Saturday, January 29, 2011

What Happens During a TSA Patdown?

About two weeks ago, we flew to Hawaii to visit my in-laws and see the beautiful island of Kauai. But first, we had to go through the Oakland International Airport, and that meant going through a TSA security checkpoint. Oakland uses the infamous backscatter device, which the internets have been raging about since the holiday season.

I don't mind a machine that sees through my clothes to detect possible hidden weapons. If it means keeping people safe, I'm all for it. However, I've heard that these machines emit dangerous amounts of radiation, and that made me nervous. There's quite a debate about whether the machines are dangerous or not, but I didn't want to take my chances. So, when it came to my turn in line, I told the security person herding people through that I would like to opt out.

"We've got a male opt-out," she shouted. I couldn't tell who she was shouting to. She asked me, rather nervously, whether I realized that opting out meant that I would receive a pat-down. She paused before saying "pat-down," and I thought that maybe she was trying to decide on a more pleasant thing to call it, but she chose to go with what people called it. I told her that I understood.

"Please stand aside, sir," she said, and moved me next to the X-ray machine that was scanning my carry-on bag and the plastic bin that held my shoes, belt, jacket, and the things from my pockets.

When my bags came through, I asked if I should go get them. I was told, no, please wait there. So I waited.

Shortly, a TSA man came over and the security person pointed me out to him. He asked me if I could see my bags from where I was, and I pointed them out. I assume this was so that I could be sure that nobody was walking off with my stuff while I was being patted down. Then he asked me if I was traveling alone, and I replied that I was traveling with my wife. He asked me to point her out, which I did.

Next, he walked me over to a small mat with the shape of two footprints on it that was located behind the X-ray machine. He asked if I wanted to be patted down in private, but, in the interest of time, I said here was fine. So he explained that he would have to run his hands over me, but he would warn me before touching any "sensitive parts of my body," and he would only use the backs of his hands for those parts. "Sensitive parts of your body" must be TSA code for "private parts," because he used this phrase several time during the pat-down.

He next asked if I had any part of my body that was especially sensitive. I assume this was in case the person being patted down has suffered an injury or has a condition that makes a part of their painful to the touch. I don't have anything like that, so I replied, no, I don't.

He patted down me down from the back first, including feeling inside my waistband. This was honestly the most intrusive part of the pat-down for me, but I can see how it makes perfect sense from a security perspective to check in someone's waistband. It seems like a natural place to hide a weapon. Also, as I wasn't wearing my belt at this point, it wasn't difficult for him to check my waistband (I'm glad I wore loose trousers).

Next he ran his hands over the backs of my legs, and he warned me when he was getting close to the "sensitive parts of my body" and reminded me that he would be touching that are with the backs of his hands. When that was done, he moved in front of me and patted me down from the front, including under my arms. Once again he warned me that he was about to reach the "sensitive part of my body" and that he would be using the backs of his hands, and he finished patting me down and told me I could go.

I was impressed and relieved at the professionalism I experienced. It was the opposite of the horror stories I had read online about people feeling assaulted during the pat-downs. Honestly, I don't think he ever actually touched the "sensitive part of my body," and he warned me so many times that I almost told him to just get on with it. I felt like he did a thorough job that would have found any hidden weapons, had I been a terrorist, while still treating me like a human being.

What this tells me is that the TSA is very conscious of the bad press they've been getting, and they have taken steps to ensure that the people performing these pat-downs do so correctly, at least at Oakland International.

Incidentally, on the way back from Hawaii, there were two lines going through security at the Lihue airport: one with a backscatter machine, and one with a traditional metal detector. My wife and I both chose the line with the metal detector.

1 comment:

bluefish said...

I think giving you the option to go through a traditional metal detector instead of a backscatter machine is kind of ridiculous. That's like a doctor saying "We can give you an MRI, or we can just slap some leeches on you." It's essentially admitting that the one isn't much better than the other, despite the fact that I'm sure it's vastly more expensive. Or, if it really is more effective and they only give you the metal detection option because it's less inflammatory, what does THAT say?