I have been flying to marathons and ultramarathons since 2004 on a regular basis, but this weekend was the first time that I have ever been pulled out of the screening line for a "pat down". This is truly an unpleasant experience, and later as I thought about it, it was also unnecessary. And it's not just because I know that I'm not a terrorist. It's because I still don't know what the process accomplished. The reason I was pulled for a "pat down" is because the airport that I fly out of has started using the new x-ray machines for screening. A few weeks ago when I flew to San Antonio, TX for the Bandera 50K, both airports were still using the old metal detectors. I have never set off any alarms when I walked through those machines, but the new x-ray machine picked up shadows in my upper torso.
When I stepped out of the machine, a TSA worker asked for my cap. I took it off, gave it to her, and watched as she ran her gloved hand along the inside band of the cap. She explained that she was making sure that there was nothing hidden in the band. I usually wear a cap when I'm going and coming from a race, and in all of these years, this was the first time I was asked to remove the cap to have it inspected. After she gave me the cap back, she told me to step to the side because they would have to do a "pat down". She asked if I had anything hidden under my clothes, because the machine had detected objects on my upper body. Without going into great detail, I told her that I have a port in the right side of my chest and that I have a prosthesis on the left side of my chest. She said that they would have to check this out. What???
Two other female TSA workers joined us and grabbed my duffle bag and the bin that contained my shoes, purse, and a small plastic baggie of toiletries. They led me into a small room and closed the door. One of them explained the "pat down" process, while the other one stood off to the side as an eye witness. As I stood with my legs spread shoulder width apart and my arms out to the side, parallel to the floor, with the palms facing upward, she moved her gloved hands all over my body, from my neck down to my ankles. I beg to differ with their definition of a "pat down". It's more of a rub down.
She started by running her hands along the inside collar of my shirt and then continued down my back. She examined both arms and then moved to the lower part of my body. She lifted up my shirt and ran her hands along the inside waist band of my pants. She then continued to "pat down" my butt and the back and sides of my thighs and calves. She also examined the inside of the thighs, touching, of course, the crotch. Unintentionally, I flinched just a little. By this point, I was totally shocked at the thoroughness of the "pat down". I'm glad I wasn't concealing a deadly weapon because she would have found it.
She then moved to the front of my body. She started again at the inside collar of my shirt, and then, she finally examined the area that had set the machine off in the first place. I stubbornly did not want them to know that I was bothered by the process, but my body betrayed me. I flinched again when she touched the port and the right side of my chest and then the prosthesis on the left side of my chest. The breast and the prosthesis were individually lifted as she ran her hands across the stomach area, which caused me to flinch a third time. My shirt was again lifted up, so that she could inspect the front waist band of the pants and then she continued to "pat down" the front of my legs. The whole process probably took less than five minutes, but I was just about mentally done when she finished. I felt like I had been molested, and if I wanted to get on the airplane and go to my race, I had better be quiet and let her feel me up. The least she could have done was offer to buy me dinner before hand.
Don't get me wrong. I don't blame the TSA workers at all. They were just doing their jobs, and I'm sure they didn't enjoy this part of their job either. For the most part, they were very professional. In return, I was nice and accommodating. And I'm all for homeland security. Do whatever you have to do to keep us all safe. But there has to be a point where you question the "pat down" policy.
When she had finished, she told me that I could put my shoes on, while she went to retrieve my driver's license and boarding pass. The other TSA worker stayed with me. I told her that I fly often and asked if there was a way to get a letter of some sort from my doctor or, alternatively, from the airport saying that I had been through this process before. I don't want to be subjected to the "pat down" every time I decide to board an airplane. She stated that it was not acceptable and that people with hip and knee replacements have medical cards explaining their condition and they were still pulled from the screening line when the old machines were used. She also stated that the new machines would no longer send up an alert for those with hip and knee replacements. I wish she would have stopped talking right there, because the next statement out of her mouth was just as puzzling as her explanation of why a medical card is unacceptable. She said that when I fly next time, make sure that I don't have anything external to my body that can be detected by the machine, because even tampons and sanitary napkins have set off the new machines. That's just wrong! I plainly stated that I don't have periods any more, so that won't be a problem. I guess I need to remove my prosthesis from my bra and then surgically remove the port from my chest and place them in the bin with my other belongings, so that I won't set off the new machines? There has to be a better way! Using a medical card and/or having something on file at the airport about a person's medical situation would eliminate the necessity of the "pat down".
My next point of contention is that if the machine revealed shadows in the upper torso, why in the world do they have to touch my inner thighs or any other areas that do not set off the machine? Am I being unreasonable? To me, although mentally uncomfortable, they should have checked the upper torso only. Heck, you can see the protrusion from my chest where the port is. You don't even have to touch it to know it's there. And if it's a weapon of some sort, I would have to cut myself open to use it. Furthermore, even if I can't feel it, why does the gloved hand of a stranger have to touch my prosthesis while it's on my body? I have no qualms about removing the prosthesis from my bra in a private room for them to examine.
And this brings me to my last point of contention with the "pat down" policy. If the port and prosthesis were the problems, why didn't they at least examine the prosthesis? How did they know that something wasn't embedded in the material by just touching it? So, why was I given a "pat down"? Touching only proved that there was a small device in the right side of my chest and a bigger device on the left side. The x-ray machine had already given them that information. Touching other parts of the body that did not send up an alarm proved that their x-ray machine was right again. So, why even waste time checking areas that don't show up on the x-ray machine? Do they not trust the x-ray machine?
I need to research the "pat down" policy. I admit I haven't read all of it. I made my flight into Phoenix, AZ for the Desert Classic Marathon. That airport is still using the old metal detectors, so I didn't have a "pat down" before boarding the airplane to return home on Saturday night. At some point in time, all of the airports will be using the new x-ray machines. Will I have to subject myself to the "pat down" every time I decide to board an airplane? That's crazy!
5 years ago