Why Security Rules Are More Bewildering Than Ever for Air Travelers

Why Security Rules Are More Bewildering Than Ever for Air Travelers Photo (cc) by Redjar

These are confusing times for airline passengers.

In recent weeks, the government has made two surprising policy changes: First, the Transportation Security Administration announced that screening with a full-body scanner would no longer be optional for some passengers, and then the Department of Homeland Security said that soon your state-issued driver’s license might not be sufficient ID for you to pass through the airport screening area.

The result? Travelers are less certain about the airport screening experience than they’ve been in years.

Despite scattered reports of travelers being required to pass through the TSA’s scanners, the agency insists that there’s only a small chance you’ll be screened by the controversial machines if you don’t want to be. In other words, you can generally still “opt out” and receive what the agency refers to as an enhanced pat-down from an agent. And your state-issued ID will continue to work until 2018, and probably long after that, even if it doesn’t comply with the new federal standards.

The full-body scanners represent the most high-profile public concern. Since the agency assigned to protect America’s transportation systems implemented its new no-opt-out policy Dec. 18, there have been a few media reports of agents insisting that passengers use the scanners.

PreCheck passengers held up for screening

A passenger with the TSA’s PreCheck designation in Akron, Ohio, complained in a comment on a civil rights blog that she’d been selected for a mandatory scanning. PreCheck is an expedited-screening program that costs $85 for a five-year membership and allows you to bypass the full-body scanners.

“The agent handed me a laminated green sheet and told me I was randomly selected for additional screening and needed to go through the full-body screening machine,” said Tara MacLaren, a marketing consultant who works for a Houston-based software company. “When I tried to opt out, I was told that was no longer an option for those with TSA PreCheck.”

MacLaren reports that she “pushed back,” telling the agents she was pregnant. Only then did the agents relent, allowing her to be screened with a metal detector.

“I was not given any assurance that my pregnancy will be sufficient opt-out justification in the future, just told that the rules had changed and those with TSA PreCheck are not eligible for opting out,” she said.

Ann Hobbs, a retired lawyer from Silver Spring, Maryland, also had a PreCheck notation on her boarding pass when she flew out of Baltimore-Washington International Airport in late December. Initially, she walked through a metal detector. “I was then told to go through the full-body scanner, having been randomly selected,” she says. “This seemed rather odd to me. Why wouldn’t the selection have been made before I went through the metal detector?”

Hobbs says she’s worried about the long-term health effects of the scanners, a technology that she believes has not been adequately tested. “We are the guinea pigs,” she says.

In another incident, a TSA agent in Seattle told a London-based privacy advocate named Sai that he would be required to go through the scanner. The lengthy argument that ensued was captured on video and uploaded to YouTube. Eventually, a manager overruled a supervisor, allowing Sai to undergo a pat-down instead.

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