Feb. 16, 2011 — -- Maybe the last time you gave airport security a thought was just before the holidays when that fellow in San Diego became the latest YouTube sensation with the immortal words, " Don't touch my junk."
The 31-year-old software engineer had privacy and health concerns about airport body scanners, and balked at the alternative aggressive pat-down. Result: neither junk nor trunk got touched, but he didn't fly, either.
About those privacy concerns: changes are coming to airport security that may alleviate "naked picture" fears (and more on that, coming right up). In fact, there are so many changes going on with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), it's giving me whiplash trying to keep up.
Pay attention, because some of these changes could affect whether you want to keep flying or not. Let's take a look.
The good news is, it looks like we're entering the era of the Gingerbread Man image. Instead of security officers pouring over blurred but recognizably human pictures that raise a lot of modesty issues, the TSA is now testing new software that shows a simple cookie cutter outline only -- sort of like a child's asexual stick figure. As our friend in San Diego might put it, the new images are 100 percent junk-free.
This software is now being used at McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas and will be tested at Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson and D.C.'s Reagan National in short order. Kudos to the TSA for acting relatively quickly on this.
However, this does not address the health concerns of some passengers who wonder how safe the body scan machines are, especially for frequent fliers who may undergo repeated exposure. The TSA's own fact sheet describes the safety of the backscatter X-ray Advanced Imaging Technology (AIT) this way: "An airline passenger that has been screened receives an equivalent dose of radiation from less than two minutes of flight at altitude." But a lot of people think there should be more studies on this, myself included.
Plus, this new software doesn't do much for those who worry, quite rightly, that there are no guarantees these security precautions will catch all terrorists. Yet we keep going through all the drama, or as frequent business traveler Michael Cary puts it, "You feel like a shoeless criminal with your arms up undergoing arrest."
On the plus side, this new software does get us away from that "secret room" (my term) where the lone security officer views the current, more explicit passenger images while looking for explosives or whatever. Now those officers can operate out in the open because all they'll be looking at is an anonymous stick figure.
New TSA Security Could Be Less Invasive
Let's talk about these security officers for a minute. Personally, I have no problem with these folks; I find them to be diligent, hard-working and committed to trying to keep us safe. As always, it's the few less-than-stellar employees that every organization has that generate negative attention and bring out the nasty blog comments ("rude" and "arrogant" are some of the nicer descriptions I've seen on the TSA's blog).
Do you suppose some of the criticism is because these officers are -- gasp -- government employees? It's possible, and I know some who think private contractors would be an improvement.
But did you know 16 airports already have private contractors doing the jobs of TSA officers? These range from big facilities like San Francisco and Kansas City International to smaller airports in Jackson Hole, Wyo., and Tupelo, Miss.
Those airports chose to opt out of direct TSA security screening in favor of the Screening Partnership Program (SSP), which has been around since the TSA was formed in 2001. In essence, the partnership program uses private screeners who perform the same security duties as the federal workforce, though oversight remains with the TSA.
As I said, some think this is a great idea; after all, if customers, meaning passengers, aren't happy with a security officer, a private company could simply get rid of that worker, right? Well, that's a big maybe, but it doesn't matter now because TSA Administrator John Pistole has suspended the program.
"TSA should be a federal counterterrorism agency, and we're best able to train, to deploy, to execute on our mission as a federal workforce," Pistole said earlier this month.
I'm not sure I understand that. The TSA does oversee these private security folks. Are we looking at a little empire building going on here?
This sure doesn't sit well with Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), the new chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Mica will reportedly launch an investigation into the decision to suspend the program.
I know Mica has concerns about the TSA's SPOT program, too. SPOT involves roving "Behavior Detection" officers at 161 airports who have received instruction on how to spot certain "unusual" behaviors. Length of instruction for those officers: four days. Cost of program: $212 million.
Meanwhile, to add to the Orwellian fun, Pistole is reportedly nevertheless still open to "new ideas and new opportunities" involving private screeners. Huh? I'm getting whiplash.
I bet Pistole's workforce is feeling a little whiplashed too. First, the 40,000 TSA employees have been told they can unionize, and they'll vote on whether to do so in March and April. However, if they do opt to unionize, Pistole has already said they have no right to engage in any work slowdown or strike.
Good news if you're a flyer, since that's one less delay to worry about. But it's not so good for a unionized employee, I would think. Makes you wonder whether some of those TSA officers are feeling beleaguered enough to worry about protecting their own junk.
This work is the opinion of the columnist and does not reflect the opinion of ABC News.
Rick Seaney is one of the country's leading experts on airfare, giving interviews and analysis to news organizations that include ABC News, The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Reuters, the Associated Press and Bloomberg. His website, FareCompare.com, offers consumers free, new-generation software, combined with expert insider tips to find the best airline ticket deals.