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calculator errorJust when you thought it was safe to stop worrying about the TSA’s new full body scanners, our favorite PR-challenged government agency now finds itself in the midst of another controversy. Turns out that a variety of mistakes were made when the full body scanners were tested for radiation, including basic mathematical errors such as failing to divide by 10. (And here I thought it was just wordsmith types like me that found math hard!)

The errors made it appear that some machines were giving off 10 times as much radiation as they actually were … and that wasn’t the only problem with the reports. Other anomalies noted by the TSA included missing data and inconsistent responses to survey questions. (The tests were carried out by the machines’ manufacturers and third-party maintenance providers, not by the TSA itself.)

The good news, according to the TSA’s blog (which features several posts on the issue), is that the errors did not affect the safety of the machines — and that even the falsely inflated radiation levels were well within safe operating parameters. But as a precaution, the TSA is having all of its full body scanners retested and will post the results on its Web site, www.TSA.gov.

To learn more about the machines, see From Pat-Downs to Full Body Scanners: The TSA Firestorm.

While I’m glad the TSA will be making future reports publicly available, I can’t help seeing this as yet another black eye for an agency that’s repeatedly proven difficult for travelers to trust. Can we really rely on other data about the safety of the full body scanners, given the problems with these reports? Is the agency a victim of bad press, or is it really as inept as it appears?

Weigh in with your opinion below!

— written by Sarah Schlichter

airport A worried mom recently e-mailed me about her son navigating an airport for the first time. Her 25-year-old had never flown, and the mom hit me with a flurry of questions: Does my son need to put his inhaler in a quart-size bag? Will his eyebrow piercings or steel-toed boots set off the metal detector? Is any special assistance available for first-time fliers at airports?

First, let’s get the answers to these questions out of the way. Because they are a medical necessity, inhalers are not required to be inside quart-size bags and may be larger than three ounces. Security will ask passengers to remove all jewelry and metal objects, including piercings, before stepping through the metal detector. Steel-toed boots are fine, as they’ll have to be taken off and put through the X-ray scanner anyway. And there is no special assistance available in airports for first-time fliers over the age of 18.

Get More Information About Airport Security Rules

I solved this worried mom’s simple queries. Nevertheless, I could detect an even bigger, hairier issue lurking beneath her questions that needed to be addressed. The mother closed her e-mail by saying, “I’m a little insecure and concerned since I’ve heard so many horror stories about good people having problems [in the airport].”

Aha! Here’s the real issue. Considering all the crazy stories that have been in the news this past year regarding airport security, from disturbingly up-close-and-personal pat-downs to pilots protesting new TSA changes, it’s no surprise that a doting mother is concerned about her son braving an airport for the first time. I added a final note of advice to the anxious parent:

“The horror stories you hear in the news about airport security are unusual — that’s partly why those stories make the news. If your son needs help or is confused in the security line, he should explain to a security officer that this is his first time flying and ask for help. Most airport security agents are nice, friendly people. There’s no reason to be alarmed.”

Every traveler has had to face his or her first flight at some point, navigating complex airport terminals, and bumbling through confusing and ever-changing TSA procedures while intimidating security guards keep watch. So help Mom out. Share your knowledge and tell us: What’s the one thing you wish someone had told you before you ventured into an airport for the first time?

— written by Caroline Costello

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