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Originally published Saturday, June 23, 2012 at 7:00 PM

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Why I'm still picking the pat-down at airport security checkpoints

A study on airport full-body scanners by Marquette University College of Engineering found radiation levels considerably lower than those of other X-ray procedures such as mammograms.

Seattle Times travel writer

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A new study of the backscatter full-body scanners — the type installed for security screening at Sea-Tac airport and some other U.S. airports — has concluded the radiation risk is negligible even for children, frequent fliers and pilots.

The study by Marquette University College of Engineering, believed to be the first independent review of the X-ray scanners, found that the radiation passes beyond a passenger's skin to reach 29 organs — including the heart and brain, but at a level considerably lower than those of other X-ray procedures such as mammograms.

Sorry, but this doesn't make me feel any better, so I'll continue to opt out and go for the pat-down instead.

What does make me feel better is the way the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has refined the pat-down procedure.

It wasn't that long ago that some passengers compared the physical pat-down to groping, but that hasn't been my experience. OK; no one offered me coffee or tea the way they did when I was pulled aside in Iceland for a search, but the TSA agents were polite and respectful. I've had several pat-downs recently, each performed by a female agent who carefully explained each move and asked whether I had any special issues or sensitive areas.

Waiting for the pat-down does take more time than walking through a scanner, so if you're in a hurry, it's tempting just to give in. So far, I've resisted. Privacy doesn't concern me. The backscatter scanners produce murky nude images that agents view in a separate area away from the passenger being screened. For me, it's a matter of safety and principle.

The scanners need more study. What about the cumulative effects of multiple screenings? How effective are they in finding threatening objects as opposed to stray tubes of toothpaste, the latest "find" reported last week on TSA's blog?

And why are some airports such as Sea-Tac stuck with the X-ray backscatter machines while others have millimeter wave machines that don't emit radiation and have been retrofitted to replace the nude body images with generic stick figures?

The author of the Marquette study did not test the actual machines, the Los Angeles Times reports. Instead, she based her conclusions on scanner-radiation data released by the TSA.

Paris bound?

Good news if you're flying Delta's nonstop between Seattle and Paris next year. The airline says it will replace the clunky Boeing 767 it now flies (cramped overhead bins and no individual in-seat entertainment systems in coach) with an upgraded 767 featuring full flatbed seats in BusinessElite and new seats in economy equipped with in-seat personal entertainment screens and USB power ports. The upgraded planes should be in service in January. Delta has been flying old 767-300ERs since it took over the route from Air France in March.

Satisfaction

Alaska Airlines ranked the highest in customer satisfaction among six major North American airlines, according to a recent survey by J.D. Power and Associates.

Customers gave Seattle-based Alaska particularly high marks in four of seven measures — flight crews, boarding/deplaning/baggage, check-in and reservations.

Alaska no doubt won points for its policy of awarding $20 discount coupons or extra frequent-flier miles if checked bags don't arrive at the carousel within 20 minutes.

The airline seems to be taking steps to reduce the overall baggage that passengers bring on board. Starting July 10, those traveling to or from Mexico City or Guadalajara get just one free checked bag instead of two. On all flights, Alaska and its sister carrier, Horizon Air, have started enforcing a policy limiting carry-ons to one regulation-size bag per person and one personal item such as a laptop or purse.

Follow the rules, according to gate announcements I heard recently at Sea-Tac, or be prepared to gate-check the extras for $25 per bag.

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Contact Carol Pucci: cpucci@seattletimes.com.

On Twitter @carolpucci.

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About Travel Wise

Travel Wise is aimed at helping people travel smart, especially independent travelers seeking good value. Drawing on her own experiences and readers', Carol Pucci covers everything from the best resources to how to tap into the local culture. Her column runs each Sunday in the Travel section.

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