Nov. 23, 2010 -- Are you flying this Thanksgiving holiday weekend and don't want the government to frisk your private parts? While there is no way to ensure that the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) won't require you to undergo one of its new and controversial pat-downs, there are steps you can take to minimize your chances.
"You definitely want to make sure that you have nothing that might set off the metal detector," said George Hobica, president of airfarewatchdog.com.
Most travelers will not undergo the intensive pat-downs.
Only those passengers who refuse to go through the new full-body scanners (they are only in place at 70 airports; click here for a full list of those airports) or those who trigger an alarm on the more traditional metal detectors will have to undergo the pat-downs.
That has always been the case. But starting this month, the TSA changed its procedures for how the pat-downs are conducted. The new methods are much more invasive, with same-gender screeners feeling under breasts and up passengers' thighs to their crotches.
The TSA estimates that 2 million people fly each day but that the agency has received only approximately 2,330 complaints specific to these pat-downs since the procedure went into effect nationwide on Nov. 1. Put another way, the White House says roughly 340,000 people have been subjected to more intense searches, 1 percent of the 34 million travelers since the new procedures took effect.
Avoid TSA Airport Pat-Downs
Still, the idea of some random stranger touching areas usually reserved for lovers and doctors has caused quite a stir. Or at least a good headline or two.
"Some [TSA screeners] might go over the line. Some people just don't like to be touched," Hobica said, summing up the controversy. "The sad fact is that a determined terrorist could stuff enough high-powered explosive into a body cavity to bring down an airplane, and other than doing a full cavity search, which would never happen, body scanners are the next best thing."
Anne Banas, executive editor of travel Web site SmarterTravel, says "there's not a ton you can do" to avoid the pat-downs but that good preparation can lower your odds.
"Be really, really smart before leaving the house," she said.
That means putting any spare change and jewelry in your carry-on bag long before the security line. Take off your belt, have shoes that can easily slip off and don't have more than the allowed liquid amounts in your bag. That laptop needs to be taken out of the bag and placed in a tray as you approach the X-ray machine.
To be safe, passengers should avoid clothing with excessive zippers, underwire bras and women are advised to avoid wearing tight skirts -- apparently screeners can't reach where they need to. Pants are advised instead.
Remember, the TSA is doing these pat-downs at all 450 commercial airports across the country, regardless of whether or not they have the full-body scanners.
Other things to remember: if you have screws or plates in your body, you should declare it upfront to the screener to avoid any confusion. And, it's a bit early for Christmas gifts, but if you are traveling with goodies, do not wrap them. Wait until you get to your destination.
A few other points to note: Children 12 years old and under who require extra screening will receive a modified pat down; all passengers have the right to request private screening at any point during the screening process; and everybody has the right to have a traveling companion present during the private screening.
For more information about the pat-downs, TSA carry-on rules or anything else about airport security, check out the TSA's traveler tips section.
TSA Defends Pat-Downs
TSA Administrator John Pistole said these measures are necessary to ensure that passengers are safe.
"The bottom line is few people in the overall scheme of things will actually receive those pat-downs," Pistole said.
"We cannot forget that less than one year ago a suicide bomber with explosives in his underwear tried to bring down a plane over Detroit. The terrorists allegedly behind the thwarted cargo attempt last month are out there bragging about how they will strike again," Pistole added in a statement. "We all wish we lived in a world where security procedures at airports weren't necessary but that just isn't the case."
Holiday travel always requires extra time at the airport because leisure travelers who aren't used to security screenings take longer. This year, give yourself even more time. Between the confusion over the new rules and a group of protestors urging people to actually request pat-downs instead of going through the full-body scanners as a form of protest, there could be considerable delays. (However, there is no estimate about the number of protesters and only one in every five security lanes has the full-body scanners.)
"Everybody is going to be edgy. So show up early. If you are in a hurry, it makes it worse," said John DiScala, a blogger known as Johnny Jet. "Everybody needs to relax. Listen, these guys are there to protect us. It's not the most ideal situation and it's not foolproof because bombers can still hide stuff in their cavity. But it's what we were all asking for after the Christmas bomber. Now we've got it, so shut up and enjoy your turkey. You're going to see your family and friends, you should be in a good mood."