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TSA: Pilots to be exempt from some airport security checks

The Transportation Security Administration has agreed to allow airline pilots to skip security scanning and pat-downs, pilot organizations said Friday.
/ Source: msnbc.com news services

The Transportation Security Administration has agreed to let airline pilots skip the security scanning and pat-downs that passengers face at the nation's airports, pilot groups said Friday.

Beginning Friday, pilots traveling in uniform or on airline business will be allowed to pass security by presenting two photo IDs, one from their company and one from the government, to be checked against a secure flight crew database, the TSA said.

The Obama administration's retreat on screening pilots comes less than a week before the hectic Thanksgiving holiday travel period. Some travelers are threatening to protest the security measures by refusing to go through the scanning machines. Airlines are caught in the middle.

Pilots welcomed the changes.

"This looks good. It's basically what we've been after for 10 years," says Sam Mayer, a spokesman for the Allied Pilots Association at American Airlines, the union that raised objections to the new screening process about two weeks ago. "Pilots are not the threat here; we're the target."

Pilots have also argued that it made no sense to subject them to the same screening process as passengers since they control the plane. If they were intent on terrorism, they could crash it and the scanners wouldn't provide extra safety.

TSA offered few details about the specific changes in screening of pilots, which expands a program tested at airports in Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Charlotte, N.C.

"Pilots are trusted partners who ensure the safety of millions of passengers flying every day," said TSA Administrator John Pistole. He said putting pilots through a faster screening process would be a more efficient use of the agency's resources.

Pistole has defended the invasive pat-downs and said intelligence about potential terrorist attacks and plots to evade airport security have guided these changes.

No changes for airline passengers
Still, some lawmakers want a review of the government's pat-down procedure.

Pilots have complained about possible health effects from radiation emitted by full-body scanners that produce a virtually naked image, and they said that pat-downs by security inspectors were demeaning. Passengers have lodged similar complaints.

Pistole gave no indication that screening rules for passengers are about to change, despite calls for alternative measures including Israeli-style one-on-one interviews with travelers.

"That's a good topic of public debate. Obviously we use layers of security and hopefully we're informed by the intelligence," he said in an interview on ABC's "Good Morning America."

But the television network also reported on Friday that TSA is testing new X-ray technology that would show a "stick figure" instead of a passenger's full-body image.

Travelers and U.S. lawmakers have objected to scans that produce revealing body images and pat-down procedures that are highly personal.

Pistole also appeared on CBS's "The Early Show," where he said that he understands public distaste for more intense security procedures, particularly hand pat-downs. He called it a "challenge" for federal authorities and airport screeners.

But Pistole said the attempted bombing of a U.S. bound plane last Christmas and the effort to ship packages with bombs to this country on cargo planes more recently makes tougher security necessary. He said Friday, "The bottom line is, we're trying to see that everybody can be assured with high confidence that everybody else on that flight can be properly screened."

'Feedback is critical'
Numerous passengers have complained about invasive pat-downs and full-body imaging machines used for screening at airports. However, the TSA points to polls conducted by CBS, the Wall Street Journal and Gallup consistently showing that about 80 percent of American travelers are in favor of the stepped-up security.

The U.S. Travel Association has set up the website, YourTravelVoice.org, after it received more than 1,000 unsolicited comments from travelers about the increased security following recently foiled bomb plots involving U.S. bound parcels.

"It was clear to us that there was some national concern about this issue. We are hoping that this website can help people express those views so we can all work together," said Geoff Freeman, the executive vice president of the trade group.

He added that he hopes feedback from the website can provide a platform through which travelers can share their opinions with policy makers in Washington.

Not all the comments on the site are critical. Freeman said many travelers are wondering about the long-term wisdom of it all.

"Feedback is critical. Currently, the system is not built with the travelers' vision in mind," he explained. "As of now, Congress has established an unachievable goal for TSA by telling them to eliminate all risk. That's not possible," he said.

Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., has written letters to the nation's 100 busiest airports asking that they ditch TSA screeners and request private security guards instead.

The TSA ramped up security after two air packages containing bombs, which were both sent from Yemen and addressed to synagogues in Chicago, were intercepted in Britain and Dubai.

"It's important that the system becomes one in which we are using ever smarter techniques with the resources we have," Freeman said. "It's a healthy question to ask. This isn't a black and white question. It's a gray area that needs to be addressed."

Information from The Associated Press and Reuters was included in this report.