Any air passenger who has flown since 9/11 knows that airport security is strict, but passengers who are chosen for a pat-down experience more scrutiny than others. Transportation Security Administration officers administer pat-downs to passengers who need screening in addition to regular checks before they’re allowed to fly. While pat-downs can be inconvenient, they are an unavoidable part of modern air travel.


A pat-down is not standard procedure for all air travelers. You may be asked to undergo a pat-down if an alarm is triggered when you go through the metal detector. For example, if you forget to remove a metal belt or have a metal plate inside your body, you may be asked to step aside for a pat-down. Some airports are now equipped with Advanced Imaging Technology, or AIT. These machines X-ray passengers through a large screen. If you don’t wish to walk through the AIT machine, you can opt to be patted down instead.


If you’re chosen for a pat-down, you’ll generally be led to a designated space near the main screening area. This station is usually in view of other travelers, but you do have the right to request privacy. The screening will be performed by an officer of your gender. The officer will run a handheld metal-detecting wand over you, then run her hands across your body to feel for forbidden items such as weapons. You must tell the officer if you have any medical devices, such as a pacemaker, before she begins the screening. Once the officer is satisfied that you’re not carrying any contraband, she’ll let you continue to the gate.


According to the TSA, children may be subject to pat-downs as well. Screeners should make an additional effort to clear children for flight without resorting to this procedure, however. Officers are often willing to let children go through the metal detector or AIT multiple times to see if they can detect what is causing the alarm to go off before they administer a pat-down. If the pat-down is deemed necessary, officers will never separate a child from his parents and will administer a “modified” pat-down that is less invasive than the procedure used for adults.


Some air travelers have made national news because of complaints related to pat-down procedures. Parents have expressed dismay at their children being patted down, and other passengers have complained about the nature of the procedure. According to the "Washington Post," passengers have described pat-downs as “invasive” and “intrusive” and reported feeling like they were being groped. While it is a passenger’s right to refuse to be patted down, TSA officers won’t allow you to fly if you don’t comply with all the agency's security checks.