The Transportation Security Administration is working to create an alternative screening process for pilots, the agency's chief said this morning, amid mounting protests by airline pilots over new airport scanners criticized as invasive and hazardous to health due to radiation exposure.
"Obviously, they are a trusted group in so many different ways, and so it makes sense to do some type of different type of screening which we will explore and we will have a way forward in the near future," TSA Administrator John Pistole said on CNN's American Morning.
Pistole said his agency has been talking with pilot groups about a new screening process but declined when pressed to say what it might entail. "I don't want to broadcast anything prematurely," he said, "but I think there are options that we are looking at that make sense."
Controversy over the full-body scanners, which use radiation to produce a graphic image of those screened, has escalated in recent days. Last week, unions that represent pilots for American Airlines and U.S. Airways urged their members to avoid the scanners despite assertions by TSA and the Food and Drug Administration that the potential health risk of exposure was "miniscule." The unions argued that pilots face an untenable choice between submitting to an "invasive" full-body scan or what they insinuated can be an X-rated pat-down by TSA agents that involves touching breasts and genitals.
Passengers are voicing concerns over invasions of privacy by both the scanners and the friskings as well. A passengers' group has planned a National Opt-Out Day on Nov. 24, when it will encourage opponents of the new screening regime to refuse both full-body screening and the "enhanced" pat down required of those who decline the scanner.
California traveler John Tyner has become the latest flashpoint in the debate. Tyner refused a body scan, and was offered a pat down by a TSA agent. The video he recorded during the resulting exchange, captured on a cell phone, had over 213,000 hits on YouTube as of Monday morning.
"If you touch my junk, I'll have you arrested," Tyner warned a TSA agent in the video. Police escorted him from the screening area, and a supervisor told him he could be faced with a fine of $10,000.
The TSA is now working now to "balance" the issues of privacy concerns and safety of both pilots and the general public, Pistole said.
"We know that everybody on every flight wants to insure that everybody around them has been properly screened so there's not a group with box cutters or liquid explosives or underwear bombs or shoe bombs or whatever it may be," he said. The TSA is balancing "security on the one hand, partnerships [with pilots and travelers] on the other hand," Pistole said.
In an opinion piece published in USA Today, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said that the "vast majority of travelers" preferred the full-body scanners used at 68 airports nationwide to "alternative screening measures." The machines "are safe, efficient, and protect passenger privacy," Napolitano said.
Napolitano emphasized the need to strike a balance between security and facilitating travel in a meeting with travel industry officials on Friday, and said in her opinion piece that the best defenses against terrorists remain in a "risk-based, layered security approach that utilizes a range of measures, both seen and unseen, including law enforcement, advanced technology, intelligence, watch-list checks and international collaboration."
Napolitano, who has been trying to diffuse growing anger over airport screening procedures and physical pat downs, encouraged the American public to speak out if they see any potential threats and to cooperate with the screening procedures-and to remain patient ahead of a busy travel season before Thanksgiving.
"We ask for cooperation, patience and a commitment to vigilance in the face of a determined enemy," Napolitano said.