Page last updated at 00:29 GMT, Sunday, 14 August 2011 01:29 UK

When does airport security become physical assault?

A Transportation Security Administration agent performs a pat-down on a passenger at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport
The US introduced the new security system, which comprises more thorough friskings and whole-body scans, last autumn

By Fiona Foster
Presenter, BBC Fast Track

With the holiday season underway, intimate security checks at American airports are continuing to upset travellers.

When passengers refuse the full body scanners they may be submitted to what authorities are calling an enhanced pat-down.

Politicians are calling for them to be outlawed but the department of justice has threatened that flights whose passengers are not screened will be cancelled.

Nancy Campbell, a 33-year-old from Brooklyn, compared the experience to being "sexually assaulted".

She had been rushing to board an early morning flight to Washington from New York's La Guardia airport when she was selected for a check at the gate by a female official from the US Transportation Security Administration or TSA.

"[The official] asked me to spread my arms and my legs... and she explained that she would check me from the outside of my arms and the outside of my legs first and then proceed with the inside.

Nancy Campbell recalls her unpleasant airport experience

"What I wasn't prepared for was a full examination of my breasts and when she got through that, that's when I asked her to stop, that I'd had enough."

But Nancy was told that either she allowed the search to go on or she wouldn't be able to fly. As she was on an important business trip, Nancy felt she had little choice but to agree.

"She basically touched the insides of my legs - touching my crotch and my buttocks, all the time not offering me an alternative."

Nancy filed a complaint about her treatment with the TSA.


She is far from being a lone voice in the storm which has been created by the new security measures, which include more thorough friskings and whole-body scans, since they were introduced at American airports last autumn.

"The reaction to the enhanced pat-down has been outrage for a lot of cases," said Chris Anderson, senior travel editor at the Huffington Post.

"It's not that the TSA is trying to tick people off - I just think the amount of people going through this... there's going to be a breakdown in communication and a personality conflict. It's a human interaction after all," he added.

A pat-down check on a young girl at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport
The TSA is working to change its policy on how screeners can search children

But it is an interaction which continues to leave some people, like former Miss USA Susie Castillo, who was patted down after refusing a full body scan in Dallas, furious and distressed.

"I was crying because I'm really upset that as an American I have to go through this - and I do feel violated - I didn't think I would when I had to opt out of the machine but I completely feel violated," she said.

According to Chris Anderson there is something in the news every week which angers people: "When you see a little girl getting patted down... people don't like that at all."

"When you see a 95-year-old woman who had her diaper inspected, they don't like that and understandably so. Again, if you look at it from the perspective of the TSA they have to inspect everybody," he added.

Elevated risk

So what can be done to maintain security and simultaneously improve the passenger experience at airports? It is a question the International Air Transport Association (IATA), which represents 230 airlines, has been grappling with.

"At the top of the agenda is IATA's checkpoint of the future - we must replace a 40-year-old concept with a risk-based approach, powered by intelligence and technology," said Giovanni Bisignani, the director general of IATA.

It dehumanises us, it treats us as cattle and it sends the wrong message - they shouldn't be allowed to view or touch your private parts without a reason
David Simpson
Texas state representative

"Our passengers should be able to get from curb to gate with dignity, without stopping, without unpacking and certainly without groping," he added.

IATA has come up with a three lane checkpoint, one lane for so-called "known travellers" - those who've already registered and completed background checks with government authorities.

A "normal" lane would be for the majority of travellers and a third lane for "elevated risk" - where those passengers about whom less information is available would be subjected to additional screening.

But until the checkpoint of the future becomes a reality, the issue continues to bother American voters and as a result, politicians across the US are looking closely at pat-downs.

'Security theatre'

In May Texas state lawmakers tried to pursue legislation which would make intentional inappropriate touching of private parts an offence punishable by up to a year in jail. State representative David Simpson was firmly behind the bill.

"If there's probable cause certainly we would allow those searches but to treat everyone as criminal is just wrong - so we filed the bill to protect people's dignity, privacy, their liberty to travel and to access public transportation," he said.

Right now I feel accosted, I feel randomly plucked and embarrassed and abused
Nancy Campbell

The reaction to the bill from the government's Department of Justice was clear - it said that if the bill was passed aeroplanes would no longer be allowed to land in Texas.

The bill subsequently failed but Mr Simpson remains determined to keep up the pressure.

"It dehumanises us, it treats us as cattle and it sends the wrong message. They shouldn't be allowed to view or touch your private parts without a reason," he said.

State legislators in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Hawaii, New Hampshire, and Utah, have also initiated efforts to outlaw the bill.

No one from the TSA was available for interview and instead it sent this statement:

"Pat-downs are an important tool to help the TSA detect hidden and dangerous items, such as improvised explosive devices... Only a small percentage of passengers require pat-downs during the security screening process.

Pat-downs are conducted by same gender officers, and all passengers have the right to request private screening at any time."

The TSA calls pat-downs "one of our many layers of security to keep the travelling public safe". But David Simpson doubts their usefulness.

"The government's duty is to protect but they shouldn't take away our freedom - if you give up dignity and liberty in order to be safe what are you being safe for? I think this is more about security theatre than actual effective security," he said.

Nancy Campbell agrees that enhanced pat-downs could prove counterproductive: "There's encouragement from the government to have our eyes on the ground and help make our country safer but if the government abuses the authority towards its citizens - are we all going to feel like one big team?

"Right now I feel accosted, I feel randomly plucked and embarrassed and abused."

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