A front-page New York Times article details the complaints of women who have been semi-stripped and groped at airport checkpoints since new search procedures were implemented in mid-September. The pat-downs, which are conducted at the discretion of TSA personnel as part of "secondary screenings" that affect about 15 percent of passengers, are a response to the destruction of two Russian planes by Chechen terrorists. Investigators believe two Chechen women carried nonmetallic explosives onto the planes. It's not clear that the explosives were hidden underneath their clothing, but the TSA figures it might as well have a look between Patti LuPone's breasts. I mean, who knows what she's got in there?
The Times notes that screeners are supposed to use the backs of their hands on breasts, buttocks, and crotches; that women can request that a female screener feel them up, assuming one is available (if only men had the same prerogative); and that they can ask to be searched in a "private area," although several travelers report they were groped in full view of gawking fellow passengers.
The TSA says it's no big deal, citing a relatively small and declining number of official complaints. But surely the complaints represent a tiny fraction of the travelers humiliated by these up-close-and-personal searches. Aside from the hassle of voicing one's objections, there is the fear that complaining will only make matters worse. One female executive reports that complaining directly to screeners results in extra-intense searches. As for going over their heads, says another, "There is this thing about putting your name out there….Am I going to end up on some kind of list?"
Are there less mortifying alternatives to these pat-downs? I can think of a couple. Screeners could use background information about travelers to better focus their efforts (in which case Broadway actresses and CEOs would be groped less often), or they could use those nifty scanners that see under clothing. Both techniques avoid the unique discomfort of the hands-on approach, but each is intrusive in its own way.