Despite a deluge of complaints over intrusive pat-downs and revealing airport scans, the government is betting Americans would rather fly safe than untouched. "I'm not going to change those policies," the nation's transportation security chief declared Wednesday.
Responded a lawmaker: "I wouldn't want my wife to be touched in the way that these folks are being touched."
The debate over where to strike the balance between privacy and security, in motion since new safety measures took effect after the 2001 terrorist attacks, has intensified with the debut of pat downs that are more thorough, and invasive, than before, and the spread of full-body image scans.
A week before some of the busiest flying days of the year, some passengers are refusing the regimen, many more are complaining and the aviation industry is caught in the middle.
In Florida, the Orlando Sanford Airport, which handles 2 million passengers a year, now plans to replace "testy" Transportation Security Administration screeners with private contractors, and two veteran commercial pilots are refusing to fly out of airports using the procedures.
"The outcry is huge," Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, told the TSA administrator, John Pistole, at a Capitol Hill hearing. "I know that you're aware of it. But we've got to see some action."
Pistole conceded "reasonable people can disagree" on how to properly balance safety at the nation's airports but he asserted the new security measures are necessary because of intelligence on latest attack methods that might be used by terrorists.
Safe and secure flights
Pistole was a senior FBI officer last Christmas when an al-Qaida operative made it onto a Chicago-bound plane with explosives stuffed in his underwear. The explosive misfired, causing injury only to the wearer.
As TSA chief since the summer, Pistole has reviewed reports that found undercover agents were able to slip through airport security because pat downs were not thorough enough.
Given a choice between a planeload of screened passengers and a flight with no lines or security checks, he told senators, "I think everybody will want to opt for the screening with the assurance that that flight is safe and secure."
The new hands-on searches are used for passengers who don't want the full-body scans, or when something suspicious shows in screening, or on rare occasions, randomly. They can take two minutes per passenger and involve sliding of the hands along the length of the body, along thighs and near the groin and breasts.
The new scans show naked images of the passenger's body, without the face, to a screener who is in a different location and does not know the identity of the traveler. The U.S. has nearly 400 of the advanced imaging machines deployed at 70 airports, growing to 1,000 machines next year.
A traveler in San Diego who resisted both a full-body scan and a pat down helped fuel a campaign urging others to refuse these searches on Nov. 24, the heavy travel day before Thanksgiving. John Tyner said he told a TSA screener: "If you touch my junk, I'm gonna have you arrested."
But he does not advocate travelers following his lead, saying he appreciates that most people cannot afford to put expensive trips at risk.
"But people ought to do what their consciences say they should do," he said. "If civil disobedience is a way they think would work, I think they should do it."
Opt-out day 'irresponsible'
Pistole has strongly criticized the call to boycott screenings.
"On the eve of a major national holiday and less than one year after al-Qaida's failed attack last Christmas Day, it is irresponsible for a group to suggest travelers opt out of the very screening that may prevent an attack using nonmetallic explosives," he said this week.
Tyner's encounter with security in San Diego helped make the new system the butt of late-night TV jokes. But lawmakers aren't laughing. They said they are getting hundreds of calls from people unhappy with the procedures.
"I'm frankly bothered by the level of these pat downs," Sen. George LeMieux, R-Fla., told Pistole. "I wouldn't want my wife to be touched in the way that these folks are being touched. I wouldn't want to be touched that way."
Pistole, who has been subjected to a pat down himself, allowed: "It is clearly more invasive." But the procedures are necessary, he said, to detect devices not seen before.
Glen Tilton, chairman of United Continental Holdings Inc., the parent company of United and Continental airlines, said it's obvious passengers are upset but their security "is really the predominant interest."
"I am personally aware of customer frustration because I'm getting e-mails to that effect," Tilton told reporters at an Aero Club luncheon in Washington. "Clearly a number of people have put together an effort to make sure that we are aware of how they feel about it."
Still, he said airline operations had not been affected by passenger cancellations to date and he praised the TSA's screeners. "We know how difficult their job is," he said.