How to Navigate Body Scans and Pat-Downs

If you know what’s coming, holiday travel shouldn’t be off-putting.

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Invasive body searches. Nazi-style checkpoints. Traumatized children and their speechless parents.

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These are some of the horror stories likening America's airports to a police state, thanks to intensified new screening procedures meant to prevent airborne terrorism. Last year's "underwear bomber" and other terrorist schemes have highlighted a scary gap in traditional screening measures: They only detect metallic objects that people carry with them through a conventional scanner. Since people don't get X-rayed like carry-on bags, there's a chance that terrorists could sneak nonmetallic explosives onto a plane by hiding a small bomb on their person. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab exploited that gap last December, when he smuggled a six-inch packet of plastic explosives, sewn into his underwear, onto a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit that was carrying 290 people. Since plastic explosives are potent—and readily available to terrorist groups—a small amount could damage or destroy a plane.

The new procedures are meant to close that security gap—and most travelers will probably end up wondering what all the fuss is about. Safer air travel is obviously in everybody's interest, and polls show that 70 to 80 percent of travelers aren't bothered by the new procedures. And some of the stories about groped passengers, thuggish security agents, and revealing body scans seem to have been exaggerated as they've bounced around the mediasphere. Still, the Transportation Security Agency has been somewhat clumsy about explaining the new procedures, and some of the body searches are invasive by nature. Even the White House has expressed discomfort over the measures. Meanwhile, a loose coalition of boycotters is threatening to choke airport security lines by insisting on laborious opt-out procedures and overwhelming the system. Here are five tips for navigating security and avoiding any stressful surprises while traveling during the holidays:

Don't overreact. For most airline passengers, nothing will be different about airport security this winter. The new procedures are applied randomly, and they're not in effect at all airports. So the majority of passengers will experience the same old snaking line that leads to a metal detector, an X-ray machine for carry-ons, and an airplane somewhere on the other side.

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What's different is a new layer of detectors called advanced imaging technology (AIT) scanners that are now used to spot-check a small portion of travelers at about 70 airports. (Here's the list.) TSA won't say what proportion of passengers are likely to be selected for a scan, but security experts estimate that 10 to 20 percent of flyers might be chosen. Once directed to a scanner, passengers empty their pockets and step into an open-ended, refrigerator-sized chamber, usually in the same area as the metal detectors. AIT machines use X-rays, millimeter wave technology and other cool science to create a chalky image of the person's body, which will show whether the traveler is hiding anything down under—whether it's metallic or not. A scan takes just a few seconds, and AIT machines can catch everything a metal detector would find, plus more. For all the controversy, there are only 385 of these machines operating at airports, not nearly enough to process all airline passengers. Eventually there will be many more though, so body scans could become routine.

What makes them controversial is the image they create, which resembles a naked body (with private parts obscured). Security experts say it takes that kind of view to find hidden bombs. But the scans have also created suspicion that male security agents deliberately choose attractive women for scans, then ogle the results. Highly unlikely. Passengers are selected randomly, and the images are viewed by an agent who's not at the security checkpoint and can't see the passenger, to eliminate the risk of abuse. TSA says the images can't be printed, copied, emailed or circulated in any way, and that it's a firing offense for anybody to evade those rules. And while the machines do transmit a tiny amount of radiation, like all X-rays, the evidence so far suggests there is no health risk for people who occasionally pass through one of these machines. So anybody who's comfortable going through the machine shouldn't experience much inconvenience at all.

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Understand the opt-out. Passengers who don't want their bodies scanned have the right to ask for a pat-down instead, but they should be prepared for possible delays and some uncomfortable touching. TSA rules require a same-gender agent to conduct the search, and all touching is supposed to take place outside of clothing. Yet even TSA acknowledges that pat-downs can be off-putting. Keep in mind that agents are looking for bombs that terrorists are trying to hide in the crevices of clothing, and even bodies; to search effectively, they might need to feel under brassieres, probe folds of fat and do whatever else necessary to foil the next underwear-bomber. (There are "modified" pat-downs for kids, meant to be less intrusive.) Pat-downs are likely to occur in front of other passengers, and they can be time-consuming, since it's a labor-intensive process and agents might be scarce. TSA says the inspection itself should take two to four minutes. That's a lot of touching. Anybody familiar with airport security knows that waiting in line for your turn could take a lot longer than that. Also keep in mind that passengers not selected for a body scan could still end up getting patted down, if something sets off the conventional metal detector and agents need to inspect more closely.

Protest politely. If you submit to a pat-down and don't like the way it's going, ask for a supervisor—but don't insult the agent. Incidents involving pat-downs may involve pushy agents, but they also tend to involve surly passengers who don't feel like cooperating. If you refuse a pat-down, the law is generally not on your side. Local police can boot you out of the airport, and the government can even fine people $11,000 if they refuse to be screened and leave a checkpoint on their own. A supervisor may be able to address your concerns, but there is no way you'll ever get into the airport without some type of screening. So don't expect special treatment.

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Leave loads of extra time. Holiday travel is stressful enough, and this year it could be worse. Body-scan boycotters want to disrupt holiday travel by showing up en masse at checkpoints and requesting body scans all at once, to overload the system and slow security processing to a crawl. That's a dubious scheme that would be hard to coordinate, provoke the ire of fellow travelers and perhaps cause trouble for the very people carrying out the "boycott." But when airports are near maximum capacity, even small snafus can produce big delays. So travelers would be wise to pad their trip with plenty of extra time, in case things go wrong.

Ask for help. Check-in agents or other airport workers often know which security checkpoints are the quickest and the slowest, so ask for guidance. And anybody with special needs should anticipate the rigors of a pat down, if they end up choosing that route, and ask for assistance before they're facing down an agent with no alternatives. The TSA provides lots of info on scanners and pat-downs on its website and blog, and airline workers may have tips too. As always, packing light and keeping careful track of your stuff will help reduce the burden on agents and make your experience easier. So will a smile and a thank you to agents doing their job well.

Twitter: @rickjnewman