Holiday travelers might experience something new in the airport security screening drill: a pat-down that checks places usually off-limits to strangers.
After discovering a plot by terrorists to blow up cargo planes last month, the Transportation Security Administration introduced a more intrusive type of pat-down to search passengers for weapons and explosives.
Travelers are pulled aside for pat-downs if they set off metal detectors or if full body scanners detect something suspicious under their clothes. TSA officers also pat down passengers who refuse to enter a body scanner, like those used at Tampa International Airport.
The new hand searches, instituted nationwide in late October, often include touching genitals or breasts through clothes to check for hidden explosives.
Officers of the same sex as the passenger use palms and fingers to search, say aviation security consultants. They previously swept travelers' bodies with the back of their hands only.
"Pat-downs have long been one of many security measures TSA and virtually every other nation has used . . . to help detect hidden and dangerous items such as explosives like the one we saw in the failed terrorist attack last Christmas,'' says the TSA's blog.
"There's nothing punitive about it — it just makes good security sense.''
The "enhanced'' pat-downs ignited criticism from pilots and flight attendants, civil liberties groups and travelers convinced airport screening is overly intrusive.
On Tuesday, most passengers interviewed by the Times at Tampa International Airport shrugged off the new procedure as just the latest necessary hassle of air travel.
"I don't see what the big deal is,'' said Dean Heer as he waited to fly home to Albany, N.Y., after a short stay at his house in Spring Hill. "The (body) scan isn't going to bother me. Safety's first, as far as I'm concerned.''
Lisa Rawson of Bakersfield, Calif., was surprised watching the pat-downs four days ago at Los Angeles International Airport. "It was an extensive search, all the stuff,'' she said. Rawson said the procedure was necessary, then thought about her 10-year-old daughter, Raven.
"I wouldn't want to see them touching my child,'' she said. Children 12 and under receive a "modified'' pat-down with a parent present, said TSA spokeswoman Sari Koshetz.
Opponents who oppose the TSA's airport body scanners as too revealing — "a digital strip search,'' said one privacy rights group — are rallying against the new hand searches. Consumer activist Ralph Nader calls the TSA screening procedures "extremely voyeuristic and intrusive.''
A suburban Washington, D.C., man is urging air travelers to refuse body scans that produce an image of what's underneath their clothes. Brian Sodergren is organizing a National Opt Out Day for the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, one of the year's busiest travel days.
It's not clear where that would leave travelers who protest. If they refuse both a body scan and a pat-down, they will not be allowed to fly, according to the TSA.
The movement found a hero last weekend in John Tyner, a 31-year-old software programmer from San Diego. As he prepared to board a flight to South Dakota, Tyner opted not to get a body scan. A TSA officer told him that meant he would undergo a pat-down with multiple groin checks.
In the encounter captured on a cell phone video, the officer described how he would slide his hand up and down Tyner's inner thigh and offered a private screening.
"We could do that out here, but if you touch my junk I'm going to have you arrested,'' Tyner says on the video that went viral on the Internet. He was kicked out of the airport and threatened with a $10,000 fine.
Such aggressive pat-downs are standard practice in the United Kingdom and Europe, says Douglas R. Laird, former security director for Northwest Airlines and now an aviation consultant.
"You need to search the groin and the area around a woman's breast because you can hide something there,'' he says. But Laird thinks the TSA blundered by not promoting the need for the new procedure before launching it.
Information from the Washington Post and Postmedia News was used in this report. Steve Huettel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8128.