolerated. They will result in delays and possibly missing your flight. Local law enforcement may be called as necessary.

(See more)

After the holiday season (or if I am correct and there is a concern for heightened terror threat at this time), do you expect the TSA will use a more selective screening process?

I can't speculate on what will transpire after the holiday season, but TSA will continue to employ security measures designed to address current intelligence and threat information.
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