Travelers react to TSA's full-body scans and pat-downs

A TSA officer reads the X-ray of a laptop at BWI Airport.

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

Kai Ryssdal: If you're planning on flying on Thanksgiving weekend -- and about 24 million of us are planning to -- expect security lines to be a little longer. Maybe, a lot longer. Concerns about those full-body scanners are increasing.

Our senior business correspondent Bob Moon is here to explain. Hi Bob.

Bob Moon: Hey Kai.

Ryssdal: Security at airports, as we all know, is never fun. But this is something different.

Moon: That's right. Critics of these new security methods complain that government has stepped over the line to being, what one group calls "extremely voyeuristic." Some civil liberties activists have already gone to court, in fact, challenging these high-tech full-body scanners. You may have already heard complaints. They can virtually strip search you, although the TSA insists those images won't be misused. The agency also promises they're completely safe, although experts from several universities are on record challenging that. They fear the so-called back scanner x-rays could produce enough radiation to cause a measurable, albeit a very slight risk of cancer.

Ryssdal: You do have a choice though, right? You can say you don't want to be scanned.

Moon: Well, this is where the balance between safety and privacy becomes quite literally extremely delicate. Travelers can opt out of the scanners, but at that point, they must submit to what the TSA calls a "pat-down." It's actually become much more aggressive lately. It routinely involves touching of all the private parts.

Ryssdal: You said "must submit."

Moon: That's right. Consider an incident just this past weekend at San Diego's Lindbergh airport. A 31-year-old traveler named John Tyner was headed to South Dakota with his father-in-law for a hunting trip. Tyner had read some of the security checkpoint complaints out there, so he left his iPhone recorder as he went through security. He declined both the scanner and the pat-down, and if you listen carefully to external his video on YouTube, this is where a supervisor was brought in and told him that it was either that or he could not travel.

TSA supervisor: If you're not comfortable with that, we can escort you back out and you don't have to fly today.

Tyner: I don't understand how a sexual assault be made a condition of my flying.

Supervisor: This is not considered a sexual assault.

Tyner: It would be if you weren't the government.

Moon: Well, he was eventually allowed to return to the ticket counter, where after some discussion, American Airlines agreed to refund his non-refundable fare. But someone he believed to be a TSA official then approached him, before he left the airport, and told him a civil suit would be filed against him for refusing to complete his screening and he could face a $10,000 fine. He left anyway.

Ryssdal: Just to be clear, this guy Tyner, would've been fine with a metal detector, right, the old-fashioned way? But it's the scanners that he objects to.

Moon: Yeah. He said there were lots of passengers going through the metal detectors, but they wouldn't let him.

Ryssdal: Do we know whether he's been sued?

Moon: Well, the TSA tells us it can't comment on pending investigations, but it does say anyone refusing to complete screening could be subject to a civil penalty. It cites here a ruling from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals that allowing people not to go through with screening would give terrorists multiple opportunities to try penetrating security until they could find a vulnerability.

Ryssdal: One of the reasons we're talking about this is that it's holiday travel season, Thanksgiving's coming up, and there's a little bit of a ground swell here about these new procedures.

Moon: There is. Several different camps are lining up against this stepped up screening. The union representing more than 5,000 U.S. Airways pilots is now urging them to refuse to submit to the full-body scanners. Leaders of the travel industry met with the chief of Homeland Security late last week. They emerged saying, they're still worried that they're losing billions a year in lost fares from travelers weary of all the security. And there's a grassroots Internet campaign at wewontfly.com, advocating a national opt-out day for Nov. 24, the day before Thanksgiving.

This morning, TSA Chief John Pistole voiced his worries about that on NBC's "Today" show.

John Pistole: I think it's irresponsible to say, let's opt out and not try to go through any type of security screening or something that would cause terrific delays, significant delays at the airport on the busiest travel days and season of the year."

Moon: And by the way Kai, there are 317 of these units in use at more than 65 airports across the nation, hundreds more on the way, at a $150,000 a pop and they've been mostly paid for with $25 million from economic recovery funds.

Ryssdal: The stimulus act.

Moon: That's right.

Ryssdal: Marketplace's Bob Moon. Thank you Bob.

Moon: Thanks Kai.

About the author

Bob Moon is Marketplace’s senior business correspondent, based in Los Angeles.

Comments

I agree to American Public Media's Terms and Conditions.
With Generous Support From...