Airport pat-downs fueling ire

Air passengers testy over increasingly aggressive security searches are on a collision course with one of Charlotte/Douglas International Airport's busiest travel weeks of the year.

Thanksgiving travel, at best, means packed airports and long lines. Compounding this holiday's travails will be security procedures, some introduced just this month, that some passengers have likened to sexual assault.

"I've seen people get arrested and they were not subjected to this type of search," said Charlotte sales rep Jackie Robinson. An agent at Charlotte's airport last Friday, he said, repeatedly touched his chest, back and inner legs after Robinson told security he was wearing a plastic knee brace.

"It goes way beyond what is needed. It wasn't focused on the knee. If they would do it just one good time and get it over with - but they felt compelled to do the same area over and over."

The Transportation Security Administration says the new measures are needed to ensure that flying is safe. The TSA installed full-body scanners, among hundreds in use nationwide, at Charlotte/Douglas this spring.

On Nov. 1, TSA began enhanced pat-downs of passengers who don't want to be scanned. The method lets screeners use the front of their hands to touch passengers' inner thighs, buttocks and breasts.

Civil liberties groups and angry passengers say both methods unnecessarily invade personal space. They've questioned the radiation from the scanners, the security of the images they capture, and the need for vigorous pat-downs.

"Don't touch my junk" became a national catchphrase this week when online video of a California software engineer's confrontation with TSA went viral. Some groups are calling for a boycott of scanners Wednesday.

A Charlotte flight attendant and cancer survivor told WBTV that TSA agents made her show her prosthetic breast in August. The TSA said it would review the incident, the station reported.

As criticism mounted, the TSA fired back. More than 99 percent of passengers choose to be scanned, it says. TSA cites a CBS News poll that found 4out of 5 Americans support the use of full-body scanners.

Agency chief John Pistole told a congressional panel Tuesday that while "reasonable people can disagree as to what that proper balance or blend is between privacy and security safety, everybody who gets on a flight wants to be reassured that everybody else around them has been properly screened," the New York Times reported.

Pistole told senators that the pat-down techniques would have caught the suspect who tried to blow up a Detroit-bound flight last Christmas with explosives sewn into his underwear. The Government Accountability Office has said it's unclear whether the new scanners would have nabbed him.

TSA spokesman Jon Allen said Friday that fewer than 700 of the 34 million people who have gone through airport security checkpoints have filed complaints since the new pat-down procedures took effect. Figures for Charlotte weren't available.

Many passengers at Charlotte/Douglas on Friday accepted the security measures as part of the price of safe flying.

"Gotcha! Told ya!" Denise Oliva laughed as TSA agents confiscated a large bottle of Pierre Cardin cologne from her departing brother John. Carry-on liquids are limited to 3 ounces.

"I'm glad they stopped him, because they're doing their job," she said of the agents. "I like to feel secure."

Oliva, who flies regularly between Charlotte and New York, said the pat-downs she's seen do seem like violations of privacy. But complaints about body scanners, she said, are absurd. "It's lift your arms and 1-2-3 you're done," she said.

Calls to ACLU

Three full-body scanners, called Advanced Imaging Technology, were installed at Charlotte/Douglas between April and July. Among U.S. airports, Charlotte ranked 11th largest in passengers in 2009, with 34 million.

The number of holiday flyers this Thanksgiving is expected to jump 3.5 percent over last year, AAA says, to 1.6 million people nationwide.

Munich resident Manfred Schmitt, on a layover on the way to Florida, called the security measures appropriate if agents are trained carefully. Measures vary among European countries, he said - some don't make passengers doff their shoes - but body scanners are being tested in several.

"We take it a little more calmly," he said.

Eight out of 10 calls to the American Civil Liberties Union's Raleigh office in the past two weeks have been from people who are "absolutely furious about these new measures and really believe these go too far," said Executive Director Jennifer Rudinger.

The approach of holiday travel is focusing the flying public's attention on the issue, Rudinger said. The ACLU's national office is compiling complaints but has not filed legal action.

"It's putting people in a really awful position of going through this virtual strip search or this groping, and it's not at all clear that this is keeping us safer," she said.

'Just not fun'

Former Mecklenburg County commissioner Lloyd Scher, who has two artificial knees, said he's taken to stripping down to only shorts and socks before being screened. At New York's JFK Airport in June, he said, a TSA agent probed his bare underarms when his metal joints made the scanner beep.

Scher, a liberal Democrat, sounds like Rush Limbaugh talking about government overstepping its bounds.

"We have the freedom to fly across this country without being searched, harassed, or asked where we're going," he said. "That's not a conservative or a liberal issue. To be manhandled when you're half-naked is just not fun."

Fort Mill resident Stacie Masterbone said she and her husband, both diabetics, have to get pat-downs because their insulin pumps can't go through X-ray machines.

"It holds up the line, and people are looking at you kind of funny as to why you have to go through that," she said. "The issue is, I certainly wouldn't want to be on a flight where a guy sets himself on fire or something."