Pilots angered by US air security

2010-11-16 13:40

Chicago - Airport security stops one airline pilot because he's carrying a butter knife. Elsewhere, crews opt for pat-down searches because they fear low-level radiation from body scanners could be harmful. And in San Diego, one traveller is told he can't fly at all when he likens an intrusive body search to sexual harassment.

Annoyance at US security hassles has been on the rise among airline crews and passengers for years, but the widespread use of full-body image detectors this year and the simultaneous introduction of more intrusive pat-downs seems to have ramped up the frustration.

As passengers have simmered over being forced to choose scans by full-body image detectors or rigorous pat-downs inspections, some airline pilots are pushing back. Much of the criticism is directed at the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).

"I would say that pilots are beyond fed up," said Tom Walsh, a pilot and sometimes aviation security consultant. "The TSA is wasting valuable time and money searching the crew - who are not a threat."

Even one of the nation's most celebrated pilots, Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, has detected the growing unease.

"The fundamental reason is that airline pilots are already the last line of defence for anyone who poses a threat to the airplane," said the soft-spoken Sullenberger, who successfully ditched his US Airways plane in the Hudson River last year after it struck birds during takeoff. "We are - and would like to be considered - trusted partners in that important security mission."

Necessary sacrifices

The scanners show a body's contours on a computer stationed in a private room removed from the security checkpoints. A person's face is never shown and the person's identity is supposedly not known to the screener reviewing the images. Under TSA rules, those who decline must submit to pat-downs that include checks of the inside of travellers' thighs and buttocks.

Top federal officials said on Monday that the procedures are safe and necessary sacrifices to ward off terror attacks.

"It's all about security," Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said. "It's all about everybody recognising their role."

That's not how John Tyner sees it.

The software engineer posted an internet blog item over the weekend saying he had been ejected from the San Diego airport after being threatened with a fine and lawsuit for refusing a groin check after turning down a full-body scan. He said he told one federal TSA worker, "If you touch my junk, I'm gonna have you arrested."

"I told the person that being molested should not be a condition of getting on a flight," the 31-year-old said in a phone interview on Monday.

'Ridiculous'

Tyner, who was eventually told he could not fly at all because he refused both modes of search, captured the incident on his cell phone.

"This is not considered a sexual assault," a supervisor can be heard telling him.

"It would be if you were not the government," replies Tyner.

Many pilots say requiring them to go through security is ridiculous.

One 20-year airline pilot, Patrick Smith, recalled once being stopped and questioned because he had a butter knife in a bag.

"If a pilot like me is going to be up to no good, why would he need a butter knife?" he said. "I'm in control of the entire airplane!"

Crew passes

Walsh argued that it sends a disturbing message to passengers for them to see pilots being searched.

"They must think, `This is the guy flying the plane. If you can't trust the pilot who can you trust?"' he said.

Captain John Prater, head of the Air Line Pilots Association, noted pilots are already subject to FBI background checks. Prater said that based on discussions with TSA officials on Monday he was hopeful the agency will soon approve a "crew pass" system that would allow flight attendants and pilots to undergo less stringent screenings.

Some pilots also are concerned about possible health risks from low-level radiation emitted by the body machines.

Sullenberger, who recently retired, said pilots are exposed to more radiation because they fly at altitudes where the atmosphere doesn't fully block harmful rays.

No radiation studies


"So, for those of us who are already exposed to many times more radiation than those who work on the ground, it is of concern to us that we are exposed even in small amounts to additional, what we consider unnecessary radiation exposure," he said.

Sullenberger said he hasn't heard of studies addressing those potential health risks, but he said, "Absent the data, I think we need to err on the side of caution."

Not all passengers share the level of ire of Tyner, whose individual protest quickly became a web sensation over the weekend.

Waiting to board a flight at Los Angeles International Airport on Monday, Mark Spritzler said he, for one, accepted that scanners were a necessary inconvenience.

"It makes me feel safer flying," Spritzler said. "I don't think they intrude on my privacy, the images are seen behind closed doors and unfortunately this is what has to be done to make things more secure."

- SAPA

Read more on:    us  |  security  |  air travel
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