Full-Body Scanners and "Friendly" Pat-Downs: How to Negotiate Airport Security

7 years ago
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The holiday travel season is upon us. Between booking travel, buying gifts and organizing the family, who’s got time to even think about the latest airport security procedures? But if you’ve been hearing the word "pat-down" in the news -- yes, it means what you think it means.

The recent statement by the Transportation Security Administration reads, "TSA is in the process of implementing new pat-down procedures at checkpoints nationwide as one of our many layers of security to keep the traveling public safe. Pat-downs are one important tool to help TSA detect hidden and dangerous items such as explosives. Passengers should continue to expect an unpredictable mix of security layers that include explosives trace detection, advanced imaging technology, canine teams, among others."

DALLAS, TEXAS - DECEMBER 27:   A TSA officer screens airline passengers in Terminal C at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport December 27, 2009 in Dallas, Texas.  Pre-flight screenings were stepped up after Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, 23, of Nigeria was accused of trying to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight on Christmas Day.   (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

Before you cancel your plane tickets and swear off flying forever after reading this statement, here’s the quick rundown on what to expect, your choices and ways to make the airport security process as stress-free as possible.

  • TSA may have an Advanced Imaging Technology (AIT) unit (aka the "full-body scanner") in your airport, though there is rarely one at every security lane.
  • If you do go through a security line with an AIT unit, you have your choice of going through this scanner or asking for a pat-down instead.
  • If you go through a pat-down, it may be friendlier than just a quick feel of your arms and legs. This method of screening must be as thorough as what the AIT scanner would do.
  • You can ask for a private pat-down to be done by a same-gender TSA agent.

Personally, the only thing I find unpleasant about this scanner is raising my arms above my head after I’ve removed my jacket -- I'm not fond of showing off my arm jiggle to fellow travelers lined up behind me. Luckily, the next folks in line are too busy emptying pockets and untying shoes to be looking at my arm jiggle. (I recently wrote My New Wardrobe Rules for Full Body Scanners after going through my first AIT experience.)

If you’re worried about what TSA sees behind their screen -- no offense, but it’s a picture not worth posting on any adult website. Instead, the screens display E.T.-looking body shapes with genital blobs, not the specifics of any one body. Check out TSA’s Advanced Imaging page to see what they see. Believe me, if I caught a peek of my body on one of these machines and saw a voluptuous, sexy image, heck ... I’d be going through the scanner again and again to see it for myself!

For as stress-free a security passage as possible:

  • Give yourself ample time to get through the security lines. It’s impossible to gauge the length of the line you’ll be going through or the speed of your fellow travelers, so be conservative and allow extra time. Hopefully you’ll have time to enjoy a coffee once you get near your gate.
  • Remove your coat, jacket or big sweater, scarf and hat.
  • Empty all pockets.
  • If your favorite necklace is big and clunky, put it in your purse or carry-on and put it on after you go through security. Also remove big buckle belts.
  • Avoid bulky clothing -– big, flowing skirts or multiple layers, for example. This just invites a pat down.
  • Wear easy-to-remove shoes. If you’re wearing boots for the winter weather, start removing them before it’s your turn to go through the security lane.
  • Use the arm-raising AIT machine. It’s faster than a pat-down, less intrusive, and there’s no need to be separated from your family or your belongings while you’re in a private pat-down area. (I stress more about where my purse and laptop are than how I’m being examined.)
  • And be very grateful you’re not the one who has to look at the ET body blobs marching through the scanners all day!

I fly each and every week. On Monday mornings, I line up behind countless tourists in the Orlando airport. They carry jammed-full Disney bags, stuffed animals, snow globes (a no-no for going through security), and their remaining vacation mellowness. They’re generally not security "experts" like a frequent flier is, based on the number of full-size liquid bottles that get confiscated away from them.

These Monday morning airport adventures are ripe for travel stress. If I let the stress get to me, I’d have no energy left for my workday or vacation plans. Instead, I select a more security-friendly wardrobe for travel days; I read a book or my Kindle while in line; and when it’s time to go through security, I recite to myself this little ditty:

Remember to collect my purse, laptop, liquids and shoes,
Or else I’ll be letting out a curse and be feeling the blues.

Wishing you stress-free holiday travel!

Carol Margolis

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