Dealing with TSA Airport Security Pat Down Search Procedures

I’m sure you’ve heard of the new, tougher airport security measures that have been instituted at several major airports.  You’ve probably heard how selected passengers must submit to a scan that generates peoples’ images that have been described as bluish-gray and half-naked (imagine a character from Avatar).  It’s either that or the now-notorious TSA pat downs that involve exhaustive bodily contact.

So travelers have a choice of feeling somewhat violated either visually or tangibly.  Whatever your preference, here are a few tips on how to deal with the new TSA security scan and pat down procedures this holiday travel season:

Understand the Limitations of the Scanning Procedures: You should be aware that not all passengers will have to go through the imaging scan; an estimated 10-20% of the passengers for a given flight are selected at random.  There is simply not enough time for all passengers to be scanned, although the scan only takes a few seconds to complete.  If you are not called for a scan you will most likely not need a pat down either.

Also, not all airports have installed the machines- there are currently 385 scanners in operation at different locations (click here for a list of some airports where they are located).

There have been concerns about the scanned images being abused by airline attendants, since the scans basically recreate an image of a naked body.  However, TSA states that the images are not allowed to be stored or transferred in any way, and must be discarded once the scan has served its purpose.  Finally, the airline employee in charge of viewing the scan will not be able to see the passenger at the same time, so there is no way to know who exactly it is they are viewing.  Hopefully these details will help you arrive at the airport a bit more prepared for the scanning portion of the new security measures.

Understand How the “Opt-Out” Pat-Down Procedure Works: Passengers who are selected for the bodily scan may request to refuse the scan, or to “opt-out” of the scanning process.  In lieu of the scan they will be required to undergo a pat-down search by one of the airline staff.  It is this airport security pat down process that has become a concern for the flocks flying south and elsewhere for the holidays.

For starters, the pat down will last anywhere from 2-4 minutes, much longer than a standard metal detector scan or traditional pat down.  During these long, awkward minutes, the airline attendee may search any area where a bomb might be lurking: armpits, underneath bras, in the groin area, even underneath fat folds (you may want to hold off on the candied yams and extra eggnog this year).  Also, if you set off the metal detector, you might be subjected to the pat down search even if you were not selected for the initial scan.  Be aware that the search will likely occur in front of other passengers.

TSA’s justification for such an intimate experience is that they are not just looking for hand-held weapons, but for bombs and explosives, and so they need to be very thorough.  TSA has enforced a few particulars in attempts to make the security search less harrowing.  The search can only be conducted by an employee of the same gender as the passenger, and any touching must take place on the outside of the clothing.  There are modified pat down procedures for children.

Still, even with these measures in place, I think I’d be more self-conscious with the pat-down than with the scan.  The scan is also much quicker.  I guess I’m just not much of a touchy-feely type of person.

How to Report a Complaint: If any of the protective measures have been violated, you should report this to one of the employee’s supervisors.  Make sure you do so in a way that is courteous and respectful of other passengers’ time (although a complaint may take up your own time).  Obviously, you don’t want to raise a scene and flip out at the airport.

Trying to argue with the person who conducted the pat down will get you nowhere.

And be advised that if you are selected for the screening, you must choose either the scan or the airport security pat down.  Consequences of non-compliance include ejection from the airport, or a government fine of up to $11,000 if you refuse both.  Remember that the point of the security is to increase airline security, not to raise a ruckus.

Plan Ahead of Time: Many people don’t know that some terminals and screening areas move more quickly than others.  You may want to inquire with an attendant to see if there are less crowded areas for security checks.  Many airlines provide additional information at their respective websites, so do your research ahead of time.

If you have a pre-existing medical condition that might cause a delay, such as an implant or an external medical device, be sure to inform the security workers before they make contact with you.  There are several TSA horror stories and rumors circulating on the net about security personnel failing to recognize these issues, including a story involving a bag of bodily fluids.


In spite of all the chaos surrounding this new chapter in airline culture, you shouldn’t let the hype ruin your travel plans.  What’s more, you shouldn’t ruin other people’s much needed vacations, either.  Educate yourself and share the holiday cheer.  The better informed you are, the less you will be groping in the dark.

4 Responses to “Dealing with TSA Airport Security Pat Down Search Procedures”

  1. 1 Greg

    “And be advised that if you are selected for the screening, you must choose either the scan or the airport security pat down. Consequences of non-compliance include ejection from the airport, or a government fine of up to $11,000 if you refuse both.”

    This condition makes the pat-down procedure a direct violation of US Code Title 18 Sections 2242, 2244, and especially 2246. To not give consent to be touched in the genitalia and then to be threatened with severe coercion unless one agrees (an $11,000 “fine” qualifies as severe coercion) is what makes this actionable.

  2. 2 Billy Tolliver

    I don’t think no matter how much a person researches on the subject of the scanning, or the pat-down will truely prepare them for the touching or nude photography. Maybe the randomness of the selection for the scanning is a bit predjudice. I also think if thats what needs to be done to protect our country then it needs to be done.

  3. 3 Jay

    I think one aspect of airline security is that flying is not really a “basic necessity” compared to other things such as food and clothing, etc. Maybe this is why the government’s interest in protecting national security tends to overshadow privacy concerns in this area, although if there has been a violation of constitutional rights, then I agree that it should be brought to attention.

  4. 4 somejerk

    you keep calling it ‘airline attendant’ except the tsa is a government agency, nothing to do with the airlines.

    you dont see airline flight attendants wearing airline uniforms with federal powers do you? no. you do not. these arent airline employees. these are sick thugs.

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