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Women complain about personal touch at airport { November 23 2004 }

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Passengers complain about pat-down searches at airports

By Ken Kaye
Staff Writer

November 23, 2004

Shocked by what she perceived as far too intimate a security check, Melanie Higley burst into tears.

First, the wand was placed too aggressively between her legs, then the airport screener at Dallas-Fort Worth International groped her, she said.

Hysterical, she protested that she was being abused. The screener's response: She was just doing her job.

Higley was then ordered to take off her tennis shoes, which she did -- and threw them at the screener.

"I was sweating, I was crying, I was a mess," said Higley, of Jupiter, who was heading to Palm Beach International with her family that September day. "I've never been touched like that before by another woman."

Scores of women, and some men, say they have suffered similar humiliation during a pat-down, standard procedure since Sept. 22 in secondary screenings at airport checkpoints. Many protest that it is an unnecessary invasion of privacy, the security process going too far.

"People should be outraged, fuming, doing something to change this," said Rhonda Gaynier, a New York attorney who said she was given a "breast exam" while flying out of Tampa in October. "It's like we have no rights anymore."

The Transportation Security Administration said the procedure is crucial to security. Less than a month earlier, two Russian airliners exploded, and authorities think two women hid explosives under their clothing.

The TSA requires female screeners pat down women; male screeners check men. The back of the hand must be used on breasts, genitals and buttocks and passengers can request it be done out of public view.

About 10 to 15 percent of passengers are selected for secondary screenings, chosen for a number of reasons.

The airlines are required to randomly select a certain number of passengers for closer inspection. The carrier will stamp the code "SSSS" on the ticket of a passenger selected for this process. Passengers who wear loose clothing are more apt to receive a pat down, as are travelers who set off metal detector alarms or exhibit suspicious behavior, such as protesting when asked to take off their shoes.

Most passengers understand the TSA must balance passenger privacy against the threat of terrorism, said TSA spokeswoman Lauren Stover.

"They understand it is done for their safety," she said. "We also realize the need for people to adjust to this new procedure."

Stover said the TSA is rigorously investigating all complaints, and if found valid, disciplinary action will be taken. No screeners have been punished, she said.

"There may be a few instances where screeners took the procedure a little too far," she said. "But the screeners are still adjusting to this new process as well."

4 months pregnant

That is of no consolation to Higley, an American Airlines flight attendant, who on Sept. 29 was returning from vacation in Lake Tahoe with her husband and 2-year-old son -- one week after the tougher rules went into effect.

She was four months pregnant, it was her 39th birthday, and the family had to catch a connecting flight in Dallas. A screener asked Higley to step aside for a pat down and an additional check with the wand.

"She put that thing in between my legs like you wouldn't believe," Higley said. "It was very offensive.''

Higley, who was not wearing any metal, said the wand beeped as it passed over the small of her back.

"She grabbed my rear end in an offensive way," she said. "I spun around and said, `Don't touch me again.' I was really starting to get offended."

Just the same, Higley said, the screener "reached over and cupped my right breast. At this point, I'm starting to shake, I'm starting to cry. I said, `If you touch me again, I'm going to hit you.'"

Her husband, an airline pilot, tried to join in her protest, but he could only look on because he wasn't allowed near where she was being searched, Higley said

Asked to remove her shoes, Higley said she took them off and threw them at the screeners.

"They had every right to call the police on me at that point," she conceded. "I was being very belligerent."

The police weren't called, and she was eventually allowed through the checkpoint, but only after she had become hysterical. In the aftermath, she said she was mad at herself for not getting the screener's name and filing a formal complaint.

Not everyone has been reluctant to complain. Though the TSA won't release numbers, news reports and an informal survey of airport passengers indicate the agency has offended hundreds of women in the past two months.

At a security checkpoint Nov. 5 at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, Patti LuPone, the singer and actress, said she was instructed to remove articles of clothing. "I took off my belt, I took off my clogs, I took off my leather jacket," she said. "But when the screener said, `Now take off your shirt,' I hesitated. I said, `But I'll be exposed!"' LuPone said she removed her shirt after vehemently protesting, revealing the see-through camisole she was wearing. LuPone said she demanded an explanation. "We don't want another Russia to happen," she said one of the screeners told her.

Next, she was given a pat-down by a screener who, she said, "was all over me with her hands."

When she persisted in her complaints, she said, she was barred from her flight.

Gaynier, 46, a real estate attorney based in Manhattan, said she was humiliated at Tampa International Airport.

She had been helping her parents set up their winter home in Zephyrhills and was planning to return to New York on American Airlines on Oct. 19, when she was pulled aside.

"They touched me between my breasts and I stopped them. When I refused to allow them to continue, they refused my boarding," she said.

She complained to a supervisor, who told her the pat down was mandatory.

"I said. `That's ridiculous, you're treating me like a criminal. I don't understand,'" Gaynier recalled.

Another female screener was called to continue the inspection, she said.

"She came around to front of my breasts and touched them with her fingertips. That's when I said, `Whoa, what are you doing? I don't think that's appropriate.'"

Gaynier protested again to the supervisor, saying the procedure was offensive.

"He said, `Ma'am, that's not offensive.' I said, `Oh really; what if somebody touched you ... during a pat down?'" she recalled.

Gaynier was denied boarding and escorted by police to the front of the terminal, where American Airlines agents found a flight for her on JetBlue.

But that required another pat down, which she endured so she could get home. Later, she filed a complaint with the TSA and protested to her congressman, as well as to U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy and the National Organization for Women.

Gaynier refuses to fly again until the procedure is abolished. Instead of flying to Michigan for Thanksgiving, she has rented a car. She's also thinking about taking Amtrak to Florida to see her parents at Christmas.

"I'm not going to fly if I have to get a breast exam to get on a damn plane," she said.

Men also complain

Though much fewer in number, some men also say they have been treated rudely.

Carlos Gonzalez, 21, of Weston, said he was going through security in Fort Lauderdale to board a Southwest Airlines flight to New Orleans on Nov. 5, when he was pulled aside.

"I take my shoes off, put everything in the basket and go through the metal detector, but for some reason it kept going off," said Gonzalez, who works in security for a department store.

Screeners asked him to stick out his arms and patted him down, much the way a police officer would frisk a suspect, he said. He said they didn't physically offend him, but yelled at him when he put his arms down without their permission, and made him feel like a criminal.

"They were saying to me, `We're not even close to being finished. What are you trying to hide?' It was like this huge ordeal," he said. "I felt uncomfortable because it was a whole big scene, and everyone was looking over as I was frisked."

Gonzalez said he didn't file a complaint because "I didn't get anyone's name and I just wanted to get out of there before I did anything I'd regret."

Others said they weren't offended by the pat down but simply felt uncomfortable.

Elaine Fitzgerald, spokeswoman for the annual Air & Sea Show at Fort Lauderdale beach, said the wire in her bra set off metal detector alarms last Christmas, well before pat downs became routine.

"They put me in a corner with my back to the public," she said. "They had a woman actually squeeze my bra cups. She apologized profusely. She seemed embarrassed. And I didn't like it one bit. But I was at their mercy, and I was late for a flight."

Unni Marie Berg, of Boca Raton, said because the pat down enhances security, "I don't mind at all. I think it adds a personal touch."

"I think it's a little uncomfortable, but if it improves security, it's necessary," said Miki Agrawal, of New York, who recently flew into Fort Lauderdale on business.

Eventually, the TSA might do away with pat downs, if it can hone explosive trace portals, which passengers walk through. Those machines already are being tested at six airports, including in Tampa.

"The good news is that aviation security has improved exponentially and that we continue to explore ways to tighten the bolt on our security system," Stover said.

Information from The New York Times was used to supplement this report. Ken Kaye can be reached at or 954-385-7911.
Copyright 2004, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

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