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Airline Passenger Pat-Down Screening Comes Under Scrutiny

The U.S. Transportation Security Administration has recently increased screening procedures for passengers, employing a pat-down process, which some travelers believe is getting a little too personal.

After 90 people were killed in two Russian plane crashes this fall, believed to have been caused by two Chechen women who hid nonmetallic explosives under their clothing, the Transportation Security Administration ordered airport screeners to carry out more thorough and more frequent searches of passengers before they board planes.

The new search procedures are more invasive, in an effort to determine if any objects are hidden under bulky clothing. And although female security personnel perform the pat down on female passengers and male security personnel only pat down male passengers, more women than men have been selected for the additional procedure.

Some passengers, mostly women, say the pat down search is embarrassing and humiliating. Singer and actress Patti LuPone said she was shocked when she was pulled aside and asked to remove her shirt, which left her upper torso completely exposed.

"It was my first experience with a pat down and no explanation as to why or what they were doing," she said. "I didn't know what was going on and as I said to these screeners, I said you need to communicate with the passengers. I don't think there's a passenger out there traveling today that would not cooperate to their fullest if they knew what was going on."

Many other women who have been pulled aside for the pat down have complained that the procedure is offensive and invasive when TSA screeners touch their breasts to make sure the female passenger has nothing hidden. Bob Kapp, of the Transportation Security Administration says TSA has trained screeners to avoid embarrassing passengers, but the torso pat-down is something all air travelers will have to get used to.

"Americans, like a lot of cultures, are uncomfortable being touched," he said. "And so we have to be careful about it. We train the screeners to be as courteous and professional as possible."

In a typical week, 14 million people pass through airport security; about two million of those passengers are selected for the torso pat down.

Rear Admiral David Stone of the TSA says, with that many travelers, the number of complaints generated from a pat down search is relatively small.

"We're had about 12 complaints a week of the two million that we conduct that process on," he said. "And the complaints usually circle around the fact that in that particular case the screener did not explain the process that was going to be taking place and that customer service standard was not met."

Last weekend, the start of the holiday travel season, 16 million passengers took to the air, an increase of more than two percent over last year. With new pat down searches in effect, passengers are reminded they may request a private area if they are selected for the more complete search. The TSA also reminds travelers that every passenger is required to remove all outerwear, including jackets, sweaters and sport coats before going through security.