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Going Through Airport Security? What to Expect

If you're flying this busy week, "naked" scanners and heavy frisking are just two of the many security measures that federal officials have waiting for you at the airport.
/ Source: Discovery Channel

If you're flying this busy week, "naked" scanners and heavy frisking are just two of the many security measures that federal officials have waiting for you at the airport.

In fact, there are at least 20 levels of security designed to thwart both terror attacks and troublemakers in the air -- from sniffer dogs to counter-intelligence teams -- only four of which are felt directly by passengers.

Whether these measures are stopping terrorists or just inconveniencing travelers remains to be seen. Critics say the Transportation Security Administration is reacting to past threats rather than anticipating future ones.

"There's a need to create a vision for the overall security process instead of putting Band-aid after Band-aid on a broken system," said Cathy Keefe, spokeswoman for the U.S. Travel Association.

Despite complaints from passengers, pilots and Congress, TSA administrator John Pistole hasn't backed down. "We all wish we lived in a world where security procedures at airports weren't necessary," Pistole said. "But that just isn't the case."

TSA officials are warning passengers to become familiar with their procedures so they don't hold up the line. This warning comes at the same time that some protest groups are calling for a boycott of X-ray scanners on Wednesday.

If you are headed home for Turkey Day, here's what you're likely to find at the airport:

Behavior detection officers: Known as the Screening Passengers by Observation Technique (SPOT) program, the idea is to use facial expression, body language and appearance (rather than racial profiling) to determine whether a passenger fears detection or is concealing something. TSA spotters "walk the line" and start random conversations with passengers to elicit responses. The officers have about 30 seconds to make an assessment whether the person needs to be pulled out of line and given a more rigorous screening. A TSA spokesman wouldn't discuss the SPOT program or say whether it's caught any law-breakers or terrorists.

But a Government Accountability Office report earlier this year found that the agency doesn't know whether SPOT is working since it's not keeping accurate data. A 2008 report by the National Research Council found no scientific basis for the concept. However, countries like Israel swear by this kind of psychological screening.

Enhanced pat-downs: This controversial measure was unveiled earlier this month for passengers who don't like the enhanced X-ray scanners or who trigger the alarm. They can involve touching of breasts and genitals, which has upset some passengers, but still has the backing of the Obama administration and TSA officials.

The pat-downs are supposed to be "modified" for children under 12 and are conducted by same-gender officers. "It is designed to be thorough in order to detect any potential threats and keep the traveling public safe," says the TSA website. Still, a San Francisco area district attorney warned last week that he could prosecute any TSA officers who groped passengers, threatening sexual assault charges.

Swabbing for explosives: This technology has been around for several years for carry-on and checked bags, but now TSA officers will be using it on passenger's hands. The cotton swabs are placed in a portable detection machine to check for explosive residue. "It just takes a few seconds," said TSA spokesman Jon Allen.

"Puff portals:" The explosive trace-detection portal devices use a mass spectrometer to analyze tiny bits of drugs or explosives that are blown off the passenger's clothing. At their peak a few years ago, the TSA had these devices at nearly 100 U.S. airports, but they broke down easily and are being phased out, TSA officials said. "It's not likely that passengers will encounter them," TSA's Allen said.

More personal data: The TSA also reminds travelers that they will have to give their full name and date of birth when checking in, which the agency hopes will cut down on the number of people incorrectly matched to the infamous "no-fly list."