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Put away that fig leaf underwear! The TSA announced yesterday that it has begun testing new software to make its controversial full body scanners less revealing.

The scanners, which use Advanced Imaging Technology to show a clear, X-ray-style view of travelers’ bodies, sparked concerns about privacy when they were rolled out in airports across the U.S. last year. The new software that the TSA is testing would eliminate passenger-specific images and instead show potential threats on a generic gray outline of a human body. Travelers flagged with potential threats would be subject to additional screening in the form of a pat-down. If no threats are detected, the machine will display an “OK” message.

The software will be tested at airports in Las Vegas, Atlanta and Washington D.C., according to the TSA’s press release.

With this new software, the TSA clearly hopes to address concerns about passenger privacy — but questions remain about the safety and efficacy of the full body scanners. (The TSA maintains that the level of radiation used in the scanners is too low to be harmful.) And the hugely unpopular enhanced pat-downs remain in place.

Will this change to the full body scanners make you feel more comfortable about flying?

— written by Sarah Schlichter

tsa disability notification card airport security“I have two titanium plates in my foot. How can I ease the process of going through security?” wondered an IndependentTraveler.com reader in a recent e-mail. These days, she’s not the only traveler who’s concerned. Since the highly publicized incident in which a bladder cancer survivor’s urostomy bag was ruptured during a TSA pat-down, leaving him covered in his own urine, travelers with various medical conditions have been worrying about how they can prevent their own nightmarish encounters at airport security.

The TSA has come up with one idea that should help (or so we hope!): new disability notification cards (PDF) that travelers can print, fill out and bring with them to the security checkpoint. The cards have a space to enter information about any relevant health conditions or medical devices, though they also include the following caveat: “Presenting this card does not exempt you from screening.”

I’ve long advised travelers with disabilities or medical devices to bring a doctor’s note (preferably on letterhead) explaining their condition — so I’m glad that the TSA has now introduced an official and discreet way for travelers to educate and inform security screeners. But will this truly put an end to the health-related horror stories we’ve been hearing for the past few months? We’ll have to wait and see.

— written by Sarah Schlichter

tel aviv ben gurion international airport terminalIn all the hoopla that’s been raised in the past few weeks about airport security, amidst the calls to opt out and “don’t touch my junk,” one question has persistently emerged: Isn’t there a better way?

Many experts — not to mention a few of our own readers — think there is. Rafi Ron, a former director of security at Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv, tells Newsweek that Israel’s security procedures are more effective than those in the U.S. because they focus more on people than on technology. Rather than relying so heavily on screening every single passenger with machines such as the new full body scanners, Ron recommends that airport security officers look for human behaviors that raise red flags — such as paying cash for a ticket, only flying one way or otherwise acting suspiciously.

Several readers who responded to our recent airport security poll agreed that the U.S. should look to Israel for an example of effective screening procedures. Writes member LSKahn, “[Israeli security officers] interview everyone standing in line for check-in and select [some] for further interviews. That works. When is the last time there was a problem on an Israeli plane?”

But critics have raised objections to the idea, citing the high cost of deploying such labor-intensive procedures at hundreds of airports across the United States and questioning whether this type of screening would lead to racial and religious profiling — and potential civil rights violations. Check out the video below from “The Joy Behar Show,” which features a debate about profiling at U.S. airports:

What do you think — would Israeli airport security strategies work in the U.S.?

–written by Sarah Schlichter

tsa scanner imageEver since the TSA introduced its new enhanced pat-downs and full-body scanners we’ve received heaps of e-mails from concerned, confused and angry travelers in response to the changes. Some people just want to vent. (And really, we don’t blame them.) Others flooded us with practical questions about the new state of airport security; a selection of the most common inquires is posted below. While one or two of these questions may seem silly to some readers, keep in mind that half-truths and misinformation proliferate on the Web, and the TSA isn’t exactly known for its stellar public relations. When it comes to enhanced pat-downs and full body scanners, here’s the naked truth:

Q: Just how personal do these security people get?

A: If you opt out of the full body screening, then you will be subject to an “enhanced” pat-down that includes a manual examination conducted by a same-gender officer. Screeners may use the front of their hands to touch any part of your body, including private parts. The screener should announce what he or she is going to do before any action takes place. You may choose to have a traveling companion present during the screening, and you may request a private screening if this makes you more comfortable. The alternative to this is the full body screening.

Q: Can I ask the TSA officer who will be performing my enhanced pat-down if he or she is gay?

A: You are not entitled to information about any TSA officer’s sexual orientation. If you do not wish to be touched, you’re better off going through the full body scanner.

Q: I have a prosthesis, a hip replacement or another kind of medical implant. Will this cause problems when I go through airport security? What should I do?

A: The TSA recommends that travelers bring a medical ID card from their doctors to show to the security officer before stepping into the scanner (this is not a requirement). It’s also recommended that you inform the TSA officer of your medical device. However, be prepared for a pat-down just in case. Remember, you’re entitled to a private screening from a same-gender security officer.

Q: Will everyone know about my breast implants when I go through the new full body scanners?

A: Even if your implants show up on the scanner, no one will see the image of your body except the security officer viewing the readouts from the machine. This officer will be in a booth separate from the screening area. If you are chosen for a pat-down, you have a right to request that it be done in private so other passengers will not be able to watch as it happens.

Q: Are Muslim women subject to full body scans and pat-downs?

A: The rumor that Muslim women are permitted to opt out of both body scans and pat-downs is simply not true. All travelers are subject to full body scans and/or pat-downs at the airports where these security measures are in effect. (Some airports do not have the full body scanners yet.) Travelers who choose to opt out of the full body scan will be subject to a pat-down.

For more information, see Airport Security Q&A and Passenger Rights.

— written by Caroline Costello and Sarah Schlichter

airport line crowd crowded air travelAre you flying tomorrow for Thanksgiving? Brace yourself. Standing between you and your turkey dinner at Grandma’s could be a perfect storm of long lines and ticked-off travelers at the airport.

The Wednesday before Thanksgiving has always been one of the year’s busiest travel days (to give you an idea, Boston’s Logan Airport is expecting 100,000 fliers tomorrow — about 30,000 more than normal). But this year, the combination of the TSA’s new security procedures and a traveler-led protest of those procedures could make the usual long holiday lines even worse.

Virginia resident Brian Sodergren created National Opt-Out Day to urge fliers to opt out of the TSA’s new full body scanners and go through a more time-consuming pat-down instead. He encourages fliers to be patted down in public because “Every citizen must see for themselves how the TSA treats law-abiding citizens.”

Frankly, considering that videos of the pat-downs have been splashed all over the media already for the last few weeks, I can’t imagine that the protest is going to raise too much awareness — or do much beyond irritating travelers who simply want to catch their flight and get home for Thanksgiving.

There’s no way to know how many travelers will take part in National Opt-Out Day until it happens, but here are some tips for getting through the airport as swiftly and smoothly as possible tomorrow:

Allow plenty of time. I generally recommend arriving two hours early for a non-peak domestic flight (longer for an international one). Tomorrow I’d allow three or four hours, just in case.

Know what to expect. The new scanners haven’t made it to every security line in every U.S. airport yet, so you may go through the same old metal detector that you’re already used to. But you’ll want to read up on the pat-downs and full body scanners as well so that you’re familiar with all of your options. The TSA offers a list of airports that have the new scanners (though there have been rumors that the list is not 100 percent accurate).

Be polite. Arguing with or abusing the security officers at the checkpoint is not only a great way to slow down your screening but also an unfair way to treat people who are simply carrying out policies they had no hand in creating. Many of them don’t like the TSA’s new procedures any more than you do. Consider a little Thanksgiving kindness to help get all of us through a potentially very rough day.

–written by Sarah Schlichter

airport security In light of the recent controversy surrounding the TSA’s new airport security procedures — you know, those revealing full-body scanners and extra-thorough pat-downs — we wanted to find out what you, our readers, really think about all the hoopla. Shockingly, a whopping 34 percent of readers polled said “Both the scanners and the pat-downs are outrageous; I would rather not fly.”

This is according to a poll posted on our travel message boards, which is still open for votes. (Haven’t weighed in yet? Share your opinion!) The second most popular poll choice, currently at 32 percent, is “I hate both the scanners and the pat-downs, but I will choose one in order to travel.” Eighteen percent of voters don’t have any problem with the new procedures.

Whew! We’re glad to know that most people will continue flying despite recent — and unpopular — airport security changes. Still, the number of voters who have declared an end to their air-traveling days is unsettling. Almost every other continent can only be reached by air or sea (fun fact: it is possible to drive from North America to South America, taking a bridge over the Panama Canal) and a cruise ship will only get you so far. For those of us who want to see the world, air travel is pretty much indispensable.

What do you say? Are you seriously considering taking the scissors to your frequent flier card?

For more information on the controversy, check out From Pat-Downs to Full Body Scanners: The TSA Firestorm, which offers a hard, factual look at the new security changes.

— written by Caroline Costello

A few weeks after ExpressJet pilot Michael Roberts made waves at the airport security checkpoint by refusing both a full body scan and an enhanced pat-down, the TSA once again finds itself embroiled in controversy.

This time it was a California man, John Tyner, who came up against the TSA’s new security procedures. Tyner was selected to go through a full body scan at the San Diego airport; because he refused, he was taken aside for a pat-down. When the screener described the pat-down procedure, which was to include a manual exploration of Tyner’s hips, thighs and groin, Tyner responded, “If you touch my junk, I’ll have you arrested” — prompting the screening officer to call for a supervisor. In the end, Tyner was not permitted to fly, and he could face a fine and/or a civil lawsuit from the TSA for failing to complete the full security check before leaving the screening area.

Here’s a report (with video from Tyner’s cell phone) from CNN:

To read Tyner’s account and watch the unedited video of the incident, check out his blog.

Meanwhile, another pilot has joined Michael Roberts in standing up against the new security procedures. Continental pilot Ann Poe, who has an artificial hip that has necessitated additional screening in the past, declined to go through the full body scanner on November 4 due to concerns about radiation and the violation of medical privacy laws. She also objected to the enhanced pat-down, which she describes as “being sexually molested.” She was detained for two hours and prevented from flying her scheduled route.

Poe and Roberts aren’t alone; several pilot unions have also spoken out against the full body scanners and enhanced pat-down procedures.

If you face a choice between a full body scan and a pat-down on your next flight, what will you choose? Do you think the new screening procedures are fair?

–written by Sarah Schlichter

passport boarding pass travelWe’ve all heard the stories of 2-year-olds and little old ladies being hassled at airport security because they share a name with someone on the no-fly list. As of today, the TSA has taken steps toward greater security (and, hopefully, the freedom of flying toddlers everywhere) with the full institution of its new Secure Flight program.

If you’ve made a flight reservation in the last year or so, you’ve probably been prompted to provide your full name, birth date and gender at some point during the booking process. This isn’t your airline being nosy — it’s part of the phasing-in process for Secure Flight. All airlines, booking sites and travel agents must have this information on file in order to send it to the TSA before you fly; the TSA will then use it to check your identity against the government’s official no-fly list. If your identity is cleared, you’ll be issued a boarding pass. If not, you will be subject to further screening at the airport before you can fly.

What does all this mean for you? You must be sure that your airline, travel agent or booking site has the information above on file for you before your trip. If you’ve had issues with the no-fly list in the past, you can also request and supply a “redress number” from the TSA when booking.

The TSA emphasizes that the name on your reservation must match the name on the government-issued ID you plan to use — so if your driver’s license lists you as Margaret, forget about booking a flight as “Maggie.” If you’ve just gotten married or divorced but haven’t changed the name on your passport, book your flight under the last name that matches your ID. (The TSA notes that small differences, such as a middle initial versus a middle name, shouldn’t be enough to keep you from flying.)

It’s important to be aware that the Secure Flight screening process takes place before you ever arrive at the airport, and does not replace the in-person screening of your boarding pass and ID at the security checkpoint.

To learn more about how your next flight could be affected, check out TSA’s Secure Flight Program: What It Means for You.

–written by Sarah Schlichter

An ExpressJet pilot recently reported to work at Memphis International Airport and touched off what has turned into a firestorm of controversy.

tsa airport security scanner machine aitThe pilot, Michael Roberts, refused to go through one of the TSA’s new full body scanning machines, reports the Baltimore Sun. The machines, which are being introduced in select airports around the country, use advanced imaging technology to produce a rather revealing picture of a passenger’s naked body — and they’ve sparked debates about the importance of individual privacy versus safety in the air. The health risks of the machines, which emit low levels of radiation, have also been questioned. (The TSA claims the radiation is well within acceptable limits.)

Roberts — like all airline passengers — was permitted to opt out of the full body scan. However, he also refused his second option, a manual pat-down. “I’m not onboard with federal agents putting their hands on me every time I go to work,” he tells the Sun. Because he refused both the full body scan and the pat-down, he was denied access to the airport and sent home — and now his job may be in jeopardy. He is planning to file a lawsuit against the TSA.

Many travelers are celebrating Roberts’ protest as a heroic struggle for privacy and civil rights. But the TSA defends itself in a recent blog post (which coyly does not mention Roberts by name), stating that everyone — including flight crew and TSA agents — is subject to airport security, and that “security is not optional.”

While I’m hardly one to defend the TSA, I’m not so sure I agree with Roberts either; is a pat-down really that big a deal? But then again, I haven’t yet had to go through one of the new full body scans. Readers, what’s your take — do you think a pat-down is a reasonable alternative to the full body scan, or is Roberts justified in standing up to the TSA?

–written by Sarah Schlichter

airport security checkpoint screening tsa homeland securityBy now, most of us are accustomed to the tedious but familiar procedures of airport security: wait in mile-long line, take off shoes, pull out quart-size plastic bag of 3.4-ounce liquids and gels, place metal items in tray, step through scanner, fumble to put belongings back in order while shuffling around in untied shoes. But wouldn’t it be great if we could cut out a few of those steps?

Within a few years, maybe we can — thanks to a couple of up-and-coming security screening devices.

The Associated Press reports that a new bottled liquid scanner, now being tested in New Mexico by the Homeland Security Advanced Research Projects Agency, could be a more effective way for airport security screeners to identify liquid explosives. The scanner uses magnetic resonance to determine the molecular makeup of liquids, and is so sensitive that it can distinguish between red and white wine, says the AP. A machine this advanced could potentially make the TSA’s confusing liquid and gel restrictions obsolete, and allow air travelers to once again bring water bottles or full-size tubes of toothpaste through the security checkpoint.

While the new liquid scanner is probably still a few years away from being implemented in U.S. airports, another innovative security device, the MagShoe, has been used for several years at Tel Aviv’s Ben-Gurion International Airport and was recently tested at an unidentified airport in Western Europe. The MagShoe is one of several machines designed to scan travelers’ feet and ankles for metal without necessitating the removal of shoes.

The TSA has tested similar technologies in the past without success, but announced earlier this year that it would give the latest crop of shoe-scanning devices a try, reports USA Today. Unsurprisingly, the TSA notes that many travelers find removing their shoes to be the biggest hassle of the screening procedure.

Will the U.S. will eventually adopt any of these new technologies? We’ll keep you posted.

–written by Sarah Schlichter