The TSA’s new pat-downs get too personal for some

When Barbara Leary went through the full-body scanner at Manchester-Boston Regional Airport recently, her hip replacements set off the alarm. She was directed to another line, where she underwent a physical search by a Transportation Security Administration agent.

“She went over every part of my body,” says Leary, a retired librarian from Westford, Mass. “It took more than five minutes. Not fun.”

On March 2, the TSA quietly introduced a new pat-down procedure that consolidates the agency’s five protocols for passenger searches into one standardized method. Now that it’s been in use for several weeks, passengers like Leary are coming forward with accounts of being frisked, and some of them are troubling.

“This standardized pat-down procedure continues to utilize enhanced security measures implemented several months ago, and does not involve any different areas of the body than were screened in the previous standard pat-down procedure,” says Mike England, a TSA spokesman. (The agency does not comment on the specifics of any passenger’s individual screening experience.)

So what, exactly, is the TSA doing differently? It’s difficult to quantify, and security concerns prevent the agency from providing specifics. The number of air travelers who receive pat-downs is fairly low. Only those who have opted opt out of using full-body scanners or whose belongings have set off the X-ray machine are required to undergo the pat-downs. Travelers may also be frisked at random, as part of the agency’s “unpredictable” security measures.

TSA agents receive formal training for pat-downs. To conduct a search at an airport, agents must demonstrate proficiency in performing the procedure. Yet for all the talk of uniformity, the pat-downs can vary widely, according to people who have been subjected to them at security screening areas.

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Melissa Hibbert-Brumfield, a makeup artist from Los Angeles, recently flew from Los Angeles International Airport to Atlanta. In the screening area, Hibbert-Brumfield says, the scanner detected an anomaly in her carry-on bag and asked her to step aside for a more thorough search.

After rummaging through her bag and finding nothing, a female agent told her she had to conduct a “higher level” pat-down. “She told me that she would be using the back of her hand in certain areas of my body,” Hibbert-Brumfield says.

Even so, the pat-down was far more invasive than Hibbert-Brumfield expected. “It felt like legal groping,” she says. “I was furious.”

Carolyn Paddock also recently received a pat-down when she flew from New York to Atlanta, and reports a far different experience. Paddock always opts out of the full-body scanner, so she’s used to receiving the pat-downs.

“The agent performed the new pat-down very professionally, proficiently and communicated everything that she was going to do in advance,” says Paddock, an executive coach based in New York. “My experience was better than usual.”

The new pat-down was developed in response to a Department of Homeland Security Office Inspector General assessment conducted last year, which found widespread failures in the TSA’s technology, procedures and agent performance. In response, the TSA pledged to improve its manual screening protocol, among other measures.

Before the pat-downs were standardized, agents used risk-based assessment to determine what type to use, according to Andrew Nicholson, a regional security director for International SOS, a medical and travel security services company. “The universal pat-down procedure is reportedly more comprehensive than previous screening tactics that varied in invasiveness,” Nicholson says.

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There’s no certain way of avoiding pat-downs when you fly domestically. Even air travelers with Pre-Check status, the agency’s “trusted” travelers, may be subject to a frisk. But having a Pre-Check designation on your boarding pass, or being willing to pass through the full-body scanner, will lessen your chances.

Like Paddock, I always opt out of the scanners, so I’m forced to undergo pat-downs. But on a recent flight from New York to Orlando, a TSA agent also flagged my 14-year-old son, Aren, for a physical search.

His pat-down was much more comprehensive than ones I’ve received in the past, with the agent swiping his hands up and down Aren’s legs and arms. It was also considerably more forceful. At one point, the agent’s leg technique pushed my son backward so hard that he nearly lost his balance.

At the end of the luggage carousel, a group of women watched in dismay as my son was examined from head to toe. He never flinched, but after we cleared security, he asked, “Dad, did they really have to do that?”

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at Read more of Christopher's articles here.

  • Alan Gore

    If you opt out of body scanning, you are asking for a pat-down. Being scanned does nor insure against getting one, but this is a lot less common.

  • Hanope

    As you said above, paying for Pre-check lessens one’s chances of the pat-down. Making revenue.

  • AJPeabody

    I suspect the upgrade from security theater to obtrusive pat downs (feel ups?) is due to advances in terrorist kamikazes who have acquired scanners and have learned how to beat them.

  • TestJeff Pierce

    The “Molocaust” continues unabated. The TSA performs criminal touching on everyone with the most intrusive, suspicionless, warrantless searches in America. If the country of Homeland citizens want America back, they need to decide that touching private parts is not an American value.

  • Travelnut

    The last time I went thru security, the pat-down was just gross. Usually you have to buy me dinner before you get to touch me like that.

  • Bill___A

    The pat downs I have received have been professional and fine – and infrequent. I expect different agents have different skill levels. Something they need to work on.

  • LeeAnneClark

    No, of course they didn’t have to do that. It’s all security theater. It serves no purpose, and does nothing to increase our safety. All it does is result in sexual assaults of millions of innocent civilians, including your son.

    The TSA has never stopped a single terrorist attack…never caught a single person who had intent to harm a flight. It’s all just for show. It’s an 8-billion-dollar-a-year violation of our Fourth Amendment rights.

    There are no terrorists trying to get onto planes to blow them up. How do we know this? Because…why would they? Terrorists don’t need to try to sneak a weapon onto a plane in order to produce mass casualties at an airport. All one would have to do is strap himself up with a suicide jacket and get into one of the huge TSA lines…then blow himself to smithereens. He could take out hundreds of passengers and dozens of blue-suited TSA goons, all without ever having to have his junk touched.

    Why isn’t that happening? Because there are ACTUAL intelligence agencies with ACTUAL trained, educated intelligence officers working to unearth terrorist plots before they ever get to the airport. As opposed to the TSA, which is staffed with uneducated, ill-trained, low-paid former Walmart employees recruited off pizza boxes who, too often, become drunk with the power they have over all of these innocent travelers.

  • Skeptic

    I’ve never been through the scanner. As long as the 4th Amendment* is interpreted to retain my right to “opt out,” I go for the feel-up when I don’t get TSA Pre, which is about 90% of the time these days.

    I’m in my 60s, but when my boarding pass doesn’t have the Pre logo on it, I wear a menstruation pad to prevent the groper’s hand from performing the first part of a pelvic exam on my anatomy. So far, they haven’t told me I have to remove said “panty liner.” If they do, I’ll claim urinary incontinence . . .

    *Gorsuch may change this.

  • Skeptic

    I am not “asking for” a pat down. Just expecting to retain my 4th Amendment rights, as a resident of a state that is not connected to the rest of the USA by land.

  • Skeptic

    Two words: panty liner.

  • LeeAnneClark

    Ah…I see you’ve experienced the same thing I have. Sickening, isn’t it? I’m 57, and have been married for 32 years. In all these years, only three people have touched my vagina: My husband, my doctor, and some random TSA screener at LAX. That’s just…wrong.

  • PsyGuy

    Yes they really had to do that, because there are people in the world that want to crash planes into our buildings.

  • PsyGuy

    No it’s not wrong it’s security.

  • PsyGuy

    It does everything to increase our security. Since the TSA started protecting us we have had how many terrorists planes flown into US buildings? Thank you.

  • PsyGuy

    Those aren’t assaults, were the TSA agents arrested, charged and convicted? I didn’t think so.

  • PsyGuy

    Would you really want dinner from an airport?

  • PsyGuy

    Have you seen who our president is, who brags about grouping woman. The people have spoken.

  • PsyGuy

    The specs are available online.

  • PsyGuy

    You consent to the search when approaching security. If you don’t like it don’t fly.

  • Fishplate

    That’s brilliant satire. Thank you.

  • Koholaz

    How many elderly women with artificial knees have carried bombs on planes?

  • James Dworak

    Like the little boy a couple weeks ago who only had shorts and a t shirt on, this person went thru far more than needed.
    I had a new hip put in two years ago and so far no problem. Yet if they wanted a full pat down, I’d probably start taking off my clothes and go naked.
    Makes me wonder if these tsa agents are getting their kicks out of pat downs.

  • LeeAnneClark

    :::sigh::: Okay PsyGuy, I’m going to ask you this one final time.

    I have politely, numerous times, asked you to stop replying to my comments. I have made it very clear to you that, due to your many offensive comments to me in the past, I’d prefer not to have any direct interactions with you. So I have respectfully asked you to stop replying to my comments…especially in an argumentative way. I have told you that I will not be replying back to any of YOUR comments. So the polite, respectful, mature thing for you to do would be to respect my wishes and stop.

    However, apparently you cannot help yourself. I can’t seem to make ANY comments on Christopher’s blog without you commenting back. You comment back to me more than anyone else on this site. And, since I told you I will not be replying back to you, you seem to have taken this as an open invitation to say whatever you feel like to me, refuting my comments however you please, knowing I won’t respond.

    I have learned that there is a block feature in Disqus. I would rather not have to use it…it just seems like we, as adults, should be able to behave maturely and not have to go that route. At least, I would have hoped. I’d also prefer not to have to block you, because you do post some comments that inspire interesting discussions that I’d prefer not to have to miss. I simply don’t want to have any interactions with you myself.

    So I will ask you one last time, with all due respect: PLEASE can you stop replying to my comments?

    If you do not stop, I will go ahead and block you. But do you really want that? Given the volume of comments you make to MY comments, it seems you still enjoy reading what I write. Can’t you just read them? Do you really have so little self-control that you can’t refrain from commenting back?

    As for this comment – again, this is offensive. You do not get to contest my description of what happened to me – you weren’t there. Yes, those two incidents WERE assaults, based on the FBI’s official definition of sexual assault. When a stranger shoves his or her thumb up my vagina without my consent, in any other setting in the US that would be a criminal offense. Unfortunately, the TSA checkpoint has become a place where the laws against sexual assault don’t apply…which is why the TSA screeners who did it to me weren’t arrested. But that doesn’t change the fact that what they did to me fits exactly with the FBI’s definition of assault. So you can’t jump to the conclusion that because they weren’t arrested, charged and convicted, an assault didn’t happen. LOTS of sexual assaults never are brought to justice.

    There, you asked a question, I answered it, and at this point I’d REALLY prefer not to have any further interactions with you. If you continue to reply, I will simply block you, with no further appeals to your maturity.

  • LeeAnneClark

    I hear ya. But we’re reluctant to allow all of this abuse to prevent us from doing the things we love to do. It’s certainly easier (and cheaper) to fly my mother here to see her grandchildren, as opposed to the whole family flying there to see her. So if she simply stops flying, it means she will likely rarely see her grandkids.

    And that’s just not right. If we allow these abusive TSA goons to take that away from us, then…they win.

    So we just do all we can to try to ensure safe and abuse-free trips. We all have Pre-check, and we all try very hard to ensure we don’t do anything at a checkpoint that might call us out for a grope. Although that doesn’t seem to help my mother much – she continues to set off the metal detectors, leading to gropes.

  • PsyGuy

    They are not your comments, they are the forums. You don’t own them once you post them. You don’t get to state whatever you want and then regulate the discussion by saying who can and can not reply or comment on your posts. You gave consent to comment when you posted. If you don’t want to see my comments to your posts, by all means block them, block me, I could not care less.

  • LeeAnneClark

    Okay. Well, I asked respectfully, and you simply can’t behave respectfully yourself.

    Just for the record, I have no interest in “regulating” any discussion. I simply want nothing to do with you. And trust me, I’m not the only one.

    But you have forced my hand. I will block you. (And yeah, sure you “couldn’t care less”. That’s why you seem to feel compelled to comment on almost everything I say.)

    You have demonstrated the maturity of a 12-year-old. I’m happy to bid a forever goodbye to you. Block coming shortly.

  • PsyGuy

    Take a boat, charter your own plane. It might be simplistic but it’s also realistic. The airlines and the aviation industry isn’t a “right”.

  • PsyGuy

    Don’t give them ideas.

  • PsyGuy

    I try.

  • PsyGuy

    We disagree on what respect is.
    Farewell, Au Revoir, Auf Wiedersehen, Good Bye.

  • LeeAnneClark

    Thank you for explaining how the block feature won’t solve my problem. I was assuming it was like Facebook – once you block someone, you can’t see them and they can’t see you. Apparently not.

    I have reached out to Christopher to ask for his help in stopping the harassment.

  • LeeAnneClark

    Update: I have been going back and removing all of my comments to you asking you to leave me alone. (There are many – I’ve removed a few so far). Meanwhile I have reached out to Christopher, and asked him to ask you to LEAVE ME ALONE.

    To be clear (if it isn’t already): I do not wish to have any interaction with you whatsoever. Given that I have repeatedly asked you to leave me alone, at this point If you continue to reply to my comments, I will also report your replies to Disqus as harassment.

    I do not wish to “control” anyone’s conversation, least of all yours. I just want YOU…only you…to leave me alone. I simply cannot fathom why you feel you MUST reply to my comments. My opinions are just that – my opinions. Your comments back to me will not change them. And I have repeatedly asked you to leave me alone. So there is no purpose served by your continued engagement with me, other than trollish harassment. I do not, and will not, reply to any of your comments. I ask only for the same in return.

    Unfortunately Disqus does not allow me to block you from seeing my comments and replying to them, so all I can do is appeal to you, once more to LEAVE ME ALONE.

    I’m not sure I can be any clearer.

    Thank you.

  • Extramail

    You’re being ridiculous!

  • Extramail

    Couldn’t agree more. In my opinion, the terrorists have already won because our way of life has fundamentally been changed by introducing things like the theatre of the absurd called the TSA. An extreme waste of time, money and loss of rights.

  • LeeAnneClark

    Thank you. I have politely, repeatedly asked him to stop harassing me. And yet he continues to reply to almost every single comment I make, often argumentatively and offensively.

    I’ve asked for Christopher’s help to stop this harassment. If it continues, unfortunately I will simply have to stop all participation in this forum. Which isn’t fair. I’ve been a fan and reader of Christopher’s blogs for many years. It would be a shame to end up being chased away due to one rude guy’s obsessive harassment.

  • Extramail

    I’m wondering if he is doing it on purpose. And, this is exactly why Chris shut down the comment completely for awhile. Chris, you may have to go to moderating comments instead of it being an all or nothing section.

  • LeeAnneClark

    Of course he’s going it on purpose.

    In general I just ignore him. But he just won’t leave me alone. I know nothing about him, but he certainly behaves like a 12 year old pulling pigtails.

    I would hate to see his immature behavior end up forcing Christopher to moderate these comments. How unfortunate that would be, for everyone else to suffer due to one bad apple.

  • PsyGuy

    How so? Isn’t this country one founded on the rule of law and not slander, hyperbole, gossip and innuendo?

  • PsyGuy

    They are not YOUR comments, they are the forums.
    If you want to be left alone, don’t post or block, you will then not be offended or inundated with my commentary. I am not replying to YOU, I am replying to your CONTENT.
    Why should I have to be muffled because YOU have a problem, it’s your issue with me, why don’t YOU take responsibility for your own feelings? Who are you to say, you get to post with impunity and dictate who can and can not reply. You aren’t royalty, and while this is Chris’s forum and he has NO obligation to provide a venue for anyone to speak, it’s NOT YOUR forum.
    I don’t care if you read my comments or not, they are posted as replies to ISSUES you have presented to the forum and as a member of the forum I get to comment on what I want within the boundaries of the rules the forum has adopted. YOU don’t get to tell anyone, including me who I can and can not reply to or post regarding. If you want to block me so you don’t read and aren’t offended by my posts, then be done with it and do so, the rest of the forum shall engage in the discourse the forum was intended for.

  • PsyGuy

    How about we settle on “wrong security”?

  • PsyGuy


  • Attention All Passengers

    It was risky, but I used to love to get under the TSA’s skin at the airport I previously worked at. They would be tortuous to people on a short hop to CLE or ORD because their ID said Robert Appalachicola and the boarding pass said Rob or Bob, sending them back to the ticket counter to get a name change. I would graciously escort the “offending” passenger right back to the top of the line and say something to the TSA agent (you know, the guy sitting at the podium with his blue rubber gloves on inspecting everything under an infrared lamp like a brain surgeon ready to operate)…..

    “You do know that Rob is short for Robert or Bob is acceptable for Robert ?”….”No?”…..let’s just get the supervisor over here (and the same conversation would ensue). I was perfectly ready to do a name change but it was stupid and time consuming. Amazingly enough I always won – it especially worked when I would do it in front of other passengers on line.

  • LeeAnneClark

    Reported as harassment.

  • Lee

    The other day flying back to JFK from LAX, my boots (just regular boots, no big zippers, other stuff on them) set off the alarm so I was sent to line next to me for the full body scanner (holding hands over head, etc) – came out and was told to remove my boots as they had to check certain parts of my body. There was a little machine with video screen which highlighted in red which parts of my body would be searched.

    Given that the zippers in my boots are plastic, I still don’t know what set off the alarm. They too were sent through the security conveyer belt for checking: nothing.

    It is the second body search I have undergone – the first, a few years ago, was much more invasive and discomforting. This was relatively mild in comparison. But, plastic zippers on boots? (I didn’t have to remove the shoes initially because I had TSA pre-check so shoes, belts, etc did not have to be removed, nor did I have to haul out the liquids, computer). But, agitating security is not something I am inclined to do unless something really outrageous is proposed or occurs –

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