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Full-body scanners trigger concerns for some fliers

For some of the estimated 1.5 million airline passengers who will pass through South Florida’s three major airports in the peak week of travel ahead, it’s a decision much tougher than just dark meat or light at Thanksgiving dinner:

Full-body image scan, or a probing hands-on pat-down?

“People are very apprehensive,” said veteran Pembroke Pines travel agent Linda Mersch, reflecting what her clients are saying about holiday travel.

“People are concerned about their children. Females traveling alone. Even some men. I’ve had one client tell me, ‘The next time I’ll drive,'” Mersch said.

The bottom line?

“I tell people, ‘you have no choice,’ ” said Mersch, in business since 1964. “You can’t make a scene. This is what you will have to do if you want to get on this plane.”

Some 400 body imagers are now in use in 69 airports in the United States, including Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International, Palm Beach International and Miami International.

As the busiest travel days of the season arrive, Homeland Security and Transportation Security Administration officials have struggled to quell concerns that the X-ray body scans – called “virtual strip searches” by some civil rights groups – were unsafe or unduly invasive.

Officials also defended the “enhanced pat-down” given to passengers who decline to pass through a scanner. In those searches, TSA officers are required to run their hands over the inside of the thighs and genital area of passengers to look for hidden weapons or explosives.

Nor are children exempt. “Families are kept together,” said Sari Koshetz, a South Florida-based spokeswoman for TSA. “Children 12 and under would receive a modified pat-down.”

“We specially train our security officers and they understand your concern for your children,” the TSA website says. “They will approach your children gently and treat them with respect. If your child becomes uncomfortable or upset, security officers will consult you about the best way to relieve your child’s concern.”

Fliers also have expressed fears that their blurred but naked images could be seen by others, or were stored on computers. In response, TSA officials say the images are deleted immediately after they are viewed by an agent at a monitor that is partitioned off from the passenger being screened.

Outrage over the intrusiveness of the scanners led one Internet-based protester to call on fliers to declare Wednesday “national opt-out day” and refuse to use them.

The call for a boycott led in turn to fears of passenger logjams at security checkpoints.

“We are fully staffed and prepared. We don’t expect any problems,” said Koshetz.

Not every passenger will be asked to go through a scanner, however, even where they are in operation. Many fliers will continue to be screened by walking through more conventional metal detectors.

“Advanced Imaging Technology safely screens passengers for metallic and non-metallic threats to help keep the traveling public safe,” Koshetz said. “Advanced Imaging Technology is optional. Passengers who decline to be screened by the technology will receive alternative screening to include a thorough pat-down.”

Anyone who refuses to complete the screening process will be denied access to secure areas and could be subject to a civil penalty with fines up to $11,000, she said.

Koshetz said TSA officials would not disclose the percentages of passengers screened by each method.

Before flying out of Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International, Kathleen Johnston, 72, a breast cancer survivor from Lighthouse Point, said, “I was very apprehensive. I’ve just had six weeks of radiation, so I didn’t want more.” Neither did she want to be frisked by a security agent, she said.

Johnston, visiting her son and grandchildren in Tennessee, lucked out. She was directed to the metal detector, and breezed through screening without incident.

“I’d rather they profile,” said Johnston. “I don’t have any problem if they check my background.”

Controversy over airport screening exploded last week after a software engineer ticketed for a flight out of San Diego posted on the Internet a cell phone video he made of his encounter with checkpoint screeners. Told he would have to undergo a “groin check” if he refused to pass through the scanner, John Tyner warned the TSA agent, “If you touch my junk, I’m gonna have you arrested.”

Tyner’s video went viral.

And travelers grew alarmed.

“This has never happened before, but I got three calls from people this week,” said Peter Ricci, director of the hospitality management program at Florida Atlantic University. “They all wanted to know, ‘How much extra time should we allow to get through security?'”

Some passengers say they don’t understand the hullabaloo.

At Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, businessman Ari Naiditch, 35, had no hesitation as he approached the security checkpoint recently for an afternoon flight to Pittsburgh.

He called the scanners – officially known as advanced imaging technology machines – “a convenience,” in part because he has a medical implant that triggers an alarm in conventional metal detectors.

“Personally I would never take part in something like a boycott because that adds an additional security risk,” said Naiditch, who lives in Miami. “I want things to go as smoothly as possible.”

As for concerns that some medical researchers have raised about exposure to radiation, Naiditch said, “I assume it’s safe.”

The TSA website asserts, “The amount of radiation from a backscatter scan is equivalent to two minutes of flight on an airplane.”

Still, there are worries out there.

Scientists at the University of California, San Francisco sent a letter to the White House Office of Science and Technology in April in which they cited “potential serious health risks” posed by the scanners.

The Allied Pilots Association, which represents pilots at American Airlines, urged members to avoid the full-body scanners because of worries about cumulative radiation.

Two veteran commercial airline pilots say the whole-body scans and the new pat-down procedures violate their civil rights.

The pilots, Michael S. Roberts of Memphis and Ann Poe of Fort Lauderdale, have refused to participate in either screening method and, as a result, will not fly out of airports that use these methods, according to a lawsuit filed Tuesday in Washington.

Steve Landes, president of the South Florida Airline Commuters Association, calls concerns about security procedures “way overblown.”

“The public has no right to complain unless they want to get blown up on a plane,” said Landes, who lives in Boynton Beach and flies several times a month.

Cyndy Burdige, owner of Bruce Travel of Plantation, said that in booking dozens of trips for business and leisure travelers in recent days, “I have not heard about any concerns. Seasoned travelers, and even those who aren’t, are taking this in stride. It’s not a big deal at all.”

Sharon Turnau, owner of Landmark Travel Services in Fort Lauderdale, said, “I have not heard one word from one client” about the scanners.

“There are a few people making a big stink over a non-issue,” said Turnau. “If you want to be safe in this world, you have to go through security measures.”

Outgoing Florida Sen. George LeMieux objected to the pat-downs, telling TSA Administrator John Pistole at a Washington committee hearing last week, “I would not want my wife to be touched in the way that these folks are being touched; I would not want to be touched that way.”

Still, added LeMieux, “I agree that our main focus has to be safety, but there needs to be a better balance.”

The continuing roll-out of the body-scanning machines follows by almost a year an incident in which suspected terrorist Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab boarded a Detroit-bound flight with an explosive device sewn into his underwear.

Pistole acknowledged that “reasonable people can disagree as to what that proper balance or blend is between privacy and security safety.”

But, Pistole said in Washington, the measures being used now were justified.

“Everybody who gets on a flight wants to be reassured that everybody else around them has been properly screened,” Pistole said.

Passengers traveling through Palm Beach International Airport on Saturday agreed.

“I’m all for it,” said Neftaly Rodriguez, of West Palm Beach, who was coming home from Philadelphia Saturday. “We’ve become very comfortable in this country and our comfort has hurt us.” Rodriguez said terrorists have embraced technology and found ways to sneak in very small explosive devices through security checks in the past. “I’m all for a little inconvenience if it means more security,” she said.

Joyce Anderson, of Toronto, hadn’t given the body scanner much thought. “But if it’s necessary to stop these terrorists, I can put up with that,” she said.

Kelvin Ason, who was on his way to Atlanta, wasn’t concern with the body scanner violating his privacy.

He said that privacy is a right that stays at the door in crowded places.

“Since you have to come into an environment where there are lots of people and you don’t know their intentions, it is a needed precaution,” he said.

Although TSA officials refuse to disclose how many passengers are scanned, searched by hand, or pass through the older metal detectors, the X-ray scanners are the future. Said Koshetz: “The goal is to have as many people as possible go through the AITs (advanced imaging technology).”

Koshetz said the best course for passengers who want to expedite their journey through the security checkpoint is to get ready.

“Many will go through the metal detector as before,” said Koshetz. “So people should prepare themselves so they won’t have a pat-down. For lower stress at the checkpoint, take off jewelry, belt buckles and anything that could look like a threatening item.”

For more information about security measures, go to http://www.tsa.gov.

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