What’s up with airport pat-downs?

Bing Travel wanted to know what’s up with airport pat-downs. Here’s what I found out for an article posted earlier this week.

What’s up with airport pat-downs?

News stories about airport security checks involving small children undergoing full pat downs, an elderly woman’s adult diaper being inspected and, most recently, some women of color having their natural hairdos scrutinized may have you wondering what you’ll encounter at the airport as you head back to school or work after summer vacation.

At most airports, it will be business as what has become usual: shoes off; laptops, liquids and IDs out; pockets emptied; a walk through a metal detector or scanner; and, if something’s amiss, arms stretched wide for an enhanced pat down.

While the modern-day pat down might make both the passenger and the Transportation Security Administration officer conducting the procedure uncomfortable, “At the end of the day, the comfort I am concerned with is the comfort of knowing I can turn on the evening news and find that no aircraft was compromised or went down because I did my job effectively,” said Valyria Lewis, a TSA officer at Memphis International Airport who is president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 555, covering Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina.

But the airport checkpoint experience is ever-evolving. Now a new set of changes is making its way through the system.

The TSA is testing programs at a few airports, installing new technology at few dozen airports and implementing new policies systemwide that might streamline the experience for some travelers and make it more or less of a hassle for others. Here is some of what’s in store:

Getting to know you

It’s still a bit surprising, but usually refreshing, when a TSA officer checking IDs breaks the “Just show me your papers” demeanor to ask a question about your day or to share a tidbit from theirs. The seconds-long pleasantry may be just that, but engaging you and drawing you out may also be part of what the TSA calls its “ongoing risk-based, multilayered security strategy.”

Right now, as part of that strategy, the TSA is testing an expanded behavior-detection pilot program at Boston’s Logan International Airport. If your Boston-originating flight takes you through the security checkpoint at Terminal A, you’ll be part of the test automatically. In what the TSA calls “casual greeting conversations” and others have dubbed “chat downs,” specially trained behavior-detection officers are asking each passenger a few extra questions as they go through the ID check.

They’re not all that interested in your answers, but in your behavior.

The TSA says some passengers may get selected for a longer, but “still limited” chat and that the results of this test will determine if the program spreads to other airports.

Kid-friendly checkpoints

TSA spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein says a pilot program to test new screening procedures for children 12 and younger is under way at six airports: Boston; Atlanta; Miami; Orlando, Fla.; Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport; and Denver.

Why those airports? “The pilot sites were selected based on airports that had a higher volume of travelers in the desired age range to allow for a better overall sample during testing,” Farbstein said.

What will change?

Until now, children or adults who triggered an alarm at a screening machine were subject to a pat down. Under the new kid-friendlier screening procedure, children will be allowed to go back through the metal detector or the advanced imaging technology machine for “do-overs” to clear an alarm. Also, kids will be allowed to leave their shoes on.

The TSA still can require kids to remove their shoes or undergo a pat down if something seems amiss, but if the test works out, the program will spread to other airports.

Modest scanners

In a move to return modesty to passengers, the TSA is installing new, less-invasive software on the millimeter wave Advanced Imaging Technology machines — the so-called “naked scanners” — at 40 airports.

Instead of creating revealing, passenger-specific images, the machines will now produce a generic outline of a person while still showing if any items are concealed under clothing. If something shows up on the scanner, passengers would undergo an extra pat down on the specific area in question, for example, their wrist.

TSA officials say that upgraded software is already in place in Las Vegas; Atlanta; Baltimore; Tampa, Fla.; and many other airports. There are 241 machines with this software being installed throughout the U.S.; all are expected to be in place by fall.

Trusted traveler program

The TSA is scheduled to roll out yet one more test program this fall. This one is an identity-based, preflight screening program that may lead to a widespread “trusted traveler” program that could expedite the checkpoint experience for those willing to share some additional information about themselves with the government.

Participants in the first phase of the test will include several airports and a select group of passengers.

The pool of participants will include some travelers who already are part of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Trusted Traveler programs such as Global Entry, Sentri and Nexus. At Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International and Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County airports, the test will include some members of Delta Air Lines’ frequent-flier program. At Miami International and Dallas/Fort Worth International airports, the test will include some frequent fliers from American Airlines.

If the program works out, the TSA plans to include other airports and other airlines, including United, Southwest, JetBlue, US Airways, Alaska and Hawaiian.

Will this make a difference?

You might or might not experience one of the new programs in your next trip to the airport, but the bottom line for the TSA remains catching “bad guys” and finding objects or materials that might be used to take down a plane.

So, security-wise, will these new programs make a difference?

“It can be hard to tell,” said Jeff Price, an aviation security expert and associate professor at the Metropolitan State College of Denver. “The TSA doesn’t release statistics on what it catches. But the [Government Accountability Office] will likely do a report at some point, and the public portion of that should give us a pretty good idea.”