Nov. 19, 2010 -- U.S. airline pilots learned today that they'll be exempt from the invasive x-ray screening and pat-downs that have sparked a revolt across the country.
In a statement, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) announced new procedures that it says will streamline airport security.
Pilots in uniform on airline business will be allowed to pass through airport security by showing two photo IDs. The identification will be cross-checked against a flight crew database.
"Allowing these uniformed pilots, whose identity has been verified, to go through expedited screening at the checkpoint just makes for smart security and an efficient use of our resources," TSA Administrator John Pistole said in a statement.
The decision comes after pilots' unions had called on members to avoid going through the advanced x-ray screeners that produce full-body images, and they had also expressed concerns about enhanced pat-downs. A handful of pilots have said they were so traumatized by the searches that they couldn't perform their duties, though critics have accused them of making such claims to push a political agenda.
As of yet, though, there is no change in policy for regular travelers, to the frustration of members of Congress who today took on the new procedures, saying they have crossed the line.
Republican Rep. John Mica of Florida, the ranking member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and fellow Republican Tom Petri of Wisconsin today wrote to Pistole, saying that the TSA is "not achieving the proper balance between aviation security and the privacy rights of Untied States citizens."
They said the new procedures are overly intrusive and accused the TSA of once again being reactive in its approach to security.
"The entire focus of TSA's efforts to improve aviation security needs to be revisited," the congressmen wrote. "The level of public angst is a clear indication that the TSA has missed the mark…"
Democratic Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, and Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, also wrote a letter today to Pistole criticizing the pat-downs.
Earlier this week, Pistole was asked by Congress if he would change the TSA's new policy.
"No," he said, "because I think that is what being informed by the latest intelligence, the latest efforts by terrorists to kill our people in the air, no, I'm not going to change those policies.
Mica has been pushing for airports to ditch the TSA and hire private contractors to conduct screenings, a move allowed under federal law. (In the past 13 years, Mica has received almost $81,000 in campaign donations from political action committees and executives connected to some of the private contractors, according to The Associated Press.)
"All commercial airports are regulated by TSA, whether the actual screening is performed by TSA officers or private companies. TSA sets the security standards that must be followed and includes the use of enhanced pat-downs and imaging technology, if installed at the airport," TSA spokesman Greg Soule told ABC News.
Of the more than 450 commercial airports in America, there are currently 16 airports using private screening staff, the largest being San Francisco International Airport and Kansas City International Airport. Those screeners have to follow the same standards as TSA employees and are still overseen by the TSA.
So even with private screeners, passengers at those airports would be subject to the exact same screenings, including pat-downs and full-body scanners.
Some Passengers Unhappy With New Procedures
The TSA says the guidelines for its new pat-down are clear. A screener of the same sex will examine your head, shirt collar and waistband, and the screener can use either the front or back of their hand to feel your body, including the buttocks, between the legs, and feeling up to the top of the thigh. Some women may be asked to remove their skirts in a private screening area, and they will be given a towel or gown to put on.
But across the country, passengers are stepping forward to say that the TSA's new pat-down procedures have scared or even violated them as they moved through the airport. The American Civil Liberties Union has received some 400 complaints from travelers, many of whom say they feel like victims of sexual assault after going through a pat-down.
"It's hard enough for women to go to their doctors and disrobe. Can you imagine the idea of trying to disrobe and maintain your dignity?" said Laura Debbie Murphy, director of the ACLU's Washington Legislative Office.
Murphy sent a letter today to the TSA endorsing the actions of Representatives Thompson
In Charlotte, a cancer survivor says she was forced to show her prosthetic breast at a checkpoint. In Indianapolis, a solider with the Indiana National Guard was questioned because he was carrying a nail clipper. He and the other 100 soldiers with him all had unloaded rifles and pistols, but it was the nail clipper that raised TSA eyebrows.
Any passengers who set off an alarm or refuse to go through the new full-body scanners, formally known as Advanced Imaging Technology must undergo this new, more invasive pat-down.
When business traveler Penny Moroney flew home from St. Louis to Chicago recently she said a security check left her "shaking and crying." The metal in her artificial knees set off detectors and she had to undergo the intense screening.
"Her gloved hands touched my breasts ... went between them. Then she went into the top of my slacks, inserted her hands between my underwear and my skin... then put her hands up on outside of slacks, and patted my genitals," Moroney told St. Louis TV station KMOV.
In any other circumstance, she said, such contact would be considered sexual assault.
Then there is the case of Ella Swift, a woman from Grand Rapids, Mich., who says she was singled out for a further search simply because she was wearing a skirt. By the time she got to her plane, all she wanted to do was cry.
"The female officer ran her hand up the inside of my leg to my groin and she did it so hard and so rough she lifted me off my heels," she told WZZM. "I think I yelped. I was in pain for about an hour afterwards. It just felt excessive and unnecessary."
And in Charlotte, N.C., a flight attendant and breast cancer survivor was even forced to remove her prosthetic breast and show it to a TSA agent during a pat down, according WBTV.
To protest the new procedures, groups on the Internet are urging passengers on the day before Thanksgiving – a traditionally heavy travel day -- to purposely avoid the full-body scanners and opt in for the pat-downs in order to slow down security lines.
TSA agents have also expressed concerns about the effect the pat-downs have had on them. Some agents say they have questioned, screamed at, and even punched by passengers upset by the new protocol.
ABC's Bradley Blackburn contributed to this report.