by Keith Laing, The Hill Newspaper
The Transportation Security Administration says passengers will likely notice fewer pat-downs of children and other changes at airports over this long weekend, the busiest travel days of the year.
The changes are part of TSA’s move toward a “risk-based” security approach. Most of them have been in place since earlier in the fall, but they will be new to an estimated 3.4 million people who are expected to fly for the holidays.
“When traveling this holiday travel season, passengers may notice new procedures in place at airports, including modified screening for passengers 12 and under and additional privacy protections on more than half of our imaging technology units,” the agency said in a statement provided to The Hill.
“TSA is also in the process of testing new ideas at some airports to further strengthen security while enhancing the passenger experience whenever possible,” the agency continued.
The AAA auto club said last week that air traffic was expected to be 1.8 percent higher this year than in 2010, part of an overall increase of 1 million holiday travelers.
TSA has come under fire for its airport security procedures again recently, but the agency says programs such as its Pre-Check known traveler system could improve passengers’ travel experience. Passengers who enroll in Pre-Check volunteer information about themselves in exchange for the possibility of avoiding waiting in security lines.
Also included in those changes are reducing controversial pat-downs for children 12 years and under and eliminating specific images of passengers being scanned with TSA’s new millimeter wave technologies.
The TSA changes accompany new data released recently that shows despite the negative attention — such as MTV Jersey Shore star JWOWW’s recent suggestion that she was targeted because of her celebrity — complaints against the agency are down. The Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics said 1,418 complaints about TSA were received in September 2011, compared to 1,941 last November.
That has not prevented a renewal of congressional scrutiny, however, including some that has stemmed from the agency’s recent 10th anniversary. House Transportation Committee Chairman Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) released a report on the occasion last week calling the agency an “enormous, inflexible and distracted bureaucracy.”
He said TSA’s 10 years on the airport security job had not make flying safer.
“We are safer today, but not because of TSA,” Mica said in a press conference at Washington’s Ronald Reagan National Airport. “It’s because the American people will not allow an aircraft to be taken over. We saw on Flight 93, and almost every instance of a successful thwarting since, it’s been the passengers, the pilots and the crew.”
Mica, who wrote the law that helped create the TSA after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, is one of the agency’s most vocal critics in Congress.
Other lawmakers have spoken out in recent weeks too, with even some Democrats like Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) being sharply critical.
“I try to avoid a pat-down at all costs,” McCaskill told TSA Administrator John Pistole during a hearing this month. “There are many times women put their hands on me in a way that if it was your daughter or your sister or your wife, you would be upset.”
For their parts this week, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and Federal Aviation Administration chief Randy Babbitt encouraged holiday travelers who are flying to help make the experience painless.
“We operate the safest transportation system in the world but we can all take some simple steps to keep ourselves and our loved ones even safer this holiday season,” LaHood said in a statement.
“I’m asking every passenger to take just a few minutes to follow our safety tips and, most importantly, pay attention to your flight and cabin crew,” Babbitt added.
Meanwhile, TSA spokesman Kawika Riley told The Hill that the agency would be “able to use forecasts and related intelligence to determine how to increase security on an airport-by-airport basis.
“Thanksgiving week tends to be one of one of the busiest every year, and we expect it to be no different this time around,” he said. “We will be fully staffed for the holiday season.”