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You vs. TSA: How to Choose Between Body Scanners and Pat-Downs

Sarah's Travel Tips
by , SmarterTravel Staff
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Editor's Note: This story was originally published on April 13, 2011. To see the most recent SmarterTravel articles on related topics, please click on any of the following links: airfare, airport, Sarah's Travel Tips, Sarah Pascarella, security.

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To go through the security scanner or get a pat-down? Many travelers grapple with this question each time they go to the airport. I know many of you are skittish about the body scanners found at airports around the world, yet the alternative of pat-downs also may hold little appeal.

How do you determine which option works better for you? Unfortunately, there are no hard and fast rules, says Chris Calabrese, legislative counsel, ACLU: "If you can't bear the thought of someone seeing a naked photo of you, avoid the scanner. If you don't want to be touched, the scanner is a better option over a pat-down. It's a choice between two not-great options, and each person will have to decide which is better based on their own preferences."

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The best advice, then, is to stay abreast of the latest news, know your options, and be pro-active (even when you're not traveling) to get informed and make the best decision for you. Here's what you need to know when you get to the security line.

Before You Go

First, familiarize yourself with the scanner process, both from safety and privacy viewpoints. A new study at the University of California, San Francisco, determined that the scanner radiation risk is trivial. The report goes in-depth regarding fears about radiation exposure, cancer risks, and other health concerns. You'll also want to understand, as well, any privacy issues that have come up in the past (particularly regarding photograph storage).

If you're wholly opposed to the scanners, you can check in advance to see if your preferred airport has them. If they do, you could try to re-route your trip to utilize an airport where the technology is not yet in place. Currently, "image technology screens are at 78 airports out of 450," says TSA spokesperson Sarah Horowitz. "For passengers who are not traveling out of one of those airports, or even [if they are], the technology is not at every lane in those airports." You can find a full list of airports with the scanner technology on the TSA website.

Additionally, know what the pat-down will entail. While Horowitz wouldn't outline the process with me for "security reasons," the ACLU website says travelers can expect a TSA official will examine your head, around your collar and waistband, and "may use the front or back of his or her hands to feel your body, including buttocks, around breasts, and between the legs, feeling up to the top of the thigh." Those with tight or restrictive clothing may be asked to remove said clothing in a private screening area. The TSA official who inspects you, both in public and private screenings, will always be of the same gender.

If You Scan

You've arrived at the airport, checked in for your flight, and gotten in line at security. If you've decided to go through the scanner and avoid a pat-down, take a minute to take off any potentially problematic items.

"Remove all items from pockets and certain accessories that would set off a metal detector," says Horowitz. "Wallets, belts, jewelry, money, keys—removing those items will reduce the need for additional screening." Have these items go through the baggage belt with your luggage while you go through the scanner.

All travelers refusing the scanner or a metal detector will automatically receive a pat-down. However, if you opt for the scanner and an "anomaly" is detected, you will receive both.

If You Get a Pat-Down

If you do choose a pat-down, you're not entirely without options. Before the pat-down procedure, you can:

  • Request a private screening area
  • Ask for a family member or friend to accompany you
  • Notify the TSA agent about any special needs (e.g., medical devices) or religious concerns (e.g., head coverings, etc.)

Ideally, a pat-down procedure should take between two and four minutes, says Horowitz. Given the pace of airport infrastructure, however, it's always a good rule of thumb to budget a little extra time if you're going to choose a pat-down in the security line.

Post-Trip Action

If you had an unpleasant experience, or if the current security procedures just don't sit well with you, get involved even when you don't have a trip planned. "If you want real change, the best thing to do is to call your congressman," says Calabrese. "Say there has to be an alternative to either the naked pictures from the scanner or getting groped with a pat-down."

Besides contacting your representative, you can also file a civil rights complaint directly with the Department of Homeland Security, as well as with the ACLU.

"As travelers, you shouldn't have to check your dignity at the security gate," Calabrese continues. "We shouldn't have to choose between two undesirable options, which unfortunately are the only options for travelers nowadays."

Your Turn

What have your experiences been at the security line? Are you a fan of the scanners? How would you improve airport security? Tell us your opinions by leaving a comment below!

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