Thursday, December 9, 2010

TSA and the Holidays

I'll be flying with Daniel (and no other adults) in a few weeks, and with all of the talk about the new TSA screening procedures, I wanted to process some of my concerns here.

Flying with an infant for the first time (at the busiest travel time of the year) is nerve-wracking enough without having to worry about choosing between having a naked picture taken of me or being groped by a stranger for the sake of "security". I have some legitimate concerns about the lack of adequate training of Transportation Security Officers (TSOs) on proper procedures and also the lack of sufficient (or any) long-term testing on the health-effects of using these new full-body scanners. (I also am deeply troubled by the fact that so many survivors of sexual assault will have to potentially re-live their traumas at the hands of a TSO.)

Here's what some other folks have to say about it:

Lauren at Hobo Mama wrote a piece about her recent experience with the invasive new TSA screenings for children and pregnant women. She writes about the safety and privacy concerns of the full-body scanners, and the events surrounding her choice to have the enhanced pat-down:
"It was kind of creepy being touched by a stranger, even a stranger who was professional and calm.... There was something more invasive about having a strange official rub her hands over me than, say, having a doctor or midwife do the same. Part of the issue was probably that it was in such a public place, and not by my choice (in the sense that there was no ideal choice in this situation, if I wanted to fly home)."
Dionna at Code Name: Mama wrote a great piece on the concern about TSA pat-downs for children. She spoke with a representative from the TSA Public Affairs Office and included the information from that conversation in her article. Among others, she asks the questions:
  • Do the scans even work?
  • Is there a radiation hazard?
  • Why won't the TSA tell parents what the exact pat-down policy is for children under 12 years is?
  • Why are TSOs (who are regularly touching adults’ and children’s genitals) allowed to hold a position of trust without submitting to a more rigorous criminal background check?
  • Why should parents normalize the touching of a child’s genitals for any stranger who is not in a medical position?
  • What do you do if you feel that a TSO has violated your rights or the right of your child during a screening?
Regarding the safety of the full-body scanners (and questionable level of radiation exposure), I've read that unions that represent pilots for American Airlines and US Airways are urging their members to avoid using the full-body scanners at security checkpoints. If airline employees are being advised not to use the scanners because of potential risks from repeated exposure to them, I feel wary of stepping into one of them even once.
Momotics wrote about an incident involving a woman* who was detained in the "special inspection" area of security for over an hour (and made to miss her flight) because she requested alternate screening for breastmilk that she was transporting back to her son at home. She even had the TSA's own guidelines printed out and in hand to show to the TSOs, but was still made to wait and treated terribly. The security video footage is included in the article. I read an explanation directly from the woman in the video here.

I've read some about the concept of "Israelification," the idea that the U.S. should take some pointers from how Israel (a country that has known terrorism for generations) handles airport security. As I understand it, the security agents look at and talk to travelers, and they're actually trained to read and evaluate body language and behavior as a means of identifying potential security threats. From an article on regarding Israel's security procedures:
"First, it's fast—there's almost no line. That's because they're not looking for liquids, they're not looking at your shoes. They're not looking for everything they look for in North America. They just look at you.... Even today with the heightened security in North America, they will check your items to death. But they will never look at you, at how you behave. They will never look into your eyes...and that's how you figure out the bad guys from the good guys."
On a bit of a funnier note, have you seen these undergarments printed in metallic ink with the Fourth Amendment? From 4thamendmentwear: "4th amendment underclothes, for when unwarranted searches go too far." For those who choose to undergo the full-body scan, you can now make a statement about how you feel about it to the TSO looking at your naked body! (To be clear, I don't think having our rights violated is funny, and I think protesting injustices is extremely important, but wearing the Constitution on your underwear does make me chuckle.)

Finally, I saw this video on Hobo Mama's Sunday Surf and had to share it. It's informative and clever.

So, in light of all this, what am I going to do?

If I hadn't bought these plane tickets so long ago, I'd be seriously reconsidering taking this trip. As it is, my plans are set and I'm going to have to make the best of whatever happens at the security checkpoints. If I didn't live in the United States, I would not choose to fly here in light of these new security procedures. My experiences with this trip will definitely impact whether I'll be flying again soon.

At this point, I've decided to opt for the pat-down over the full-body scan, as I won't have anywhere to put Daniel down to not subject him to the machine. I hear that people traveling with babies who can't walk or stand on their own don't have to put down their babies and are instead given a modified pat-down. I'm hoping to be able to bring back quite a lot of frozen milk with me through security, since I'm still pumping daily so I can donate my extra milk. However, I plan to ask to not have it sent through the x-ray machine, since breastmilk is considered a medical liquid and is therefore allowed to have alternate screening.

What do you think about the new TSA screening procedures? Are they a violation of our fourth amendment rights? Should we "Israelify" our airport security? Will you be flying any time soon, and if so, what will you choose to do when you go through the security checkpoint?

*Edited in the evening of 12/9 to add: Read TSA's (inadequate?) response to the breast milk mom here on the TSA blog, and comments on it at Sustainablemothering. What do you think about this case?


  1. I was in 4 separate airports and had to go through 2 different security checks (in PDX and in San Fransisco) and each check went surprisingly smoothly.

    They give you an option of the full body scan or the old standard metal detector and it's only if you opt out of both that they pat you down. I was patted down once and the gal was super awesome. You could tell she had been very well-trained. She explained EVERY SINGLE TOUCH before she did it. At one point I said, "You don't have to explain everything...we're cool." and she said, "We want you to know each touch so that there are no surprises." They only use the back of the hands, and the whole process is very quick. I saw other people having the same thing done in both PDX and San Francisco, and everyone was walking away saying it was so much better than they expected.

    I have been sexually assaulted before, and I would not compare this to that in ANY way (physically, emotionally or mentally), but I can't speak for everyone else. Now, I'm not saying an icky employee couldn't fall through the cracks and take advantage of this process, but it's doubtful, considering the busyness of the procedure, how rushed it is, and the fact that even the patter-downers are being monitored.

    As for the full body scan, PDX doesn't have them yet (as of the 2nd they didn't) and San Fran let you select that line or the other lines.

    As for breast milk, I had quite a bit of it and they didn't even bat an eye. It did go through the scanner (but I'd read up on that before hand and didn't feel that was a problem - I might have missed something?) But they let me take all that I had with me. They also allow you to take bottled water now too. They wave a wand over it that measures the density so they know it's water.

    I found everyone in security (the workers and other fliers) to be REALLY helpful. They would see me coming with a baby and once even guided me to the front, helped me carry stuff, etc. I hope your experience is just as good! (Minus the crazy doctors I sat beside on my 2nd flight). :)

  2. As for Bennett, at both checks they made me remove him from the carrier (you don't have to remove them if you do the full body scan), but I could choose to take him through the metal detector or have him pat down, which was super quick and not invasive (and I was holding him the entire time).

    I think the issue with airport workers is that it would be exposure EVERY day. That's a lot. I liken it to ultrasounds. You and I both had them, but we would never do them DAILY. Certain things in moderation. If you fly once or twice a year, the exposure is as minimal as having an ex-ray (or so I've read).

  3. I'm so glad you had positive experiences, Rachel! I certainly hope I have such a smooth time traveling with Daniel. =)

  4. With four kids, flying places isn't a luxury we really have very often. However, we won't be flying at all until all of this is worked out.


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