Airport pat-downs: exercise in futility

Is this really a shock? Pat-downs don’t work well. Aviation experts say that government rules limit where the security folks can check, which means that would-be bombers only need to stash their illicit goods in the uncomfortable places that can’t be touched. Any frequent traveler has been subject to this ritual at least once – and has probably wondered what good it does. Arms, armpits and legs are felt … but is this where anybody would stash something illegal or dangerous?

Making the ritual more troublesome is that the pat-down only occurs when there is a triggering event, specifically the chirp of the metal detector. Clear the technology, and the effectiveness of a pat-down is irrelevant.

The current pat-down technique was shaped by a 2004 TSA list, which was based on complaints by female passengers … and even the revised approach, which protects sensitive body parts and hasn’t been released to the public, hasn’t been enough to prevent the occasional irritation over underwire.

A Government Accountability Office report last year led to some changes, because federal investigators were able to sneak liquid explosives and detonators through airport security checkpoints. The changes that followed opened up the areas open to search – including breasts and groins – but only in certain situations.According to a statement by the TSA, “This new procedure will affect a very small percentage of travelers, but it is a critical element in ensuring the safety of the flying public.”

Of course, the Christmas bombing attempt has prompted a renewed interest in airport pat-downs. They may not be effective, but action is better than nothing, right? Yet, passengers again pushed back, with Gerry Berry, a Florida-based airport security expert, telling The Associated Press, “People just wouldn’t stand for it. You wouldn’t. I wouldn’t.”

And, there’s always the fear of litigation when normally covered and protected body parts are involved. The TSA says that security balanced with privacy concerns is its top priority.

Meanwhile, the comforting touch of a TSA staffer could become more common. As full-body scanners are deployed more widely, passengers will be able to choose personal contact over a total scan.

[Photo by The Consumerist via Flickr]