Pilots to be exempt from airport scanners, intrusive pat-downs

Airline pilots will no longer have to go through body scanners or be subject to body pat-downs, as do ticketed passengers. TSA is also testing scanners designed to be less intrusive.

A Transportation Security Administration (TSA) agent begins the pat down search of a passenger at Denver International Airport on Nov. 19. The TSA is testing X-ray scanners designed to be less intrusive of passengers' privacy.
Transportation Security Administration (TSA) chief John Pistole.

Faced with widespread resistance to what some passengers see as personally intrusive air travel security measures, US officials are looking for ways to ease the demands on those who fly on commercial airliners.

That starts with those flying the aircraft.

Beginning in 2011, airline pilots will no longer have to go through scanners or be subject to full-body pat-downs, just as ticketed passengers now do. Instead, they’ll simply need to have their airline-issued ID checked by computer.

“This one seemed to jump out as a common-sense issue,” Transportation Security Administration (TSA) chief John Pistole told Bloomberg News on Friday. “Why don’t we trust pilots who are literally in charge of the aircraft?”

That’s exactly the point commercial airline pilots have been making for years.

The Airline Pilots Association, International (ALPA), which represents nearly 53,000 pilots at 38 US and Canadian airlines, notes that its members “are trustworthy by definition of their employment and responsibilities.”

“They have been subjected to extensive FBI background checks and thousands are deputized as Federal Flight Deck Officers by the TSA who carry and are authorized to use lethal force while on duty to defend the cockpit from a terrorist threat,” ALPA said in a recent statement. “Screening airline pilots for the possession of threat objects does not enhance security because pilots have the safety of their passengers and aircraft in their hands on every flight.”

TSA's Mr. Pistole told Bloomberg the new security regime for airline pilots is being considered for flight attendants, as well.

But he’s also not backing down from the new security measures as they apply to passengers.

“Obviously we know the threats are real, so that’s what we are trying to deal with here, to keep it in context,” he said on ABC’s "Good Morning America" Friday. “The reason we are doing these types of pat-downs and using the advanced imagery technology is trying to take the latest intelligence and how we know Al Qaeda and affiliates want to hurt us, they want to bring down whether it is passenger aircraft or cargo aircraft.”

Still, TSA is testing new body scanners designed to be less personal. Instead of showing a traveler’s naked body, the image will be of a stick figure with anomalies – say, a cellphone in a pocket – highlighted. This is intended to speed up the process, as well as to be less intrusive. Those who refuse to be scanned would still be subjected to the full-body pat-down.

While news reports show many travelers objecting to the stricter security measures, most Americans apparently approve of the full-body airport scanners.

A CBS News poll this week has 81 percent of those surveyed agreeing that airports “should use full-body X-ray machines.” Fifteen percent disagreed.

Meanwhile, there’s still some concern about the effects of X-raying passengers and (for now, at least) flight crew members.

David Bates, president of the Allied Pilots Association representing the 9,600 pilots who fly for American Airlines, told members in an e-mail earlier this month that X-ray scanners “could be harmful to your health.” He noted that pilots already receive higher doses of radiation from flying.

But some experts say the relatively low level of exposure should not be a health concern.

“You would need 1,000 or 2,000 airport scans just to equal one dental X-ray,” Richard Morin, a professor in the radiology department at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Fla., told Bloomberg News. “You’re getting more radiation just sitting at your desk for 15 minutes than you would from one airport scan.”

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