TSA ups ante in pat downs

The federal agency on Friday instituted a more thorough version of the hands-on check for travelers who set off metal detectors.

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WALLA WALLA - Several air travelers at the Walla Walla Regional Airport had a more hands-on experience during their security checks Friday.

After setting off the metal detector at the security checkpoint, the passengers were introduced to the U.S. Transportation Security Administration's new and more thorough pat-down process.

The change is a nationwide revision implemented Friday at airports all over the country. Referred to also as a more law-enforcement-style approach, the bolder pat downs are now performed with screeners' hands sliding over the body. Those subjected to such checks may request the inspection to be conducted in private.

A female TSA worker at the airport said only four such pat-downs had to be performed throughout the day by the time boarding was taking place for the 2:40 p.m. flight to Seattle. As part of TSA's policy, the searches are conducted by screeners who are the same sex as the passengers being searched.

Though met with little resistance in Walla Walla so far, the more personal pat-downs have been the subject of debate all over the country about the push-and-pull between personal rights and public safety.

An attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union told USA Today the organization is concerned "whether the level of intrusion is appropriate given the terrorism threat."

TSA has not gone on the record to say what specifically prompted the change. But the agency has said the pat downs are "one of many layers of security to keep the traveling public safe."

Those who set off the metal detector or opt not to enter the "full-body" screening machines already common to larger airports may be subject to the pat downs. Such inspections may also be warranted in instances where something suspicious is detected, officials have said.

"Pat downs are one important tool to help TSA detect hidden and dangerous items such as explosives," TSA said in an issued statement. "Passengers should continue to expect an unpredictable mix of security layers that include explosives trace detection, advanced imaging technology, canine teams, among others."

TSA is also planning to have more of its full-body scanners installed at airports across the country over the next two years. The scanners have been controversial in their own right. According to the USA Today piece some fliers see the imaging technology as a "virtual strip search." But others believe the concern has been blown out of proportion and that the technology is not intended to exploit travelers.

Though talked about at the Walla Walla Regional Airport for the last several years, the technology has not yet come to Walla Walla for a couple of reasons. TSA has been working to get the technology into its larger markets first. But also the security checkpoint will need to be reconfigured to make way for the equipment, Port of Walla Walla officials said last week.

During last Thursday's Port meeting, commission President Mike Fredrickson said he'd heard concerns from some local residents about the changes before the pat-down policy even began Friday. As a new direction of TSA, however, the hands of local officials are tied.

"I don't like it," Fredrickson said. "But what are we going to do about it?"

It's all part of the changing frontier in air travel, said Walla Walla resident Trish Puchalski, who was at the airport Friday afternoon to pick up incoming cargo. Though not a fan of the more touchy approach, she said the world has changed since Sept. 11, 2001.

"People have to do what they have to do. They need to be safe flying," Puchalski said, recounting a time her underwire set off a metal detector before a flight.

"If you want to get to your destination, you've got to jump through hoops, no matter whether you feel violated."

As passengers unloaded their shoes, liquids, belts, jackets and other items onto the conveyor screening system, Ken Clayton, the security coordinator for the Walla Walla Regional Airport, said communication is key in helping the public understand the new system.

"These guys here have been informing the public of the changes as people walk through," Clayton said.

He said the security checks take place over the clothes and with discretion.

He said most people are aware to remove items that may cause the metal detector to sound the alarm. But the importance of early arrival for screening remains. If the 76-passenger Horizon Air planes have a full load, and screenings take an average of one minute per person, that's 76 minutes just to get passengers checked through security, he said.

Vicki Hillhouse can be reached at vickihillhouse@wwub.com or 526-8321.

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