Thursday, June 17, 2010

Sorry Sir, I need to Inspect your Head

By Mark J. Donovan

Yesterday while going through airline security I experienced yet a new low in airline travel. I had just gone through one of the new X-ray backscatter imaging machines and was told to stand aside and wait. While I stood next to a TSA employee, he was on his radio going back and forth with one of his colleagues on what to do with me. At first, I was not sure what the issue was. The TSA did not attempt to wand me down or explain to me what the issue was. Finally, after a minute or so of back and forth conversations on his radio, he finally spoke to me and said, “This is going to sound funny, but sorry sir, I need to inspect your head”. At 6’ 4” I was apparently too tall for the X-ray machine and consequently my head didn’t get scanned. As a result, he had to do an “inspection of my head”. My first reaction to him was “are you kidding, I’m not wearing anything on my head”. To myself, I thought what is he going to do, pat down my head? Instead he said, “No problem” and then proceeded to walk around me visually inspecting my head. A couple of seconds later I was allowed to proceed on to my gate.

Though the TSA employee acted professionally and we both got a good laugh out of the incident, this episode was just another example in my mind of the pure stupidity of our current security processes through airports. In an attempt to not offend a few, we instead abuse all by putting every air traveler through the ringer. Besides the wasted time of millions of air travelers every day we are now being nearly stripped of all personal dignity. The new X-ray scanners require a person to strip down to a level not typically required of the basic metal detectors. For example, belts, shoes, and wallets MUST come off to go through the new X-ray scanners, where as with the traditional metal detectors much of the time you could leave these items on. In addition, when standing in one of the new X-ray scanners, you need to turn sideways, spread your legs, and put your hands over your head. Do these words sound familiar to you? Do they make you feel a little nervous or wonder where we are headed as a “free country or people”?

The other concern I have is that though the TSA’s website talks about the low level of radiation doses each person is receiving with the backscatter X-ray machines I was surprised that there were no placards on or near the machines stating this. Ironically there was a large placard stating “No snow globes aloud in carryon baggage anymore”. Yes, the little glass balls you shake with the little snowflakes in them.

I also wonder, that even though the radiation doses were low per individual per scan, what the total dose accumulated over hundreds or even thousands of flights throughout a person’s lifetime could be. X-ray radiation accumulates in the body, so how many airport X-ray scans can a person go through before the total X-ray radiation exposure IS a concern. And how about for the TSA employees who stand hour after hour near the machines. Are they safe? Finally, what is the X-ray radiation exposure level that air travelers, as a whole, are being subjected to, all for the sake of not offending a few?

Though my latest air travel experience produced a laugh, it also raised my frustration and concerns again for the United States policy on airline security. I find it ironic, that in the age of incredibly intelligent search engine and database technologies, that smarter and less obtrusive ways of screening air travelers cannot be performed. I also find it ironic, that in order to protect the rights of a few “risk travelers” that all travelers must be subjected to abuse and a loss of dignity. I have no doubt, with the current Crow Magnum approach to airport security it won’t be long before we are fully undressing at airports and standing in line to walk through a door marked with a rubber glove placard.

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