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TSA screenings: The lowdown on pat-downs

A broken full-body scanner forces an airlines passenger with molestation issues to undergo the TSA's hands-on screening procedure, and she's wondering about her options for future travel.

January 30, 2011|By Catharine Hamm, Los Angeles Times
(Robert Neubecker / For The…)

Question: I have metal in my hip from hip-replacement surgery and six screws in my back from spine surgery. Before a recent flight, I had hoped to go through the new full-body scanner, but it was broken so I had to go through the metal detector (which I set off) and then have a pat-down. I was molested as a child, so being touched was upsetting. Why couldn't one of the agents take me to another checkpoint where the full-body scanner was working and escort me back? How could a new machine be broken? Why wasn't there a backup scanner for an area that has so much flight activity? Would it have helped if I had brought my X-rays?

Julie (last name withheld)

Los Angeles

Answers: Since the scanners were introduced to a broader array of airports last year, the outcry over both the scanners and the pat-downs has grown louder.

Is this a necessary evil that must be endured? Was the bombing of the Moscow airport on Monday yet another reminder of the vulnerability of airports and airplanes?

We cannot answer those questions in a 600-word column. But we can answer some of Julie's questions, starting with the easier ones first.

X-rays would not have helped because they could have been anyone's X-rays. That's not a comment about Julie's trustworthiness; it's more an acknowledgment of the skepticism with which every Transportation Security Administration agent must view every passenger.

Why no backup scanner and no escort? The answer in both cases starts with money. Each machine costs about $170,000, said Nico Melendez, a TSA spokesman. In that regard, a scanner is a bit like a workplace meeting space: When you need it, you need it, but the rest of the time it's just a big, expensive nothing.

An escort is a matter of bodies, Melendez said. "We don't have the staffing to be able to mobilize someone" to take a passenger to another location. "There are 22 scanners in place at LAX and almost 70 security checkpoints," he said. The TSA is hoping to add more scanners when the 2011 budget is finalized, he added.

As to why a new scanner broke, Melendez noted that "they get used thousands of times every day" so wear and tear take a toll even on new equipment.

Melendez said the TSA tries to be "minimally invasive" but acknowledges that procedures may "impact the passenger emotionally more than we would like."

Sherry Hamby, a research associate professor of psychology at Sewanee: the University of the South in Tennessee, noted that anyone can be put off by pat-downs "as most people expect a little more personal space."

And, she added in her e-mail to me, "It is not surprising that these pat-downs are even more upsetting for people who have had their boundaries violated in an abusive episode."

What can travelers do? "People can try to mentally prepare in advance for the possibility that they might be selected for a pat-down," Hamby said. "They can remind themselves that this is not the same as the abusive situation — this is a security measure. ... If they have a supportive traveling companion, it can be helpful to talk with them about it and get them involved in the anticipation and self-talk. Rehearsing the event in advance, either through imagery or with a safe person, might also be helpful for some.

"Another coping mechanism is protest. If they feel these pat-downs are unwarranted security measures, they can also join in the public discussion about them, write their congressional representative or take other action."

Melendez encourages anyone who has complaints to speak with a supervisor at the airport or to file a complaint with the TSA. For information, go to http://www.tsa.gov.

Have a travel dilemma? Write to travel@latimes.com. We regret we cannot answer every inquiry.

catharine.hamm@latimes.com

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