Flight attendants exempt from invasive TSA body scans

Airplane crew members will not need to submit to the TSA's new full-body scans or 'enhanced' pat-downs.

Paul Beaty / AP
A TSA agent pats down an air traveler at Chicago O'Hare International Airport, Nov. 22. New procedures at 69 U.S. airports require air passengers to pass through full-body scanners that produce a virtually naked image or else undergo 'enhanced pat-downs.' For weeks, airplane crew had to follow the same procedures, but as of Nov. 17, flight attendants and pilots can revert to the previous screening, with metal detectors and back-of-the-hand pat-downs.

As airports brace for the busiest days of the year, two groups won’t be holding up the security lines: pilots and flight attendants.

Media outlets, including the Monitor, widely reported the pilots’ deal last week, but fewer have noted that flight attendants will receive the same treatment. Security officials acknowledged in a deal brokered Nov. 19 between unions and the TSA that the people who have unfettered access to the cockpit do not need to undergo invasive screening procedures as part of their daily commute.

“It just doesn’t make sense we spend our resources doing this intensive security check on workers who are in a safety-sensitive position and who have been screened before they are allowed to get the job," says Patricia Friend, president of the Association of Flight Attendants – CWA, which represents more than 50,000 flight attendants at 22 airlines. Many passengers don’t realize how much cockpit access flight attendants have, she adds. “When a pilot steps out of the cockpit, a flight attendant must be in the cockpit.”

Passengers have also complained loudly about the invasive scans, which render a naked image, and the “enhanced pat-downs,” which require whole-hand rubbing against all parts of the body. Most passengers fly infrequently, however, making checkpoint screenings a rare indignity.

For those who go through checkpoints daily, the risks – and indignities – are larger. Pilots’ unions, concerned about the disproportionately high exposure to the scans’ radiation, urged their members not to walk through the Advanced Imaging Technology scanners, pointing out that there are no long-term studies looking at cumulative effects on pregnant women, those with compromised immune systems, and others.

Pilots and flight attendants in uniform are still subject to security, but as of Friday, they get what everyone got until last month: a walk through a metal detector and, if that gets triggered, a quick secondary screening. The metal-detecting wands are gone for good, but the secondary scan for airplane crew will be the back-of-the-hands pat-down that passengers remember from before the new protocols went into place on Nov. 1.

In order to become a flight attendant, a man or woman – and it’s usually a woman, in this industry with more than five women on the job for each man – must be fingerprinted and receive a detailed 10-year background check.

When it comes to security, one difference remains between pilots and flight attendants. The TSA has now agreed that pilots will get the biometric ID cards, which will let them pass through security even quicker, that Congress demanded two years ago for all flight crew. But TSA hasn’t mentioned when flight attendants should expect theirs.

“We will continue to push that the congressional legislation will be implemented by TSA,” says Ms. Friend, “and that flight attendants in uniform and pilots will be afforded a biometric identification system so they can come and go in the workplace without undergoing extraordinary scrutiny.”

RELATED: Flying this week? Here's a list of protections you can demand.

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