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US eases patdown policy for air travelers

The federal agency in charge of airline screening yesterday changed its policy on patdowns, in part because of complaints by women passengers about searches of their chests.

Starting today, the federal Transportation Security Administration is telling its screeners to keep their hands to the "chest perimeters" of women unless handheld metal detectors beep when waved over their breasts.

Patdowns, in which screeners run the backs of their hands over passengers' limbs and torsos, including women's breasts, were implemented with increased frequency in September when the TSA ratcheted up its screening efforts in response to intelligence reports that terrorists might try to smuggle weapons attached to their bodies.

Fifteen percent of airline passengers, or about 300,000 people a day, have been subject to patdowns since they were implemented around the nation in September. Hundreds of women have complained to the agency that the procedure was a humiliating and unnecessary invasion of privacy, and the TSA acknowledged yesterday those complaints were at least part of the reason the procedures are being changed.

"We've been looking at the patdowns for a long time and certainly, customer feedback was a factor," said Ann Davis, the TSA's New England regional spokeswoman.

Use of patdowns in airport security started after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, but had been used sparingly.

That changed in September, when the TSA enhanced its security procedures after a summer terrorist attack in which women smuggled weapons onto two Russian passenger jets.

In addition to increasing the patdowns, the TSA in September also instituted rules calling for all passengers to remove bulky clothing like blazers and big sweaters when being screened before a flight, instead of just their coats.

More passengers are now being subjected to intensive secondary screenings, and those examinations have been beefed up.

Some travelers are selected for secondary screenings by setting off metal detectors. Others are selected by their airline, either at random or because they were flagged by a profiling system in use since 1997.

Once selected, all of a passenger's luggage is swabbed for traces of explosives and hand-searched, and the passenger must undergo a patdown.

Before September, patdowns were used only if a passenger being screened set off a metal detector, but with the TSA's tougher measures in place, it became automatic for every passenger who was picked for secondary screening.

Starting today, screeners will continue to use the backs of their hands to pat down arms, legs, sides and backs, but the more invasive search of the chest area will not be performed routinely.

TSA rules require that screeners of the same gender as a passenger conduct a patdown, that passengers can request the procedure to be done in private, and that screeners tell passengers where they are going to touch them.

Still, the agency has logged about 250 complaints about the procedure nationally, Davis said. About 15 percent, or 300,000, of the 2 million passengers that fly daily are subject to secondary screenings that include the patdowns, she said.

At Logan International Airport, TSA has a customer service manager who personally calls everyone who complains, she said.

No matter the rules governing them, many women disdain the patdowns.

"I hate being selected for special screenings," said Gretchen Miner, a 42-year-old woman from Sterling, Mass., who was flying yesterday from T.F. Green Airport in Warwick, R.I., to San Diego. "It's embarrassing." Miner said she had been screened at least twice from Logan, and both times she felt uncomfortable.

So, too, did Courtney Calzini, a 23-year-old teacher from Orlando, Fla., who was at Green yesterday to fly home after visiting relatives.

Calzini said she had been through the patdowns several times.

"It made me uncomfortable to be touched," she said. Still, she said, she's willing to suffer the patdowns in exchange for security. "Whatever will keep us safe," she said.

Even some men, though, said they were not fond of the patdown idea.

But some passengers at Green yesterday were encouraged by a new technology was being tried there that may save some passengers from having to be patted down at all.

The TSA is testing a so-called explosives-trace detection, or "puffer" machine, which blasts puffs of air at passengers' bodies and then analyzes the air for any explosives residue. The tests, officials said, are aimed at making the screening process potentially less intrusive for passengers.

The machine stands about 9 feet tall and resembles a doorway or vestibule. Passengers step into the machine and listen to electronic voice prompts:

"Air puffers on," the machine says, before a passenger hears the sound of air being blasted at their face, torso and legs. Afterward, a screener outside the machine checks the results on a display. Above the machine's exit, a green light signals all is well, a red light signals trouble.

The puffer is used in addition to metal detectors and luggage scanners and could help rule out a passenger as a high-risk threat.

TSA started testing the puffer machines, made by General Electric Co., at four airports, including Green, Greater Rochester International Airport in Rochester, N.Y., San Diego International Airport and Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport in Biloxi, Miss., in June.

Most passengers make it through the puffers just fine, said Joe Salter, federal security director at Green. But there have been some red lights.

"Let's say the person who handles explosives for a living or works in a fireworks store," Salter said. "There's a reason why they would have residue on them."

Miner, of Sterling, was startled by the bursts of air, but found it a joy compared to the patdowns. "If this was going to get rid of the patdown, I'd go through it every time," said Miner said after going through the $135,000 machine.

Caroline Sullivan, a 92-year-old, wheelchair-bound woman traveling from Green to Baltimore with her daughter, Rosemary Mortimer, said the puffer was fine with her.

"It was over in a second. It feels like being by a fan," she said.

Keith Reed can be reached at

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