Bare Feet to Pat-Downs: Five Big Changes in TSA Screening at Airports

Security screening at US airports has undergone waves of changes in the years since 9/11. Here are five of the biggest changes to affect air travelers in recent years.

Privacy and Pat-Downs

The TSA began testing the use of backscatter and millimeter wave technology full-body scans in 2007, but the technology did not become the primary form of passenger screening at many US airports until late this year.

Those who refuse a full-body advanced imaging technology (AIT) scan – either for health or privacy reasons – are now subject to an “enhanced” pat-down that includes checking travelers’ groin areas. The TSA accelerated the use of both AIT and enhanced pat-downs after Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried to ignite explosives sewn into his underwear on Christmas Day 2009.

Resistance to the body scans and pat-downs came to a head two weeks ago when John Tyner, a flyer at San Diego International Airport, recorded himself telling a TSA screener that he’d have him arrested if he touched his crotch. Mr. Tyner likened the TSA pat-down to sexual assault. Loosely organized “opt out day” protests have been planned for Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving, which is traditionally one of the busiest travel days of the year.

TSA chief John Pistole has said the agency tries to make security screening as “minimally invasive as possible.”

Toner Cartridges Taboo

Toner cartridges landed on the “no-fly” list late last month when suspicious packages originating from Yemen were found aboard UPS and FedEx planes bound for the US.

“Toner and ink cartridges over 16 ounces will be prohibited on passenger aircraft in both carry-on bags and checked bags on domestic and international flights in-bound to the United States,” said Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano in a Nov. 8 statement responding to the discovery.

Common printer ink cartridges, such as the ones found in most desktop inkjet printers, are not subject to the new ban.

Liquids Limited

By now most air travelers are familiar with the TSA’s 3-1-1 policy for liquids – each passenger may carry 3.4-ounce containers of liquid through checkpoints, provided the containers fit in a one-quart plastic bag, and each passenger has only one bag.

The policy took hold in August 2006 after British intelligence foiled a plot to blow up multiple planes with liquid explosive. A blanket ban on all liquids in carry-on luggage was implemented for the three months following the discovery but was later relaxed.

Anecdotal reports from travelers find that these days the TSA is being less strict about liquids being in plastic bags. Baby formula and medical liquids are also exempt from the TSA’s 3.4-ounce restriction, provided passengers declare them to checkpoint officials.

Shoes Scanned

The requirement to remove one’s shoes at airport security checkpoints can be traced to Dec. 22, 2001. That’s the day admitted Al Qaeda operative Richard Reid tried and failed to ignite explosives hidden in his shoes while aboard American Airlines flight 63 from Paris to Miami.

Security protocol fluctuated at airports in the days following the attempted attack, but eventually everyone traveling through airport security checkpoints was required to remove their shoes and pass them through X-ray machines.

Laptops Out

Almost as ubiquitous as removing one’s shoes, taking a laptop out of its case and running it through an X-ray in its own plastic bin has become the norm for people passing through airport security.

The practice has its roots in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. No, laptops weren’t around in 1988, but in that case, a bomb was concealed in a cassette player.

Airport security screeners insist that laptops be removed from cases because the complex components inside could obscure a prohibited object inside a passenger’s luggage. Recent portable electronics – iPods, cell phones, and even small laptops – are small enough to be exempt from the policy.