'Humiliating' Airport Searches Irk Female Passengers

ByABC News via GMA logo
November 23, 2004, 5:48 PM

Nov. 24, 2004 — -- She was singled out, told to strip off her shirt in public and obtrusively patted down at airport security. But actress Patti LuPone is not complaining about the search, she's just asking for better communication.

It happened at Fort Lauderdale International Airport, when she was picked out for a "secondary screening" that turned into a humiliatingly intrusive experience.

"I kept going, 'this is really rude, what is going on? What is going on?'" LuPone told "Good Morning America" today. "I was shocked that I had been felt up."

Ever since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, airport security has been ratcheted up across the United States, and these days, female passengers aren't exempt from thorough checks.

By all accounts, there's every reason to be cautious. In August, two Russian planes crashed almost simultaneously shortly after taking off from a Moscow airport, killing at least 90 people on board. Investigators suspect that two women linked to the Chechen conflict had smuggled high-grade explosives on board.

And in the Middle East, some Palestinian women have taken advantage of their traditional flowing robes to hide explosives-laden belts for suicide missions.

"There are very sinister ways of hiding weapons or explosives on terrorists' bodies," said Mark Hatfield, Transportation Safety Administration spokesman. "We need to combat that threat."

LuPone, 55, a Tony and Drama Desk award-winning Broadway actress, is no female terrorist. The star of musicals such as "Sweeney Todd" and "Evita" told "GMA" that it was not the fact that she was singled out, but the manner in which it was carried out that was most offensive.

After being made to take off her shirt, which she said "exposed her," a female screener gave her a "breast exam."

"Without asking, without telling me what was going on, just boom, in and when I was looking at the right breast she had already moved to the left breast," she said. "It was quite shocking, humiliating and there was no explanation."

It was the failure to inform her about what was going on or what a secondary screening would entail that most upset LuPone.

"I said to these screeners, I said, 'you need to communicate with the passengers,' " she said. "I don't think there's a passenger that would not cooperate to their fullest if they knew what was going on."

But after she had filed a complaint, LuPone charged that TSA screeners told her they were not allowed to tell passengers what was going on.

Speaking on "Good Morning America" today, David Stone, a TSA spokesman, said he was aware of LuPone's complaint.

In an attempt to put the problem in perspective, he said that about 15 percent of the 2 million people who fly every day are now subjected to pat-downs. And out of that figure, the TSA receives an average of about 12 to 14 complaints a week about screeners' failures to communicate with passengers.

"I take that comment and her feedback seriously," said Stone. "The whole organization does. Even though it's 12 or 14 a week, each of those complaints needs to be remedied and we need to make sure our screeners get it right every time."

Out of roughly 100 million airline passengers since Sept. 20 -- when the more-aggressive procedures took effect -- until Nov. 14 -- the last date for which figures are available -- the TSA has logged 260 complaints, mostly from women.

Businesswoman Nancy Kho was one who thought a female screener went way too far.

"She felt up underneath my bra straps and just about everywhere else, you know," said Kho, during an interview with "World News Tonight." "It was very thorough. And the whole time it was happening, I was just in full view of all the other travelers."

For LuPone, a frequent airline traveler, a minor change in the way torso searches are accomplished would be welcome. "I deserve to know," she said. "Then you can do whatever you want, but if you don't tell me and you think you can cop a feel, I'm going to have a problem."

ABC News' Dean Reynolds contributed to this story.