Toolie Travel Blog

A million-mile flyer talks about the life of a business traveler.

Newsletter: Full-Body Scanning and TSA Security

No doubt you've seen the news, read the horror stories, and wondered about the new security procedures instigated by the Transportation Security Agency (TSA) recently. TSA began applying these procedures after my trip in September, so I have not yet experienced them. Having been "selected for additional screening" in locations around the world, the thought of being patted down on American soil makes me very uncomfortable. As business travelers, we're going to get more than our share of screening as it is, and now having more to endure, I wanted to get some facts pulled together for you.

What My "TSA Scanner" Research Found

Not having been through the procedure myself, I doubted the wisdom of delving into the subject in this newsletter but I decided to at least begin the discussion. So in preparation for writing this newsletter, I got onto the Central Link train and went down to the Seattle- Tacoma International Airport to see what was happening.

It had been a busy day, so by the time I got to the terminal, it was nearly 7 pm. Since I live on the West Coast that time of day is pretty quiet. I was able to stand within visual range of the scanners themselves to see, first of all, what they look like. When I came home, I did a search in Google Images for "TSA Scanner," and only found a small image on a television station website that looks like the ones used here.

There is apparently another version that looks like a Plexiglas phone booth, seen in this photo I found on CNN:

I looked at the scanners at two different checkpoints, and neither were using them at that hour. So I went over to a TSA employee and asked about them. The gentleman was very polite and helpful, but he began by rolling his eyes a bit at my question. No doubt he had been answering this question for all his friends too. Here is what I gleaned of the procedures at this point in time.

1. You're sent to the full-body scanner only if you set off the metal detector. At that point you may be sent to the full body scanner or just sent through the metal detector again.

2. You may be selected for additional screening at any time (he offered no further explanation).

3. You have the option to be patted down instead.

Light Me Up, Please

Personally, I'd go for the scanner. Why? Well here's what I learned about the scanners themselves; the radiation level used is for most people not a threat. There will always be exceptions to that, and your medical professional can advise you. I found this explanation of the radiation levels on

Now About Those Images...

My question is, "who is looking at me?" The director of the TSA, John Pistole, wrote a column on November 24th in USA Today, explaining the procedures and offering facts about the process from their point of view.

Here's what he had to say about the images themselves:

"All images generated by imaging technology are viewed in a walled-off location not visible to the public. The officer assisting the passenger never sees the image, and the officer viewing the image never interacts with the passenger. The imaging technology that we use cannot store, export, print, or transmit images."

Also, TSA has forbidden their employees from bringing into the viewing area anything that would allow them to capture the image separately from the scanner itself, such as a camera or cell phone, etc. Now you and I know that there will always be people who try to break that rule, but I'm guessing that there's a tremendous amount of pressure on these employees to obey. If they're caught breaking the rule, they get fired.

Implementation Issues

I was scheduled to get on a plane and fly to Las Vegas just 9 days after the events of September 11, 2001 -- just 4 days after planes started flying again. I had paid for my ticket and pre-paid for 3 days of training, so despite my concerns, I was determined to go! We were warned to get to the airport early, and it's a good thing I did. I stood in line for over an hour while private security personnel (remember, no TSA back then) tried to implement hastily ordered procedures with little or no training. It was a nightmare. I made my flight, but just barely.

Without all the facts in front of me, and without having spoken to the offended persons, I am suspecting that some of the horror stories come from similarly randomly applied procedures as this new phase of screening is put in place. That does not make the process any less invasive or offensive. It is my fondest hope that the implementation of pat-down procedures will stabilize, and that TSA will do a better job of seeing to it that their employees are judicious in their application of those procedures. It can't be easy to have the job of screening, no matter how you look at it. But it's also distressing to realize that we have to succumb to this level of screening to protect the flying public.

The Best Advice...

On my way back to the train to go home, I stopped to talk to a couple of airline employees (a man and a woman), and I asked them about the reactions people have had to the new procedures. They both immediately said that the news items had been blown out of proportion, and that "it really wasn't that bad." But the best piece of advice I heard anywhere came from the woman. She said very simply, "Don't beep. Don't do anything that might set off the metal detectors, and you'll most likely be fine." Well, as business travelers, that's where we have an advantage. We have "not beeping" down to a science!

Have you been through full-body screening or a pat-down? If so, share your story by commenting on this blog post below.
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