Video: Europeans take pat-down screenings in stride

  1. Transcript of: Europeans take pat-down screenings in stride

    BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: The close calls we've had with terrorism in recent months haven't started in airports here at home, but in Europe. NBC 's Jim Maceda is at London Heathrow tonight with the latest on how they have been handling security over there. Jim , good evening.

    JIM MACEDA reporting: Hi, Brian . Well, security checks and pat-downs have also put a strain on passengers' patience overseas, but so far, at least, they're mostly taking it in stride. Across Europe security at major airports for US bound flights has become time consuming and personal.

    Unidentified Man: Americans are paranoid about security. Simple as that.

    MACEDA: Even Heathrow Airport officials admit that when it comes to removing shoes and laptops before scanning, there's overkill in the system.

    Mr. COLIN MATTHEWS (British Airports Authority CEO): I think we could do a better job for passengers, make it more comfortable for them.

    MACEDA: But there's no rethinking this: Richard Reid , the shoe bomber, and the so-called underwear bomber, Umar Abdulmutallab , were both on US planes that departed from Europe.

    Mr. SIMON CALDER ("The Independent" Senior Travel Editor): I think in Europe we have now reluctantly accepted the fact that when you buy an airline ticket, you agree to surrender your dignity.

    MACEDA: Since the Christmas day attack, what was unheard of before, full body scanners and hands-on searches, not nearly as uncomfortable as stateside, are now more visible, with varying degrees of acceptance. After a three month trial period, Paris airport authorities dropped all use of full body scanners, calling them too invasive. Instead, passengers to the US and other high risk countries undergo obligatory pat-downs with few complaints. Great Britain and Germany now use a handful of body scanners between them. Pat-downs are random, or occur if scanners or profilers pick up something suspicious. Opinions generally are mixed, but there's been little outcry.

    Unidentified Woman: I don't, as a rule, mind being searched and all that, as long as they're polite.

    MACEDA: And Amsterdam Schiphol Airport has avoided any controversy. Its scanners use radio waves to detect explosives, even liquids, without an actual image of the passenger's body. Other European airports are looking at similar technology. But security experts say the biggest difference is attitude, Brian . Europeans, they say, are less likely to question an intrusion on personal freedom if there's a greater good, like stopping a terrorist attack. Brian :

    WILLIAMS: All right, Jim Maceda with the view from overseas tonight. Jim , thanks.

NBC News and
updated 11/22/2010 8:10:20 PM ET 2010-11-23T01:10:20

While U.S. air travelers struggle with strict new security checks, screening is generally less up close and personal at airports in other parts of the world, where preflight intelligence is emphasized. That puts the priority on identifying sophisticated threats in advance so that procedures many people consider personally invasive aren't the crucial last line of defense.

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Security is almost universally considered most effective at Ben-Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv, Israel. No plane operating from there has been successfully attacked since 1972, when 24 people were killed in a hijacking by a terrorist group calling itself the Japanese Red Army.

The state airline, El Al, which coordinates security at Israel's airports, is unapologetic about its use of passenger profiling — making judgments about a passenger's likelihood of posing a threat based on his or her background, behavior and associations.

Passengers can be questioned on arrival at the airport entrance and again at the terminal entrance. And all passengers are questioned individually once they're inside the terminal by security agents looking for abnormal behavior or any other reason to be suspicious.

Profiling is widely considered unacceptable in the United States, where the Transportation Security Administration’s newly tightened security system relies on high-tech full body scanners and aggressive pat-downs. But to El Al, subjecting every passenger to a scan or a body search is more economical and just as effective, said Isaac Yeffet, former security director of the airline, who helped design the profiling system.

"We don't need to spend one dollar to buy body scanners," said Yeffet, adding in an interview on msnbc TV that Muslim passengers would never accept the explicit imagery generated by the scanners.

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"This is not the security that we want," Yeffet said. "... Why do we have to drive them nuts with this kind of body scanner?"

Unless profile questions flag someone as suspicious, the most intimate interaction a passenger will have at an Israeli airport is a final walk through a standard metal detector.

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Many European and Asian airports have yet to embrace the highly sophisticated scanners now being deployed at U.S. airports or force most passengers to be hand-searched, preferring to pre-screen passengers through computer records and check them with standard X-ray machines, metal detectors or metal-detecting wands.

While some passengers are scanned or face a pat-down at European airports — notably at Heathrow in London and Schiphol in Amsterdam — neither option is widespread in other countries. (And in some parts of the Middle East, hand searches can be more thorough than the new U.S.-style "enhanced resolution pat-down," depending on the circumstances.)

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The European Commission requires that each airport use metal detectors, but beyond that, it leaves protocols up to each nation, which means inspection systems vary. Few of them use full-body scanners, which authorities have not widely adopted because "the privacy and health of passengers must be protected" and "scanning alone cannot stop terrorism," the European Parliament's Transport Committee said in a statement.

European security officials pointed to a test of the body scanners earlier this year at Roissy-Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, which concluded that scanners "are not a mature technology for now."

Martin Broughton, chairman of British Airways , said recently that European authorities should resist pressure from Washington to adopt U.S.-style measures, saying they should not have to "kowtow to the Americans every time they want something done."

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A small sector of the U.S. traveling public is prominently agreeing with Broughton, urging fliers to gum up the works on Wednesday — which, as the day before Thanksgiving, is one of the busiest travel days of the year — to protest the new regulations.

But TSA Administrator John Pistole has steadfastly defended the U.S. measures as key in the government's efforts to keep terrorists at bay.

"I would hate to think what happens if the government caves in on this and relaxes these procedures and someone manages to get on board a plane and causes harm," Pistole said Monday in an interview on NBC's "TODAY" show. "Imagine what you will be asked."

And Pistole draws support from many experts on airport security.

Gil Alba, a former New York police detective who worked on the FBI's major crime task force, said the full-body scanners are needed because they are the most effective last line of defense at the gate. And eventually, he said, they will cease to be an issue.

"In a year or so, people are going to get used to this," Alba said in an interview on CNBC.

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