Image: A TSA worker runs her hands over the head of a traveler during a patdown search at Denver International Airport, the day before Thanksgiving
RICK WILKING  /  Reuters
A TSA worker runs her hands over the head of a traveler during a pat-down search at Denver International Airport, the day before Thanksgiving.
By Christopher Elliott Travel columnist
msnbc.com contributor
updated 12/3/2010 12:16:55 PM ET 2010-12-03T17:16:55

The pre-Thanksgiving standoff between the Transportation Security Administration and some airline passengers over the federal agency’s new screening techniques has left many industry observers wondering: What’s next?

For now, the full-body scanners and enhanced pat-downs are here to stay, according to the TSA. But in the future, air travelers could see additional biometric screening or smarter body scanners — and possibly one day a return to pre-pat-down security protocols.

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Earlier this week, the U.S. Travel Association called for the creation of a "trusted traveler" program for airline passengers, which it says would result in more secure, efficient and effective screening. Under this system, passengers would be screened for security risks before arriving at the airport, reducing bottlenecks and diverting security resources to higher-risk passengers.

“The vast majority of the traveling public poses little threat to our nation’s security, yet the current approach subjects every passenger to the same security procedures,” said Roger Dow, president of the U.S. Travel Association. “A trusted traveler program would allow us to focus more security where it is most needed.”

The TSA has already conducted a pilot study for a trusted traveler program, said spokesman Greg Soule. But he said the agency plans to remain focused on the new scanners.

"Our goal is for our officers to use the best technology available, coupled with informed security measures to mitigate the threat," Soule said.

In congressional testimony last month, TSA Administrator John Pistole said the agency plans to deploy more advanced-imaging technology capable of scanning air travelers for nonmetallic devices. The agency has already deployed more than 400 machines and plans to have nearly 1,000 of them in airports by the end of 2011.

Video: Traveler strips to undies for airport search (on this page)

Pistole also said upgrades to the scanners would be respectful of passengers’ privacy.

"I’m also very interested in the next generation of advanced-imaging technology, which is the automated target recognition, which basically has a stick figure, or a blob, if you will — two options," he told senators at the hearing. "The scanners would detect an anomaly that would show up as a box on the scanner. And then the pat-down would just focus on that area."

Zero radiation technology
Besides privacy, one of the most common concerns about current advanced-imaging technology is radiation.

Millivision, a security company based in South Deerfield, Mass., has a solution that may make an appearance at an airport near you. The next-generation system uses something called passive millimeter wave technology, which essentially means travelers are not exposed to any radiation. At the same time, the machines would address travelers’ concerns about images through greater privacy controls.

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Don't Touch My Junk

"An effective passive millimeter wave scanner that eliminates the concern for privacy and safety, while delivering the detection attributes required, will significantly reduce or eliminate the need for these controversial, aggressive pat-downs," said Paul Nicholas, Millivision's president.

Added gadgets
Airport security in the future also will feature more than just scanners, said Craig Chambers, the president of Cernium Corp.

He points to a pilot project in Dallas and Seattle using his company’s technology that monitors people and objects that are headed the wrong way — going into secure areas when they should be exiting.

Slideshow: Airport Body Searches

"As screening technologies continue to develop, we can anticipate an increased number of automated solutions that will allow security personnel to focus their efforts even more on potential threats and reducing response time to incidents," he said.

Less is more
Numerous lawsuits have been filed against the TSA recently over the new full-body scanners and enhanced pat-downs, including:

  • a suit by two Harvard Law School students claiming that TSA screenings violate their Fourth Amendment rights;
  • a suit by a Colorado attorney that says pat-downs are unconstitutional;
  • a complaint by an Arkansas man who say the current screening practices are detrimental to his well-being;
  • a suit by a pilot who says TSA is violating the Constitution;
  • and an older suit by the Electronic Privacy Information Center that claims current screening techniques violate a slew of laws.

"Changing this policy, or even backtracking, doesn’t mean we’d suddenly be flying on a wing and a prayer," consumer advocate Ralph Nader wrote on his blog. "In fact, better use of available intelligence alone would have stopped last year’s Christmas underwear bomber from flying to the USA. Indiscriminate and inefficient dragnet-type security checks of whole populations, if anything, make us less safe by focusing on the wrong things."

Collection of measures
Many observers believe it will be a combination of all of the above that will define the future of aviation security.

Technology will improve, addressing travelers’ concerns about radiation and privacy. And airports will get better gadgets to protect air travelers.

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"But full-body scanners are not going to go away," said aviation attorney Gerald Sterns. "They are going to be indispensible, given the current approach used by TSA and the failure of the system to come up with something that will pre-screen and pre-vet a large portion of the traveling public who pose no threat."

Nor, he said, are pat-downs going to be dropped any time soon.

"They’re going to be necessary, up to a point, because these new scanners pick up most anything, down to and including a handkerchief stuffed in a back pocket, which needs to be checked."

But will we be safer? No, according to security expert Bruce Schneier.

None of the new measures — not the scans, not the pat-downs, not even anything that’s being seriously considered as an alternative — meaningfully improve airport security, he said.

"They’re more a result of politicians and government appointees capitulating to a public that demands that something must be done," he said. "Even when nothing should be done."

Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine. You can read more travel tips on his blog, elliott.org or e-mail him at celliott@ngs.org .

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Video: Traveler strips to undies for airport search

  1. Closed captioning of: Traveler strips to undies for airport search

    >>> stories on msnbc.com, a woman strips to her bra and panties to go through airport security . you can check out the video on youtube or right here on msnbc. there's the lady sitting in her wheelchair wearing only a black bra and panties. got her dog on her lap. she was given the enhanced pat-down because she was in the wheelchair. she missed her alarm because an alarm for nitrates was triggered during the screening of her carry-on and laptop.

Explainer: Up in arms over pat-downs

  • Since the Transportation Security Administration initiated tighter airport security measures in late summer — including new X-ray body-scan machines that render subjects virtually naked and intimate pat-downs for those who decline to go through them — some airline passengers have taken offense at what they consider unreasonable invasions of privacy.

    Image: TSA screening
    Ted S. Warren  /  AP

    Click at left to review some of the most notorious confrontations between TSA screeners and unruly passengers.

  • Don't touch 'my junk'

    In one of the best-documented confrontations between a traveler and TSA employees, software engineer John Tyner told a screener at San Diego International Airport who was explaining the pat-down procedure, "If you touch my junk, I'm gonna have you arrested."

    Tyner, 31, who recorded the exchange using his cell phone camera, was on his way to go hunting in South Dakota when TSA agents asked him to go through an X-ray machine.

    "I don't think that the government has any business seeing me naked as a condition of traveling about the country," he replied.

    Tyner, of Oceanside, was informed that he could undergo a pat-down instead, but after hearing the procedure described, he made his now-famous "junk" comment.

    A TSA supervisor and police were called and Tyner was ultimately escorted out of the screening area and to a ticket counter, where his ticket was refunded.

    Tyner told the Los Angeles Times that his father-in-law, who went on without him, was initially upset that he had refused the body scan and missed the hunting trip. But by the time he had touched down in South Dakota, he had changed his mind.

    "He called me and said, 'You know, I'm really proud you took a stand on something you believe in,'" Tyner was quoted as saying.

  • Prosthetic breast examined

    A longtime Charlotte, N.C., flight attendant and cancer survivortold WBTV  that she was forced to show her prosthetic breast during a pat-down in August.

    Cathy Bossi, who works for U.S. Airways, said she received the pat-down at Charlotte Douglas International Airport after declining to do the full-body scan because of radiation concerns.

    Bossi said that when the TSA screener placed her hand on her prosthetic breast, she explained that she had undergone a mastectomy three years earlier. The screener responded, 'Well, you'll need to show me that,' and ordered her to pull the artificial breast out of her brassiere, Bossi said.

    "I did not take the name of the person at the time because it was just so horrific of an experience, I couldn't believe someone had done that to me," Bossi told the station. "I'm a flight attendant. I was just trying to get to work."

  • Pat-down busts urostomy bag

    Image: Thomas Sawyer
    Courtesy Thomas Sawyer
    Thomas Sawyer, 61, said he was left "humiliated" and covered in urine after undergoing a TSA pat-down.
    Thomas D. Sawyer, a retired special education teacher, was left soaked in his own urine after an aggressive pat-down by TSA officers at Detroit Metropolitan Airport burst his urostomy bag.

    Sawyer, 61, told msnbc.com that he was “absolutely humiliated, I couldn’t even speak,” after the incident on Nov. 7, as he was on his way to a wedding in Orlando, Fla.

    Sawyer is a bladder cancer survivor who now wears a urostomy bag, which collects his urine from a stoma, or opening, in his abdomen. “I have to wear special clothes and in order to mount the bag I have to seal a wafer to my stomach and then attach the bag, he said. “If the seal is broken, urine can leak all over my body and clothes.”

    That, Sawyer said, is exactly what happened during the pat-down.

    After passing through a security scanner, which apparently detected his urostomy bag, Sawyer was informed he needed to undergo a pat-down search. When he asked for a private search, two TSA screeners took him to a nearby office.

    Sawyer said he tried to inform them about his medical condition, but “they said they didn’t need to know about that.”

    Instead, one agent proceeded to run his flat hand down Sawyer’s chest, ignoring warnings not to press on the bag, Sawyer said.

    “But he ignored me,” he said. “Sure enough, the seal was broken and urine started dribbling down my shirt and my leg and into my pants.”

    The security officer finished the pat-down, tested the gloves for any trace of explosives and then, Sawyer said, “He told me I could go. They never apologized. They never offered to help. They acted like they hadn’t seen what happened. But I know they saw it because I had a wet mark.”

    The soaked Sawyer made his flight, but said he had to wait until after takeoff to clean up and change his clothes and urostomy bag.

    After his experience received widespread publicity, Sawyer said he received an apology in a phone call from TSA chief John Pistole.

  • 'Boxer rebellion' ends in arrest

    Samuel Wolanyk conducted a boxer rebellion of sorts on Nov. 19 when he stripped to his underwear at a security checkpoint at San Diego International Airport.

    Wolanyk, who was on his way to Barbados, shed his pants and shirt in a futile effort to avoid a pat-down after refusing a full-body scan.

    Unlike fellow traveler John Tyner, who was escorted to the airline counter to obtain a refund after warning TSA screeners not to “touch my junk,” Wolanyk was arrested for refusing to complete the security process.

    In a statement released by his attorney after the incident, Wolanyk said, "TSA needs to see that I'm not carrying any weapons, explosives, or other prohibited substances, I refuse to have images of my naked body viewed by perfect strangers, and having been felt up for the first time by TSA the week prior (I travel frequently) I was not willing to be molested again."

    Wolanyk's attorney said that TSA requested his client put his clothes on so he could be patted down properly but his client refused to put his clothes back on. He never refused a pat-down, according to his attorney.

  • Pat-down for shirtless boy

    A shirtless boy’s pat-down by TSA screeners at the Salt Lake City airport on Nov. 19 was captured on video by a college student waiting in a security line, triggering yet another outcry about what critics describe as over-the-top security measures.

    Utah Valley University student Luke Tait posted the video on YouTube, where it was viewed more than 765,000 times in three days.

    Tait said the boy appeared so shy he couldn't keep his arms raised for a pat-down, and the father apparently removed his son's shirt out of frustration to speed up the search.

    "I was shocked and realized something crazy was going on, so I took my BlackBerry off the conveyor belt and started recording," Tait told The Associated Press.

    "A couple of times the father raised the arms of the boy. That ended up not being enough, so the father got frustrated and tore his boy's shirt off," Tait said.

    That prompted a TSA officer to protest, "Sir, sir!"

    The TSA said in a blog posting that the boy was being searched because he sounded an alarm inside a metal detector. The boy's father removed his son's shirt to expedite the screening.

    "That's it. No complaints were filed and the father was standing by his son for the entire procedure," said the posting by "Blogger Bob" of the TSA Blog Team.

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