TSA Pat-Downs Are About to Get Even More Personal

The TSA has announced new pat-down procedures that air travelers are likely going to find are much more personal than what they experienced before.

According to recent news reports, the TSA is changing the way it performs pat-downs for air travelers, and air travelers are sure to notice the change.

The Transportation Security Administration previously offered travelers five different types of pat-down procedures; now there will only be one. The agency describes it as a more “comprehensive” screening measure, and while TSA won’t provide details about what to expect, news reports say that travelers are sure to notice the change.

In fact, the new pat-down procedures are expected to be so much more “personal” that the TSA has alerted local police to expect calls from air travelers reporting “abnormal” federal searches.

Bloomberg News obtained a memo distributed by the Airports Council International-North America (ACI-NA) after a call with TSA officials. According to the memo, the TSA asked local airport law enforcement to be briefed on procedures in case passengers called to report being subjected to an abnormal screening process by a TSA employee.

According to Bloomberg News:

“Passengers who have not previously experienced the now standardized pat-down screening may not realize that they did in fact receive the correct procedure, and may ask our partners, including law enforcement at the airport, about the procedure,” TSA spokesman Bruce Anderson wrote March 3 in an email, describing why the agency notified police.

The TSA cited making the process easier for its employees as part of the reason for the change. The single procedure “lessens the cognitive burden for our officers and reduces the possibility for confusion with passengers and employees as well,” according to the agency.

So what can travelers now expect if subjected to one of these new, “universal” pat-downs?

The agency won’t say, exactly. The TSA website has this to say about pat-downs:

A pat-down may include inspection of the head, neck, arms, torso, legs, and feet. This includes head coverings and sensitive areas such as breasts, groin, and the buttocks. You may be required to adjust clothing during the pat-down. The officer will advise you of the procedure to help you anticipate any actions before you feel them. Pat-downs require sufficient pressure to ensure detection.

TSA officers use the back of the hands for pat-downs over sensitive areas of the body. In limited cases, additional screening involving a sensitive area pat-down with the front of the hand may be needed to determine that a threat does not exist.

The memo obtained by Bloomberg said that TSA screeners will now use the front of their hands when conducting a private pat-down if explosives are detected in one of the prior screening procedures.

TSA requires pat-downs to be conducted by an employee of the same gender as the passenger, and the passenger can request that the pat-down be conducted either in private or in public view. Passengers can request that they be accompanied by a witness for private screenings, and a second TSA employee of the same gender will always be present during a private screening.

Pat-downs are required for passengers who refuse to go through the full-body scanners or who trigger an alert in the machine, and they can also be given out at random at TSA’s discretion.

Why the change?

The TSA got embarrassing publicity after a 2015 study conducted by the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General found major security lapses in the TSA’s ability to detect threats. In 67 out of 70 tests performed in the investigation, teams were able to get prohibited items such as explosives and weapons through TSA checkpoints. The agency’s acting administrator was reassigned after news of the report went public.

Besides lessening the “cognitive burden” for its employees, a TSA official added that the consolidation of the pat-down procedures was being done, in part, as a response to that investigation to bolster security.

About the Author

Ian Smith is one of the co-founders of FedSmith.com. He has over 20 years of combined experience in media and government services, having worked at two government contracting firms and an online news and web development company prior to his current role at FedSmith.